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Native American Musical Instruments: History & Types

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson introduces traditional Native American music and the instruments used, including the human voice. As the continent is large, there are a variety of different styles of instruments and expression of music.

A Continent of Diverse Sound

Odds are, if you ever watched a film about the American West, like Dances with Wolves, you heard traditional Native American music. However, you were likely only exposed to the music of tribes from the Great Plains of the prairie land west of the Mississippi River, such as the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Pawnee. Their music, especially their singing, is the iconic perception of Native American music in popular culture. You may be surprised to learn how diverse traditional Native American music really is, varying greatly by region and tribe. It includes a number of instruments from the percussion and woodwind families of instruments to accompany the most important of all instruments in their repertoire - the human voice.

Percussion

Among the non-vocal instruments, percussion is the most ubiquitous among the North American tribes. Although rattles, striking sticks, and bells are common, the drum remains the most utilized and important of this instrument family.

Drums

Types of drums and their uses vary across the continent. From small, handheld drums to the gigantic, multi-user powwow drum, this instrument is used in communal activities, rituals, ceremonies, and in shamanic magic. Among Plains tribes, most drumming uses handheld drums, 12-18 inches across, with a rawhide skin on one or both sides. The Kwakiutl, however, used a large wooden plank and striking sticks with multiple players on a single instrument. For some of these tribes, the drumming represents a spirit presence with rapid drumming signaling its manifestation.

Animal Hide Drum
Animal Hide Drum

Among the Great Plains tribes, a large powwow drum is played by several people at once, signifying a unity among the family or social group. These drums can be several feet across and keep rhythm as the singers perform traditional family songs dating back generations. Today, at large powwow gatherings, groups of 10-12 performers compete in drumming contests measuring their combined skills, craftsmanship of drums, and accompanying songs.

Powwow Singing and Drumming
Powwow Singing and Drumming

Other Instruments

Other common percussion instruments include rattles and bells. Ranging in use from the Southeast to the Arctic Northwest, Native Americans craft rattles out of all manner of natural materials, including gourds, carved wood and bark, animal horns and hooves, and turtle shells. Bells, traditionally made of clay but now usually metal construction, are worn on the feet and hands of dancers.

Turtleshell Rattle and Dancing Bells
percussion

Woodwinds

The two most common woodwind instruments in Native American music are flutes and whistles, differing in that flutes have several finger-holes to change sound while whistles produce a single sound. Among the tribes of the Southwest, flutes were used as early as the 7th century. Among the Apache of the Great Plains, flutes exclusively accompanied love songs, although Native American flutes are now applied to different song types. Whistles, a less common instrument, shared the significance of the drum among Northwest Coastal tribes in representing the manifestation of spirits.

Cipriano Garcia playing a Tohono O-odham flute
Cipriano Garcia playing a Tohono O-odham flute

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