Native Drums in the Context of World Instruments

By Elaine Keillor

The musical instruments that First Peoples’ cultures within Canada developed from the natural materials at hand often bear similarities in form to those developed elsewhere in the world. In many cases, though, the Indigenous peoples of Canada created unique instruments to express their personal needs and to communicate with all creation. This essay briefly examines commonalities of symbolism and usage as well as unique versions of First Peoples’ drums, other percussive instruments, wind and string inventions.

Frame Drums

Each frame drum created by a Native person within Canada is considered to be absolutely original. Through its inspiration and decoration, the membranophone created by stretching a skin or skins over a wooden frame has arisen in traditional cultures on all continents except Australia. The earliest documentation yet found of hand-held frame drums occurs in the Neolithic period, approximately 10,000 – 6,000 years Before Present (BP). A shrine painting at Çatal Hüyük, located in present-day Turkey, shows persons playing a frame drum, rattles, and a musical bow-like instrument while dancing around a large stag (Redmond, 1997: 17). Layne Redmond, an American who has played many drums in different stylistic traditions, has traced early frame drum references through portrayals and archeological records.  She discovered that between 6,000 and 2,000 BP various forms of frame drums were often portrayed with specific female symbols such as the vulva of the cowrie shell. Extant petroglyphs, sculptures, and ceramics, always show the drum as being played by a woman. Objects carved out of bone or stone that may have been drum beaters have been dated from 16,000 BP. These are often decorated with vulvas and or breasts (Redmond 1997: 10).

Redmond argues that these earliest associations of the drum and its beaters with females comes out of women’s personal understanding of rhythmic cycles. Most traditional cultures in North America based their year on the 13 months of the lunar cycle. Each  lunar month is similar in length to a woman’s menstrual cycle. According to Redmond’s argument, a woman would have become accustomed to calculating time with the cycles of her own body. Eventually, she gradually worked out ways of documenting the passage of time and relating it to other recurring cycles such as tides, migration seasons of birds and animals, growth and production of fruit from plants during the year (Redmond 1997: 11). Such realization probably led to the communal co-ordination of time cycles for work-related activities that would be assisted through the beating of a drum.

The period and area in which the earliest drum representations are to be found also indicate the connection of women with agriculture. Indeed the cultivation of plants and the harvest were co-ordinated with the lunar calendar. A similar practice occurred with the agricultural-based economy of the Haudenosaunee in North America. In those cultures, women were and remain highly honoured for their knowledge. References to the fact that most frame drums are shaped like the full moon are echoed in First Peoples’ myths that relate the drum as being given to a woman (Diamond et al. 1994: 37).

The purpose of having a membranophone on each side of the frame to produce a double-headed drum occurred in such diverse areas as Korea, India, or Africa. Often these drums took the form of a barrel shape or an hourglass. For example, a hollowed out wooden body in an hour-glass shape with two skin heads attached at each end is known as a donno by the Dagomba Peoples of northern Ghana or an igba by the Yoruba culture. The series of strings holding the heads suspended from the circumference and running the length of the drum can be squeezed under the arm. This pressure can regulate the tension on the drumheads to raise or lower the resultant pitch.  Consequently, a number of pitch inflections are possible. Because of this characteristic and the fact that many African cultures use tonal languages, it is possible to send linguistic messages via the drum. Many First Peoples’ languages are also tone-based, so a similar practice of transmitting linguistic messages might have existed among some cultures. Certainly, the powwow drum is sounded in such a way to transmit signals for certain actions from the dancers. In the Ojibwe culture the double-headed drum is considered to be particularly sacred and powerful. Other percussive instruments such as various kinds of rattles have older archeological documentation than drums. Some of the early portrayals of drums show rattles accompanying the drums. Later these two sound-producing principles were combined by adding jinglers to the drum as in a tambourine. The drum with jinglers, often referred to as a duff, is known in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, parts of Africa and Latin America.  In the Jesuit Relations written in the mid-1700s, one priest describes a drum being used at a Nipissing funeral as being a “tambourine set around with little bells” (Thwaites 1959: vol. 70, 149). In the Royal Ontario Museum collection a Haudenosaunee drum has mussel shells attached to its  frame for jinglers (ROM 958.131.742 portrayed in Diamond et al. 1994: 105).

The practice of attaching rattlers to drums has been retained in instruments used by the Innu and the Cree/Nehiyaw.  These double membranophones have snares over, and sometimes under, one of the membranophones at right angles. Small bones or pieces of wood are fastened to one or both. Certain Athapaskan-speaking cultures in Canada have snares usually without attachments stretched either above or below the single membranophone. Although the single membranophone with snares is not a frequently occurring traditional instrument world-wide, it has been used by some Asian cultures. The hand-beaten bendir of the Berbers in Algeria and Morocco is also a notable example.

Water Drums

A membrane placed over a water-holding vessel makes use of the special sound-conducting qualities of water.  The amount of water in the vessel affects the resultant pitch. This type of instrument appears to be a unique invention of Indigenous cultures in the Americas. Within Canada it is found, for example, among the Haudenosaunee where traditionally a partially-hollowed out log with possibly a bung-hole for adjusting the quantity of water forms the main body.  Both the Ojibwe and the Iroquoian cultures dampen the membrane head before usage.

