10 Native American Music Traditions

Music is an essential vehicle for passing on Native American history from one generation to the next.
©iStockphoto.com/William Perry

Music is very important in the lives of Native Americans. It's used for the oral transmission of their history and culture, plus educational, medicinal and celebratory purposes. While Native American tribes all use the same main instruments -- drums, flutes, rattles and whistles -- the construction and sounds of their instruments vary, as sometimes does the purpose of the instrument.

Singing is popular in Native American cultures and is integral to the storytelling purpose of many Native American songs; it also helps preserve Native American languages.


Read on to learn about 10 Native American music traditions, from the purpose of specific instruments to the types of music and ceremonies developed over the ages.

10: Drums

In this photograph circa 1929, this Eskimo man is holding a drum made of walrus skin or bladder.
Edward S. Curtis Collection/Library of Congress

Drums are the oldest instrument on earth, and the one most important to Native Americans. Used in both sacred and secular music, numerous oral traditions refer to drumbeats as the earth's heartbeat, or the spirit of life. Drumbeats drive all Native American music, so it's considered essential that everyone listening hears the drum's sound. Further, it's also critical that drums accompany the human voice. In fact, the two are so tightly linked in American Indian culture, those who play the drums aren't called drummers, but rather singers [sources: Big East Native, Met Museum, Native Languages].

While the various American Indian tribes construct and use drums differently, most create them in a similar fashion, stretching finely tanned buckskin or elk skin across a wooden frame or hollowed log. Such a construction process combines animal and plant life, plus air, water and fire -- all of the earth's elements --resulting in an instrument that represents the circle of life [source: Big East Native].


American Indian drums tend to be large -- two or three feet wide -- and are normally played communally by groups of men standing in a circle. Smaller, single-sided drums are also used by Native Americans, as are water drums, which are created by stretching a moist, tanned hide over a small, wooden vessel or gourd filled with water. These smaller drums are sometimes called tom-toms by non-Native Americans; tom-tom is actually an old British term for a child's toy drum, not an American Indian term [source: Native Languages].

9: Flutes

Native American flutes have just two chambers, which differs from other flutes.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The Native American flute is considered one of the oldest musical instruments in the world, created after drums, rattles and whistles. Crafted over time from various materials including bone, bamboo and clay, plus numerous types of hardwoods and softwoods, American Indians eventually selected cedar as their favorite flute-making material. A softwood cedar flute, they felt, emits a more mellow tone [sources: Cedar Mesa, Wind Dancer Flutes].

Native American flutes have just two chambers -- which is quite unusual -- with a wall dividing the top and bottom chambers. Their length and the number of holes, varies depending on which tribe is creating them. All modern Native American flutes, however, are tuned to a specific pentatonic minor key and can only play notes in that key. If you want to play in another key, you'd use another flute.


Native Americans used flutes for everything from entertainment, prayer and healing to courtship, perhaps its most popular use. In fact, many flutes are called Love Flutes or Courting Flutes, and American Indians have numerous sacred stories as to how the Love Flute came to be used in courting.

8: Whistles and Rasps

Whistles and rasps are often included in Native American music. Whistles are usually made of bone and have been around for thousands of years; bone whistles discovered in northeastern Arizona came from the Basketmaker period (300 B.C. to 300 A.D.) [source: Cedar Mesa]. The eagle-bone whistle is the most common type of bone whistle, and other American Indian whistles were crafted from antlers, wood and the bones of other animals.

Rasps are notched sticks that make sounds when you scrape another stick against its notches. You can also place the rasp against the head of a drum to add resonance to the tone. The Utes call these instruments bear growlers because they use them to imitate the voice of the bear. The Hopi use rasps for their Turtle Dance; still other American Indians use its sound to imitate a frog croaking for rain.


While whistles and rasps create interesting sound effects, that's not their main purpose. Instead, their sounds are used to enhance a piece's symbolism, drawing on the materials from which the whistle or rasp was made, plus the song's purpose. For example, an eagle-bone whistle might be played during a tribe's Sun Dance to invoke the strength of the mighty bird [source: Suing].

7: Shaman’s Drums and Rattles

Shaman's rattles like these typically feature hand-carved handles.
Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection/Library of Congress

A shaman is a person believed to be able to cure physical and mental ailments in people using certain instruments and articles. While many shamans are men, there are female shamans in some Native American tribes.

Often, a Native American shaman will begin his work by entering into a trancelike state -- sometimes induced by drugs -- to the rhythm of the shaman's drums and rattles. In this state, the shaman is considered to mediate in between the natural and spiritual worlds to heal people and, in some tribes, to influence the weather, hunting and other activities [source: Mission Del Rey Southwest].


The shaman drum -- also called a spirit drum, heart drum, healing drum and medicine drum -- is generally a one-sided instrument laced in the earth's four directions with a sturdy, natural hand-hold on the back, which allows the shaman to play it with his free hand. A drumstick can also be used, and the shaman sometimes strikes the drum from its underside with the hand holding its laces. A shaman's rattle is often made from gourds and finished with a hand-carved handle [source: Mission Del Rey Southwest].

Although drums and rattles are the most popular instruments used by shamans, some tribal shamans use musical bows, rasps, deer-hoof rattles and striking sticks in their work, too.

