A Dehe’igan (Drum) from Manitoulin Island

By Alan Corbiere and Ruth B. Phillips

Relatively few drums from the Great Lakes region have been preserved in museum collections, possibly because Indigenous people were reluctant to part with objects that played such important roles in communication between human beings and the manidoog or spirits. One of the more interesting drums that has come down to us from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is today in London’s British Museum, where it is catalogued as Ethno 2144. On one side of this British-made snare drum (a type used by military bands) an Anishnaabe artist has painted an elaborate, but enigmatic composition incorporating animal and manidoo images that represent the spiritual forces of the Anishnaabe cosmos. What do these images mean? And why do they appear on a foreign-made drum?  In this essay we will discuss the dehe’igan (“drum” in Anishnaabemowin, the language of the Anishnaabe) from several perspectives– its probable place and time of origin, the systems of value attached to drums by British and Anishnaabe people during the early contact period, the kinds of meanings associated with the imagery, and the way the drum is  understood by a contemporary Anishnaabe elder.

The Drum’s History

The drum came to the British Museum during the 1860s as part of the large ethnographic collection bequeathed by Henry Christy, who may well have collected it himself during his travels through North America in 1856. It is also a good guess that Christy collected the drum on Manitoulin Island, for about ten years earlier the Canadian painter Paul Kane had made a drawing and a watercolour sketch of a very similar drum while travelling through Manitoulin and the surrounding region. We can also attribute the drum to the Anishnaabe peoples of the Manitoulin region (the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi) with a fair degree of certainty.  Kane, like many of his contemporaries, had made a point of visiting Manitoulin at the time of the annual distribution of gifts by the British colonial officials, when a large and colourful gathering of peoples from all over the Great Lakes region took place. Menominee, Sauk and Fox, Winnebago, Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi attended these distributions, yet Kane’s sketch and Christy’s acquisition make it most likely that the drum was made by Manitoulin’s Anishnaabe inhabitants.


The military drum was an object of significance to both the British and the Anishnaabe.  That drums and band music were particularly valued within the British army is evidenced by a British army directive requiring that each regiment be provided with a set of band instruments and musicians— not always the case for European armies. For the Anishnaabe, the acquisition of a military drum would probably have been thought of in the same way as the flags, weapons, uniform coats, hats and other items that were commonly awarded as diplomatic gifts and trophies of war.  This particular type of drum, furthermore, possessed features that could be related to the type of drum that had been used by the Anishnaabe to accompany war songs and dances and other important spiritual practices. Both the British military drum and the traditional Anishnaabe drum are round, have two ‘heads’ or sounding surfaces, and are of similar dimensions. The diameter of the British Museum drum is 45 cm, while that of the earliest collected drum from the Great Lakes, sent to Herzog Anton Ulrich of Braunschweig in the late  eighteenth century, is 48 cm, and that of the drum collected in Wisconsin in 1823 by the Italian explorer Gian Costantino Beltrami is 40 cm. (For illustrations, see Berlo and Phillips 1998, 92 and Vigorelli, 1987, 16 ). Finally, the four snares that bisect the painted surface would have produced a familiar sound, for snares were often attached to the insides of traditional double-sided Anishnaabe drums (Densmore 1970 [1929]: 41).

Dream Imagery and the Uses of Drums

For the Anishnaabe, as for many Indigenous peoples in North America, drums and drumming are indispensable elements of songs and dances. All are key technologies for establishing communication between human beings and the cosmic spiritual forces whose blessings are necessary to human success and well being. The images painted on a drum, like the body paintings, songs and dances that form part of the ritual performance, are revealed in dreams. The painted imagery provides both a permanent record and a path of access to this revealed knowledge and the power that it brings. As the anthropologist Frances Densmore learned from her discussions with Minnesota Ojibwe, when dream symbols were painted on a blanket, the door covering of a wigwam–  or a drum– “the subject of a man’s dream was clear to all intelligent observers, but its significance was a secret that he might hide forever if he so desired.”(1970 [1929]: 83).

A painted design, then, testified to the owner’s acquisition of power, but it did not make explicit the specific  narrative of the dream from which that power originated.  Thus, while we can identify many of the images on the British Museum drum individually, we cannot know exactly how they are related to each other or the precise dream experience to which they refer. The four right hand figures represent Thunderbirds and closely resemble images that appear on nineteenth-century war clubs, rattles, and other objects. For example, in the same sketchbook in which he drew the drum Paul Kane drew the handle of a war club in a similar Thunderbird form.  Another closely related Thunderbird image is found on a  rattle that belonged to the Mississauga Methodist minister Peter Jones in the mid-19th century and is now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (178380).  Thunderbirds are powerful manidoog of the upper world who bring fertility to the land with the spring rains and bless humans with powers in warfare. The lightening that flashes from their eyes is often represented in art as zig-zag lines similar to those which form the lower contours of several of the Thunderbirds painted on the British Museum drum. The horned figure on the left and the central Thunderbird may represent female beings since triangular skirt-like forms were typical of female representations during the 19th century. The crescent and circle on the outer edges of this group are celestial bodies, and may represent either the sun and the moon or the moon in its crescent and full phases (see below). In narratives that have been recorded of visions and spiritual journeys, out-of-body travels through cosmic spheres are marked by proximity to these powerful manidoog.

