Indigenous cultures intertwine drumming, singing and dancing into their societies’ political and social fabric. To unfamiliar ears, native drumming and singing might sound similar. This could be because Indigenous people across the country use many of the same musical resources, such as one person or group singing the same melody accompanied by percussive instruments. However, if people listen carefully they will discover that Iroquois social dance songs sound different than Innu drum dance songs. Likewise, Coast Salish songs are different than those of the Cree or Siksika. These musical expressions are as varied as are Italian, Irish and Russian folk music.

The great diversity of First Peoples makes it impossible to cover all the wealth of Canadian Indigenous traditions. Differences in geography and landscape in this vast country have produced a rich variety of cultures.  Each community used uniquely local materials to construct drums, rattles and other sound-producing instruments. The people also keenly understood their environment’s soundscape. Replicating those natural sounds was an important aesthetic consideration when making a drum or other instrument.

Overview of Different Styles

The most common drums First Peoples use today are the frame drum – a small, single-person, hand drum, and the large powwow drum that group members play together. Historically, most regions and cultures across the country had frame drums. Some exceptions included certain cultures of the West Coast – boreal rain forest, the Northern Arctic and the Iroquoian nations of Eastern Canada. Each group had its own distinct drums and other percussion instruments.

Readers should not consider the map’s outlined areas as fixed borders for these alternate percussion instruments. MapClick the map to view a larger version.

Some West Coast – boreal rain forest cultures did not have the frame drum until quite recently. The reason may be purely practical; hide or leather objects do not endure or hold their tension well in the constantly humid boreal rain forest. Instead, they used red cedar to make plank, log or box drums. Cedar not only is plentiful, but Northwest Coast cultures consider it spiritually significant. Thus, drummers wrap their hands in cedar bark in order to drum. The drums were valued cultural objects, but people most highly prized certain rattles, shakers and whistles for use in elaborate ceremonial cycles.


On the Plains, hand-held drums came in many sizes, ranging from 12 to 30 inches in diameter. These usually had just one skinhead stretched across the wooden frame, with a height of two to three inches.  Occasionally, drum makers also crafted two-headed drums. Additionally, certain cultures such as the Nehiyaw/Cree produced drums with tonal-adjusting snares stretched across the skinhead.

Perhaps even before people used wooden frames, the drum consisted of a piece of rawhide thrown on the ground over a small depression.  Alternately, people might have stretched a hide along vertical poles. In either case, no resonator existed. Male singers and drummers would sit around this hide beating it with long drumsticks.

Today, the most widely recognized large drum is the powwow drum.  These drums generally have two-heads and are suspended on poles or placed on a blanket.  The drums can be up to a hundred inches across. Originally, Plains people hollowed out a large log to make these drums and then stretched a deer hide over it.  However, some people would stretch a rawhide even over a washtub to use it as a drum.

Several stories exist about how this type of drum originated. Usually, people say it was  given by a woman. One story of the Ojibwe refers to a Lahota grandmother who hid with the water sprites for four days to save herself from  American soldiers. The sprites taught her protective songs and showed her how to make this large drum.  They told her to search for her people so she could teach them these songs.  She did so, and the next time soldiers attacked her community, the sound of the drum and the songs made them put down their guns and dance.


The Ojibwe and Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) traditionally use water drums in some of their ceremonial practices. The teachings and stories connected with the “Little Boy” and the “Grandfather” drums are at the heart of the Ojibwe Midewiwin religion and worldview. The Ojibwe and Iroquois people often hollowed out logs to craft these water drums. In certain instances, they also used clay pots or iron kettles.  Additionally, these cultures used many types of rattles.  For example, the turtle rattle is among the Haudenosaunee’s most important ceremonial instruments.

The book, the Jesuit Relations of 1634, has described a Wendat drum.

“[Le Jeune says the drum] . . . is the size of the Basque tambour.  It is composed of a circle three or four finger lengths in diameter and of two skins stretched tightly over it on both sides; in order to make more noise, they put inside it some little pebbles or stones. The diameter of the largest tambourine rattle is the size of two palms or thereabouts. They call it chichgouan, and the verb nipagahiman means, ‘I make this drum sound.’  They do not beat it as the Europeans do but they turn it and shake it, to make the stones rattle inside; they strike it on the ground, now on the side, now almost flat. (Sometimes a drum is made with a skin being stretched tightly over a cooking pot or kettle. Often only a dry beaver skin suffices as an instrument for the performer)” [Thwaites 1959: VII, 187].

