Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Great Plains Indians Musical Instruments

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Much of the music vital to indigenous people the world over is rich with percussion and is often led by the beat of the drum. Substantiating the intrinsic import of drums are countless oral traditions that personify the sound of the drum as the heartbeat of the earth, the rumble of thunder, or the pulse of life. The traditions found among the people of the Northern Plains of North America are no exception; whether addressing historic or contemporary times, the presence of the music of the drum is pervasive. While other instruments, such as whistles and rattles, can be used to augment the music of the Great Plains, the drum most often accompanies the human voice. Edward S. Curtis, the famed early twentieth-century photographer of the American West, captures the significance of the drum in his work Singing Deeds of Valor, a photogravure included in the 1906 publication of The North American Indian. The interdependence of the human voice and drum is reflected in the language used to refer to those who play the drum, as they are traditionally known as singers, not as drummers. The voice of the drum is joined with the voices of the singers to create the song.


Whistles and rattles, when included as a part of music making, are not used purely for extra-musical affects. Rather, the presence of such instruments contributes to the symbolic meanings associated with the materials from which they were made, as well as the purpose of the song (89.4.597). For example, eagle-bone whistles are played during the Sun Dance to invoke the strength of the eagle and during the ceremonies of the Native American Church to call to the spirits. Some warrior societies also use eagle-bone whistles during specific communal dances, though only sparingly and with deliberate intentions. The Grass Dance whistle is used in much the same way, for specific use during the Grass Dance, a common element of many powwows (89.4.2058).

Another instrument common to the people of the Northern Plains, along with most of North America, is the courting flute. Folklore states that flutes were traditionally played by men to sway the affections of women, as reflected in the English translation for the instrument; however, it is played by both men and women in modern times. The courting flute is traditionally used strictly as a solo instrument (89.4.3371).

Both secular and sacred music exist among the people of the Northern Plains. The secular music comes in many forms, ranging from honoring songs that commemorate a person's life to dance songs for communal celebration of exhibition at powwows to the songs of gratitude for everyday life. The convention of powwow gathering is the most accessible venue of secular Plains Indian music today, though this was not always the case. Prior to Western European contact, and the forced migration of Indian people which began officially with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, only a few tribes, namely the Omaha and the Ponca, practiced the communal ritual known today as the powwow. Relocation of many tribes in the Northern Plains initiated cultural exchanges that resulted in the formation of the powwow as it exists today. Though historic trade routes attest to movement along the central corridor of the Americas as part of pre-Contact life, a degree of elective isolation fostered the development of idiomatic characteristics among the indigenous people of North America.

Sacred music employs both large and small drums, dependent upon the occasion and number of participants. Drums employed for use in the context of a powwow are larger than those used for personal spiritual practice. Often referred to as hand drums or frame drums, those used for personal playing need only be large enough for one person to strike the head (89.4.560ab). During personal use, the practitioner holds the drum in one hand and the drumstick in the other. When singing with the drum at a powwow or other gathering, many people can strike the drum simultaneously, as it rests on a stand at the center of the group. Often the drumsticks used are long enough to allow numerous singers the opportunity to be involved. When singing in groups, two types of drums can be used, either those traditionally made with Native-tanned leather heads or commercially manufactured bass drums. In secular and sacred music alike, it is necessary for the sound of the drum to be heard by all involved as it is the voice that drives the music.

Michael Suing
Fellow, Department of Musical Instruments, The Metropolitan Museum of Art