Some early written descriptions including some references in the Jesuit Relations refer to First Peoples stretching a membrane over a kettle or pot to make a drum. Unfortunately these descriptions fail to state if water is contained in the kettle. Today if a pot or hollowed out wooden vessel is lacking, a tin can may be used. This form can often be seen at Haudenosaunee gatherings. At an occasion where both wooden and metal water drums are used, the observer might be reminded of the North Indian tabla. The wooden shell drum and the metal vessel drum of the tabla are always played simultaneously. In North India the tabla is considered to be one drum with two heads, one played by each hand (Wade 1979: 135). In the 1600s that culture’s musicians decided the sound of the metal vessel and the wooden vessel, although completely different, complemented each other beautifully.  On the other hand substituting a metal vessel for a wooden one occasionally occurs with the water drum of the First Peoples’ culture. This choice seems to be more practical because either vessel will provide an appropriate sound for the musicians’ purposes. In any case, what makes the North American forms unique is the addition of water in the vessel.

Drums with Attached Wooden Handles

In certain world cultures double membranophone frame drums will have a wooden handle attached for holding the instrument. The rnga of Bhutan has membranophones at each side of the wooden frame to which a long handle is fastened. The Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, has a beautifully-painted Haida hand drum that is sounded with a padded beater. This is somewhat similar to the rnga (Davies 1980: 13).

The Inuit drum with its attached wooden or bone handle is another matter. Neither the padded nor unpadded beaters actually hit the stretched membrane.  Rather, the drummer strikes alternate sides of the underside of the frame in a rotating manner. On older traditional drums the slightly off-centre handles are secured at an angle. This facilitates the natural fall of the large instrument. In the Mackenzie Delta region the long, unpadded beater used by the Inuvialuit strikes the frame on both sides from underneath. Only when a very forceful stroke is used does the Inuvialuit beater touch the stretched skin. Both of these methods of striking drums with attached wooden handles appear to be unique to the circumpolar area.

Other Percussive Instruments

Some First Peoples within Canada recount orally that they did not always have a drum. For example,  the Gwich’in (Loucheux) attribute the arrival of their drum to observing those of the Inuvialuit. Prior to creating a drum, these cultures would use a variety of readily-made rhythmic-producing instruments.

Many other materials can produce beating or rattling sounds to make percussive accentuation for singing and dancing. Throughout the world people would draw upon what was in their immediate neighbourhood: shells, wood, plants such as gourds, vessels made from animal skins. Because many of these materials would be found only in a certain geographical area, the resultant rattle would be unique. Accordingly First Peoples’ rattles use materials unique to their specific topographical location.

First Peoples traditionally shared characteristics with other nomadic cultures in that musical instruments were often quickly made and then discarded before travelling. In the pursuit of hunting game,  minimum baggage was desired.  Accordingly musicians might make instruments on the spot.  This could be the case for the rasp.  Its sound was made by notching several indentations into a stick and then rubbing it periodically with another.  Elsewhere in the Americas where the local economy was not dependent on travelling great distances to find game, a rasp might be carefully decorated and incised. A fine example is a gourd rasp from Peru.

Among the most ingenious idiophones found in Canada are the elaborately carved wooden rattles of the West Coast communities [examples from CIRCLE and U’mista collections]. East coast peoples have similar instruments, notably the jigmaqn (ji’kmaqn) of the Mi’kmaq. The term jigmaqn was sometimes applied to beating a large piece of wood or bark, but the instrument now known as  jigmaqn (ji’kmaqn) was made from a piece of white ash, split for most of its length into layers along the grain. This was then struck against the palm of the hand to make a rhythmic beat to accompany dances and songs.

Wind Instruments

In Central and South America archeologists have found many end-blown and side-blown flutes, as well as multiple tubed instruments such as panpipes. Examples include end-notched flutes out of cane, an elaborately carved tarka which is an edge aerophone with built-in duct from Peru, a flute from Bolivia, and one made out of clay from Mexico.  Within what is now Newfoundland, archeologists have documented bone whistles dating back at least a thousand years. A bone flute dating prior to 1400 from what is now southern Ontario is part of the collection at the Museum of History in Gatineau.

Children in many cultures discovered that they could use blades of grass or birds’ feathers to make whistles. The Inuit referred to their whistle made from a white goose-feather as a suluk. Another readily-made wind instrument is the conch shell. In the film Totem, a Haisla person can be seen dancing while blowing through a conch shell. As in Scandinavian countries, people in the more northern parts of what is now Canada would make willow flutes in the springtime. These could be made only when the sap began to rise in the branches.  Such willow flutes, made with one or two openings or perhaps even more, could only be used until the wood dried out.

Recently, in a cave in the Swabian Mountains, German archaeologists discovered a 30,000-year-old flute with three finger holes carved from a woolly mammoth’s ivory tusk (Anon. 2005: 3). In North America, tusks and horns of animals were also carved to make rattles and on occasion aerophones. A Seneca cowhorn flute  in the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, has six finger holes (Diamond et al. 1994: 104).

