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Types of Native American Drums

    • Most Native American cultures use drums in ceremonies. They are typically large instruments constructed from wood and animal skin. The purpose and religious elements of drum playing differ from tribe to tribe. They are often arranged in a circle and played by several musicians. Smaller, handheld drums were also used, though less frequently.

    Water Drums

    • The Iroquois people use water drums to keep time during singing and prayer ceremonies. The drums are traditionally made out of birch wood, and filled with water. The construction of the drum is very symbolic. It is circular, to represent the eternal continuation of life. The elements of the drum represent all elements of the earth: the wood, animal skin and water. The drumbeat is symbolic of the heartbeat of humanity and every living thing. In current Mohawk culture, the water drum is used in Thanksgiving prayers, and when it is used there must be both an opening and closing Thanksgiving address.

    Skin Drums

    • Central plains people used simple skin drums during ceremonies. The drums had no real frame, but consisted of a single tanned animal skin (usually buffalo). The skin was stretched and tied to four posts, or even held up by four people as someone else drummed it.

    Hand Drums

    • Handheld drums, also called tomtoms, are another type of Native American drum. Although tomtom is actually an English word for a small toy drum, several tribes do make them. Hand drums are made with elk, horse, deer or buffalo hide stretched tightly across a wooden frame. The maker attaches a handle to the back of the drum, which is usually held on with animal sinew. The drum is played by hand or a mallet. Some tribes painted designs on the drums, including Alaskan Native Americans and First Nations People. The paintings depict local wildlife, or the sun and moon.

    Floor Drums

    • Floor drums are larger, and typically used in Pow Wows or other ceremonies. They can be two or three feet in diameter. Some floor drums are made from sections of hollowed out logs. Floor drums are also made with elk, horse, deer or buffalo hide stretched tightly over the frame. These drums are played by more than one person, and the drum stick is usually long and padded on the end. These drums can also be painted. Sometimes the skins are dyed or bleached. Some Pacific Coast peoples use square drums in ceremonies that are so large several men can sit on them. These tribes generally make drums with cedar frames.

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