While the Innu (Naskapi/Montagnais) use a large drum with snares, their southern neighbours, the Maritime Mi’kmaq and Maliseet peoples do not have a mention in their myths of an instrument with a rawhide head.  Instead, they refer to the end-blown flute and beating upon a plank or a large piece of folded birch bark:  “The dji.gemayen is a piece of birch bark folded once, held in the hand and beaten with a stick.  Neither the birch bark nor the stick is carefully made or decorated in any way; both are discarded after being used” [Johnson 1943: 63].


The Arctic people’s drums have large, light frames, which they play by striking the rim rather than the hide.  Their drums use a variety of materials such as deer skin, caribou and mountain sheep.  They also use whale or walrus intestines.  Originally, they made much smaller frames from baleen (whale material).  Today, the drums are larger and use wooden frames, a material that has become readily available.  Drumsticks are antler, bone or wood.

In 1860-1862, Captain Charles Francis Hall searched for survivors of Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition.  He revisited the Arctic in 1864-1869 and described an Inuit drum:

“The drum is made from the skin of the deer or seal, which is stretched over a hoop made of wood or of bone from the fin of a whale by the use of a strong braided cord of sinew passed around a groove on the outside.  The hoop is about 2½  inches wide, 1½ inches thick, and three feet in diameter, the whole instrument weighing about four pounds.  The wooden drumstick, 10 inches in length and three inches in diameter, is called a kentun. . . .

The instrument’s head is a deerskin, which is kept frozen when not in use.  It is then thoroughly saturated with water, drawn over the hoop and temporarily fastened in its place by a piece of sinew.  A line of heavy, twisted sinew, about 50 feet long, is now wound tightly on the groove on the outside of the hoop, binding down the skin.  This cord is fastened to the handle of the kilaut [drum] which is made to turn by the force of several men (while its other end is held firmly), and the line eased out as required.  To do this, a man sits on the platform (of the igloo) having one or two turns of the line about his body, which is encased in furred deerskin and impaled by four upright pieces of wood.  Tension is secured by using a round stick of wood as a lever on the edge of the skin, drawing it from beneath the cord.  When any whirring sound is heard, little whisps of reindeer hair are tucked in between the skin and the hoop until the head is as tight as a drum.

When the drum is played, the drum handle is held in the left hand of the performer, who strikes the edge of the rim opposite that over which the skin is stretched.  He holds the drum in different positions, but keeps it in a constant fan-like motion by his hand and by the blows of the kentun struck alternately on the opposite sides of the edge.  Skillfully keeping the drum vibrating on the handle, he accompanies this with . . . motions of the body, and at intervals with a song, while the women keep up their own Inuit songs, one after another, through the whole performance” [Hall 1879: II 96].

During the past century, cloth and nylon have replaced hide as Inuit drum-head materials.  In the eastern and central Arctic, the beater can be padded or not padded.  Sometimes, drummers even use their fists in lieu of a beater.  Among the Mackenzie Delta Inuvialuit, several drummers customarily perform in unison while dancers present story-telling actions.  The drummers use a wooden unpadded beater that is longer than the diameter of the drum head.  Consequently, the beater hits the wooden rim on both sides from underneath when striking regularly and makes contact with the skin on forceful beats.


This chapter is devoted to presenting a traditional and cultural view of the drum and its uses within the many cultural and socio-religious structures of Indigenous societies in Canada.  I hope to convey a more traditional view rather than a strict ethnographic approach.  I am a Mohawk classical and traditional performer – composer originally from Kahnawake.  I have tried to present some of my personal experiences and views in this essay. My hope is to share my sense of the “holistic” worldview that is part of Indigenous societies and culture. Here I can only focus on a few examples from a number of cultures.

I hope that anyone who feels left out will understand and forgive me for the oversight. I strongly urge readers to contact the Indigenous groups in their area and learn firsthand about the varied, wonderful and unique cultural and musical heritage of Canada’s First Peoples.

Rohahes Iain Phillips