What Is an Indian Drum?

by Rachel Hoover
Modern Indian drums are often made with cowhide stretched across the top.

Modern Indian drums are often made with cowhide stretched across the top.

Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images

The drum is an essential Native American instrument used at various events and occasions. An Indian drum can refer to either the instrument itself or the group that plays the instrument and sings along. Large communal drums are more common, although members of some tribes carry a personal hand drum in a smaller size.


The drum is used by the Native Americans as a musical instrument, but it also represents to them a way to communicate with the Great Spirit, their higher power. The round shape of most drums represents the earth and life while the beats represent the heartbeat of the earth. The drum is made of a wooden frame with animal skin, such as buckskin or elk skin, stretched across the opening. The drum is usually large, going up to 3 feet in diameter. The type of animal skin used is thought to give the drum unique characteristics from the spirit of that particular animal.

Drum Groups

The group of people that sits and sings around the drum is also called a drum. There are usually between five and 10 members, mostly men. There are some tribes in which women are allowed to drum, but in traditions like the Southern style, the women can only stand behind the men and sing along with the group. The drums have a lead singer and a second who repeats the lead line in a different key. The groups often have to learn several types of songs for all of the different dances, honorings and events that occur at a powwow or gathering.


Often the way a drum is decorated is as important as the music the drummer makes with it. It's common for Indian drums to be adorned with images of animals or patterns painted in natural colors. The paint is made from boiling flowers, roots, berries, bark or herbs. Sometimes an orange-red dye may be made from using an iron oxide taken out of red rock. The drummer may also put an item with personal value inside the drum to strengthen his connection to his instrument.


Drum songs may not be made up of actual words. The melody may instead be carried through syllables called vocables. There are several types of songs that may be performed at a powwow. Flag songs are dedicated to the flags brought in during the Grand Entry. Contest songs have complex rhythms that may speed up quickly or pause unexpectedly in order to test the skill of the dancers performing. Intertribal songs are the most common, used for everyone to dance. At the end of the powwow, the drum plays a quitting song at a slower pace.

About the Author

Rachel Hoover has been a writer since 2003. Her articles have appeared in zines such as "Ax Wound." Hoover holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from North Central College and a Master of Library and Information Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Photo Credits

  • Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images