6: Powwows

Drums used at powwows are large enough for several people to play together.
Bobbie DeHerrera/Newsmakers/Getty Images

Powwows are actually a relatively new ceremony among Native Americans. Rare before Europeans came to North America, this communal ritual sprang up around the mid-19th century, when tribes were being relocated by the U.S. government and began interacting with one another and initiating cultural exchanges [source: Suing].

While powwows differ among tribes, they all typically begin with a Grand Entry of the color guard and dancers, then a welcome speech. After that, various dance performances are held, such as the Men's and Women's Traditional Dance, the Grass Dance and the Jingle Dress dance. Often there are dance competitions, and prizes are awarded.


The man instrument used at powwows is the drum. Powwow drums are typically large, two-sided drums, which allow several people play each drum simultaneously. The songs tend to be rhythmically complex, with the singers using a slightly different tempo than the drumbeat.

Powwow drums are revered and are placed on a blanket or stand during the performance, then covered when not being used. Before a powwow, a smudge of tobacco is usually applied to the drums in a sunrise ceremony, and no one can use drugs or alcohol near them [source: Suing].

Most powwows are open to the public and are a wonderful way for non-Native Americans to experience a little of their culture.

5: Chordophones

A chordophone is an instrument that has one or more strings stretched across a frame or sound box. You play the instrument by plucking, rubbing, bowing or striking the strings. Guitars, harps and fiddles are common chordophones.

Most of the chordophones used by Native Americans appeared after European settlers came ashore with their instruments, which the Native Americans copied, then tweaked, to come up with sounds pleasing to their musical sensibilities. Over time, the Native Americans' chordophones became indigenous [source: Suing].


Chordophone development and use varied by tribe. The Apache and Arctic Inuit especially favored fiddles, while harps became common in Latin American tribes. Guitars were widespread throughout the Americas. The Apache created a one- or two-string chordophone from the hollow stalk of an agave plant, which they dubbed a violin in English [source: Suing].One chordophone truly indigenous to Native Americans is the musical bow, which is a curved stick with a string stretched across the ends. The player can strike, pluck or rub the string to make music. Interestingly, although the musical bow is indigenous, contemporary Native American music rarely makes us of it [source: Suing].

4: Rattles

Rattles are another popular instrument used by Native Americans. The rattles are made in several different ways. One is by filling dried gourds with pebbles or seeds, then inserting a handle into the opening. Gourd rattles are popular in the Southwestern U.S. Another involves sticking a wooden handle through a tortoise shell, filling it with pebbles, and then sealing off the openings. Plains Indians often create rattles by using buffalo horns. Other container rattles are crafted from rawhide; the hide is sewn together, shaped and dried, then filled with pebbles.

Deer-hoof, or deer-toe, rattles are crafted by stringing the hooves on a piece of twisted fiber, often agave. You usually need 24 or 32 hooves to make one rattle. The hooves are first boiled, then removed of their cartilage and bone. After being shaped and dried they're strung on the agave or attached to a stick in which holes have been drilled. Deer-hoof rattles make a distinct sound and are typically used only during funerals and wakes [source: Kumeyaay].


3: Sounds of the Sweat Lodge

All cultures throughout time have created some form of a sweat lodge, or sauna, to cleanse their bodies, minds and souls. In Native American cultures, sweat lodges are generally small enclosures with hot rocks in the center. Participants crawl inside, heated rocks are brought in and water is added to the rocks. As steam fills the lodge and participants begin to sweat, songs are sung to the beat of a sweat lodge drum, and prayers are said. The songs tend to be about forgiveness, healing and purification [source: Zango Music].

Typically, a round or oval double-headed drum is used in a sweat lodge. Round drums symbolize the universe, while the oval represents the elliptical path of the earth's movement around the sun. Lodge drums are generally about 5 inches (12.5 centimeters) thick with a hide on each side. Unbleached rawhide is often used because it's more durable than a bleached hide; the hide must be quite durable and able to hold its tension, otherwise the moisture inside the lodge could cause it to quickly go flat [source: Boehme Music].


The tone of a sweat lodge drum is generally high, strong and far-reaching -- a different sound than the typical drum.

2: Singing and Songs

While Native Americans use instruments in most of their music, they rarely play instrumental pieces, as singing is considered the most important part of the music, along with drumming. Musical genres favored by American Indians include lullabies, songs given to people by their guardian spirits, curing songs, ceremonial songs and those that accompany daily activities [source: Suing].

Not surprisingly, the various tribes have different vocal traditions. The Eastern Woodland Indians, for example, use special vocal techniques like rapid vibrato and yodeling in some songs to make their sounds more expressive. The Plains Indians are known for the tense, nasal tone of their singing, as are the Navajo and Apache; those from the Northwest Coast and Great Basin use a more relaxed, open style. Within these two styles, the tribes tend to favor using the lower or higher end of the vocal range [source: Suing].


1: Secular and Sacred

Both secular and sacred melodies form the repertoires of all Native American tribes. Secular music is used in songs honoring a person's life, in pieces of gratitude and in melodies used for communal celebrations, among many others. Sacred music is employed when dealing with things like the spirit life and the earth's elements. Overall, however, Native Americans perceive the sacred and secular as interwoven and don't make the major distinctions between the two that non-American Indians do [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].

Since drums are the primary instrument used by Native Americans, it's not surprising that they're used in both sacred and secular music. In both uses, it's critical that the sound of the drum beat is heard by everyone, because it's considered the voice that drives the music [source: Suing]. As with secular music, sacred music uses both large and small drums, although secular music tends to use larger drums.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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