Various traditional ceremonies of Plains and Plateau cultures require the usage of a bone flute. These are simple whistles made out of  birds’ bones. Indeed eagle bone whistles are central instruments in sacred ceremonies such as the Sundance.   Also, such a whistle may also be used  in a powwow to praise the musicians and request another song. In dramatic presentations of Northwest Coast cultures, a single pitch whistle made out of wood might be used.

In addition, multi-pitched whistles made out of wood and cord, sealed with pitch, were constructed by various Northwest Coast cultures.  Each of these whistles represented a particular character portrayed in the story or dramatic presentation.   The Kwakwaka’wakw even developed a whistle with a bellows so that the actor could have the sound produced without putting the instrument to his lips.

There is some evidence to indicate that multi-holed single tubular, end-notched flutes might have been used in the pre-contact period by a few cultures within what is now Canada. At the Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, there is a Haida flute, approximately 45 centimetres long, made from argillite, abalone shell, ivory and wood with six finger holes. It weighs approximately four kilograms (Davis 1980: 13).

Myths from several cultures and other oral evidence confirm the existence of an end-blown flute with a whistle mouthpiece being used by cultures such as the Mi’kmaq, Algonkian, Iroquoian, Ojibwe, Siouan, Okanagan, Nlaka’pamux (Thompson), and Makah. This edge aerophone was end-blown and had a built-in duct with a detachable air-stream deflector.  Ranging in length from 40 centimetres to almost a metre, the flute normally had six finger holes, but the number could vary from five to seven (Conlon 1983: 97). Its structure was unique in the world because of its deflector, an external block, a piece of wood placed on the outside of the flute that directed the air into the chamber. This instrument was widely used for personal entertainment and mainly by young men for courting purposes. In the Plains area it could be used to transmit signals during raids. During certain Ojibwe, Iroquoian, and Makah ceremonies the instrument played an important role.

Stringed Instruments

Hunting societies throughout the world that used the bow and arrow usually discovered the sound-producing qualities of this combination as well. Among the Cree/Nehiyaw, for example, they manipulated the hunting tool to become a mouth bow and thus produced a drone and a melody by means of overtones. In the film Buffy Sainte-Marie: Up Where We Belong Buffy plays the mouth-bow for the song ‘Cripple Creek.’

There is still considerable debate as to whether the Inuit fiddle tautirut is a pre-contact instrument. It is usually bowed or hit with a stick and resembles a type of zither found in northern Finland (Diamond 2001: 1275). Most researchers believe it to be a post-contact development  modelled on fiddles played by Europeans aboard whaling ships. The Canadian Arctic version consists of a somewhat triangular box with a hole on the top over which one to three sinew strings would be attached with pegs, a bridge, and tail piece.  As with all of the Canadian Indigenous instruments, people used what was at hand in an ingenious way to produce musical sounds.


As yet no evidence exists to indicate that the single-tube flute having finger holes and an external block has been developed in any other part of the world outside of North America (Olsen 2004: 266).  Probably a thorough organological investigation would also demonstrate that certain types of whistles and rattles are unique to First Peoples’ cultures in Canada. The same is probably true of some frame drums, but the water drum is unique to the Indigenous Peoples of North America. First Peoples’ musicians generally play the drums using some form of beater, either padded or unpadded, to bring their Native Drums into sound. The only exceptions are when the fist is used to strike the Inuit drum or the box drums of the Northwest Coast


Anon. 2005. “Flute Dates Origins of Music to Ice Age.” International Musician (February 2005): 3.

Conlon, Paula. 1983. The Flute of the Canadian Amerindian: An Analysis of the Vertical Whistle Flute with External Block and Its Music. MA thesis. Carleton University.

Diamond, Beverley. 2001. “Northern Canada Overview.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, volume 3: The United States and Canada. Ellen Koskoff, ed. New York/London: Garland Publishing, pp. 1274-1278.

Diamond, Beverley, M. Sam Cronk, and Franziska von Rosen. 1994. Visions of Sound: Musical Instruments of First Nations Communities in Northwestern America. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Music in our Lives: The Pacific Northwest Coast Indians: Music, Instruments, Legends. Vancouver: Western Education Development Group, The University of British Columbia.

Olsen, Dale. 2004. “Aerophones of Traditional Use in South America with reference to Central America and Mexico.” In Music in Latin America and the Caribbean: An Encyclopedia History Volume 1, edited Melena Kuss, Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 261-328.

Redmond, Layne. 1997. When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythm.  New York: Three Rivers Press.

Thwaites, R. G. 1959. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. New York: Pageant Book Company. Reprint. The 73 volumes of the 1896-1901 edition is available online at

Wade, Bonnie C. 1979. Music in India: The Classical Traditions. Prentice-Hall.


Buffy Sainte-Marie: Up Where We Belong, CBC/Astral A1107.

Totem: The Return of the G’psgolox Pole. 2003. National Film Board of Canada.