The most puzzling of the images on the drum are the two animals that face each other in the lower half of the composition. Their placement locates them in the below-the-earth sphere of power that complements and is in tension with the upper-world sphere. Jonathan King, Curator of North American Ethnology at the British Museum, identifies them as cows, animals introduced into the Indigenous economy by settlers (1999: 66). A contemporary Anishinaabe Elder from Manitoulin Island (see below) has identified them as indigenous wood buffalo. In either case, the nineteenth-century Anishnaabe artist who painted this drum likely attributed special powers to the beings depicted in the below-the-world realm. These special powers have been recorded in a number of oral traditions and medicine practices.  One account given to Frances Densmore in the early twentieth century by Maingans (Little Wolf), an Anishnaabe shaman (spiritual specialist and healer)  from northern Minnesota, suggests the connection to the under-the-world realm of special powers:

A medicine called Bizhikiwuk (Cattle or Bison) used partly to stem the flow of blood from a wound, had its origin in a dream. A healer dreamed he saw horned animals resembling cattle under the water. They came up and talked to him, telling him how to prepare the medicine. The medicine man composed a song to persuade the manitous [manidoog] to return to him whenever he needed their power, and he sang it whenever he dug the roots or prepared the medicine. He taught it to others who also always sang the song when preparing the medicine. This medicine, apparently widely used, was mentioned in ethnographic reports among the Algonkian peoples of northern Michigan and Wisconsin as well (Quoted in Rajnovich 1994: 26).

Even without knowing the exact references of these images, then, it is clear that the overall composition communicates a fundamental sense of the order and balance of powers and beings in the Anishnaabe cosmos. The drum’s surface maps realms of power and sources of blessings for humans in terms of a complementary division between upper and lower realms of above-the-earth and below-the-earth. In this context, the circle that lies at the centre of the drum can be understood as the axis that unites the two realms, imagined as a hole in the sky linking the zones of cosmic power and through which the spirit travelled  in his or her mystical voyages. The horizontal line that extends out from this circle to either side is demarcated by the drum’s four snares. It was shown to be of particular significance in a conversation held by Alan Corbiere in December 2004 with an elder from the Wikwemicong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island.

An Elder’s Perspective

When Corbiere called the Elder to request a visit to discuss the British Museum drum the Elder immediately asked if the drum was a “striped drum”–  that is, if there was a line running across the middle.  His second question was whether or not the symbols on the drum were “silhouette style,” and the third question was what colours had been used on the drum.  Before Corbiere could reply, the Elder told him that drums were painted mainly with the colours red and black and sometimes white or blue (the colours of the British Museum Drum.)  The three questions were answered affirmatively and the Elder was intrigued. However, he also cautioned about the possibility that the drum might not have been painted by an Anishinaabe  and that even drums seen and collected on Manitoulin Island could have been fakes because in the colonial period, as the Elder noted,  “Indian artefacts and curiosities” were fashionable. Collectors wanted such items and enterprising individuals eager to make money obliged collectors’ desires with their own interpretations of “Indian art.”  The Elder was able to convey a good deal of information and pose critical questions even before he had seen pictures of the drum.

Corbiere visited the Elder and brought  pictures (printed out by computer at low resolution). Immediately upon seeing the pictures, the Elder identified the top half of the drum painting as depicting the birth of Thunderbird by Buffalo Woman.  He identified the animals on the bottom half as wood buffalo.  Obviously the crescent indicated the moon.  Corbiere had assumed that the circle on the right was the full moon, depicting the monthly cycle, but when he asked if this was so the Elder replied that the right-hand circle represented the sun.  He then explained that the drum would be placed with the right side to the east, where the sun rises, and the left side to the west where, conceptually, the night  emerges.  The Elder confirmed that the drum is a striped drum and told Corbiere that it should never be used during the night because a striped drum indicates the path of the sun and is to be used when the sun is out (in other words, in the daytime, even if the sky is cloudy).  At sunset the drum should be put away for the evening.  The Elder also noted the drum’s curious asymmetry.  He stated that, “we are about symmetry, about balance, but this line on the drum has 12 dots on the right and 10 on the left.”  The Elder was further confounded by the fact that the painting had been placed on the surface bisected by the snares.  Usually a snare drum is played with the snares on the bottom, so in a sense, this drum is played upside down.  The snares consist of four strings or wires– a significant number for Anishnaabe– but although this was not lost on the Elder he remained dubious about whether the snares were symbolic of any further meaning and did not elaborate.  Finally, the Elder noted that the drum appeared to be in relatively good shape and that it therefore had probably not been used very much.  Because the parts of the drum that usually show wear are still in good condition the drum was either ‘young’ at the time of collection or might have been specifically created as a showpiece.


Berlo, Janet Catherine and Ruth B. Phillips. 1998.  Native North American Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Densmore, Frances. Chippewa Customs. 1970. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation (originally published  in 1929 as Bulletin 86 of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.)

King, J.C.H.. 1999. First peoples, first contacts: native peoples of North America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rajnovich, Grace. 1994. Reading Rock Art: Interpreting the Indian Rock Paintings of the Canadian Shield.  Toronto : Natural Heritage/Natural History.

Vigorelli, Leonardo. 1987. Gli Oggetti Indiani Raccolti da G. Costantino Beltrami, Bergamo: Civico Museo E. Caffi.

Supplementary Reading

Densmore, Frances. 1910. Chippewa Music. Bulletin 45, Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington DC.

Densmore, Frances. 1913. Chippewa Music II. Bulletin 53, Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington DC.

Peers, Laura. 1994. The Ojibwa of Western Canada, 1780-1870. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press

Vennum, Thomas Jr. 1982. The Ojibwa Dance Drum: Its History and Construction. Smithsonian Folklife Studies Number 2, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press

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