Use of Drums in the Native Culture

by Jody Hanson
Native Americans move to the beat of their own drums.

Native Americans move to the beat of their own drums.

Jupiterimages/ Images

The drum is the heart of the Native American culture. According to, Native Americans believe that the spirits speak to them through the drum. Drumming is also a way for an individual to connect his personal spirit with the spirit of the earth and that of the Creator. Whether it is the frenzied drumming found at the fancy dance competition at a powwow or a steady sound that represents the heartbeat at a healing ceremony, drums are an icon of Native American culture.

Oral History

When elders tell stories -- either around a campfire or in a classroom -- it is customary for someone to sit behind the storyteller and quietly play a hand drum. The pulse of the drumming is about 60 beats per minute -- with a ta-da, ta-da, ta-da rhythm -- to coincide with the human heartbeat. The background drumming also helps lull the listeners into concentrating on the legend.


A shaman or medicine woman uses a hand drum during healing rituals. The drum is an instrument that connects the medicine person with the spirit world and allows energy to be channeled toward the person who is ill. The drumming pattern -- gentle heartbeat or frenzied to drive away the spirit -- depends on the illness being treated.


Historically, when young warriors undertook the vision or dream quest, they would take a hand drum with them when fasted in the wilderness. Treasured hand drums were personalized items decorated by the individual. When a tribe got ready for battle, they got out the drums for the war dance.


The powwow is the most important cultural event of the year. The drum -- historically made from buffalo, deer or elk skin -- is central to the event. Long before you get to the dancing area, you can heat the hypnotic beating of the drum and the wailing of the singers. As well as providing the music for the dancers, the drummers also connect with the earth's forces and vent it through their music.


Native American ceremonies often open with a welcome drumming. A tribal gathering wouldn't quite be the same without the instrument. It also reminds people -- Native and non-Native -- of the importance of the drum in Native American culture.

About the Author

Jody Hanson began writing professionally in 1992 to help finance her second around-the-world trip. In addition to her academic books, she has written for "International Living," the "Sydney Courier" and the "Australian Woman's Forum." Hanson holds a Ph.D. in adult education from Greenwich University.

Photo Credits

  • Jupiterimages/ Images