Types of Native American Instruments

native american instrumentsWhen taking a look at the types of music that have shaped both cultures and the way we view music today, be sure not to overlook Native American instruments and the way that they were used. Many Native instruments are variations of those used by other cultures, but the way that they have been applied to song and storytelling makes them unique as a cultural representation. While not every tribe or nation used the same instruments, or used them in the same way, it’s worth looking at Native American instruments as a whole to see their impact on music today.

Native American Instruments Defined

A Native American instrument can be defined as any device created for the use of making music by the people of a Native nation or tribe. While a few instruments definitely have their roots in exposure to other cultures, most instruments defined as Native have been used in specific ways that are integral to the culture of indigenous peoples. Meaning that these instruments were created, and have been in use, by a nation or tribe since their beginnings. This is important to note, because many nations and tribes today make use of many modern instruments such as guitars, which are not originally part of their culture, and did not influence the forming of their cultures, songs, or stories in any way. If you’ve been taking a course in music history, you’ve probably discovered the ways that music can impact a society; Native American instruments have impacted their society in much the same way.

Types of Native American Instruments

There are many different types of Native American instruments. Keep in mind that there are many different Native American nations and tribes, and even within specific peoples, there may be variations based on location. Therefore, these instruments are listed only as a generality, not to be seen as instruments used by all Native peoples. Keep in mind that if you want to take drum lessons, for example, and want to use a Native drum, that the way the drum was used may have been influenced by a specific tribe, and not by the way you may intend to learn or use it.

Skin Drum

The most simple of Native American instruments is the skin drum. Very different than the drums most people picture when they think of the word, the skin drum is basically a piece of animal skin stretched very tightly onto four poles. The poles are then hammered into the ground to hold it in place while the drummer beats on it. Alternatively, sometimes the skin drum was held in place by four people stretching it taut, rather than the four poles. Skin drums were found primarily in the Rocky Mountain region, and in the Northern Plains.

Frame Drums

While the skin drum needed to be set up and stretched before every use, the frame drum was a similar mechanism, but portable. It consisted of a wooden frame about 4-inches deep by as much as 30-inches long, and an animal skin that was tightly stretched and sewn into place on it. It frequently had a handle for carrying as well so it could be easily transported.

Log Drum

Like the frame drum, the log drum is meant to be used over and over, while being portable without dismantling. Instead of a frame that was built for the purpose, however, the log drum consists of a skin that was tightly stretched and stitched onto a hollow log. The logs may have been of nearly any size or dimension to vary the sounds produced.

Water Drum

Water drums are a very unique type of instrument that can be constructed of several different things. A container such as a kettle is filled with water before an animal skin is stretched tightly across the top. The water inside the drum varies its sound; filling the drum with more or less water is a good way of producing different sounds. Unlike other drums, water drums are usually beat with a thin drumstick, rather than with the hands.

Square Drum

The square drum is another portable, permanent drum made by stretching an animal skin onto a frame, or – in this case, a wooden box. Square drums were made primarily by peoples that lived on the Pacific coast, and were frequently made from cedar. Some square drums were large enough that several men could be seated inside, while others were smaller, handheld versions.

Drum Characteristics and Use

Many drums were used for ceremonial purposes, rather than to simply produce music. Drums may have been used to gather the tribe together, to send signals to people further away, for dancing, or for effect. Most drums were brightly painted and decorated so they were as much works of art as they were instruments. Many drumming rhythms produced by Native people were very different than the song or story that accompany them.

Some tribes or nations, such as the Santo Domingo tribes of the Southwest often named their drums and treated them like people. This is similar to the ways that musicians around the world bond with their musical instruments, often attributing them names and personalities.

Container Rattles

Rattles were used primarily for two reasons within a tribe; for dancing or by shamans, known as dance rattles and shaman rattle respectively. Container rattles were often used for both purposes. They were made of any type of follow container filled with beads, seeds, or pebbles with a handle inserted into one end. A container rattle may have been made of:

  • Hollow gourds
  • Turtle shells
  • Shaped and dried rawhide
  • Buffalo horn

The rattles may have been painted, colored, or decorated in a variety of ways depending upon what purpose they were used for within the tribe.

Deer Hoof Rattles

Like container rattles, deer hoof rattles may have been used for one of two purposes, depending upon who created it, and how it was decorated. A deer hoof rattle was made of a stick with numerous holes drilled along its sides. The hooves were attached to the holes so that when the stick was shaken, the hooves would rattle against the stick.

Courting Flutes

Many different tribes used a recorder-style flute for courting. The flutes could be made out of a number of different materials such as:

  • Sticks
  • Bones
  • Hollow reeds
  • Clay
  • Bamboo

The flutes may be decorated with paints, pictures, feathers, and beads. Nearly all were end-blown; the number and placement of the holes differed by tribe and by maker.

Rasps

Rasps are notched sticks that are rubbed with another stick or bone. They are often used in conjunction with drums to help keep a rhythm or produce a more complex sound. Sometimes a rasp may be held against a drum to produce a deeper sound.

Whistles

Like flutes, whistles were popular amongst many tribes. The whistles were almost all end-blown and may be made of clay, wood, or bone.

Eagle Bone Whistles

While a regular whistle may be used for a variety occasions, the eagle bone whistle is considered sacred. These whistles are made from the long bones of Bald and Golden eagles, which have been boiled and cleaned to remove the fat and marrow which renders the bones hollow and ready for use. They were used primarily in religious ceremonies, such as those that summon spirits, but some tribes such as the Ute also used the bones in ceremonies such as the Sun Dance. The noise produced by an eagle bone whistle was said to be reminiscent of the cry of an eagle. By varying the amount of pressure on the whistle, as well as the amount of air flow, a variety of different pitches and sounds could be produced from the bone. The whistles were often worn around the neck when brought out for use; when not in use the whistles were often carried in buffalo skin pouches made just for this purpose.

The marrow saved from the production of eagle bone whistles was often used as a salve for eyes. The chemicals found in eagle marrow is stimulating to the retinas of the eye, which is why Native Americans have used it to help heal a variety of vision issues for many hundreds of years.

Fiddles

Two distinct tribes – the Inuit and the Apache – created a type of fiddle or stringed instrument. This was probably the influence of contact with Europeans and early settlers. The flutes were often made of hollowed stalks, such as agave, and contained holes to help produce different sounds. They often had only one or two strings made of horse hair and secured at both ends. The string can be touched with the fingers in varying positions in the stalk to vary the fiddle’s tone. In some tribes, the fiddles were known by the name “wood singing”.

Clappers

Another percussion style instrument was the clapper. The clapper is made of a thick stick that has one end partially split. This end is beaten against another object such as a rock, drum, or another stick to produce various sounds.

Rhythm Sticks

Some people, such as the Lummi, produced sound from Lummi sticks or rhythm sticks. They can often be used to teach percussive rhythms to beginners, or they can be used in the place of a drum if one is not readily available. They consist of a piece of cylindrical wood between 7 and 12-inches in length. This stick is beat against a separate stick of varying diameters to produce noise. The rhythm sticks that many elementary school children learn to keep time with are derived from Native Lummi sticks.

Musical Bow

While fiddles and other types of string instruments were adopted by Native people after their introduction by settlers, there was one string instrument that was indigenous to Native people; the musical bow. The musical bow was made of a curved stick with hair or sinew stretched between the ends. Music and sound could be produced by plucking, rubbing, or striking the strings. Interestingly, the musical bow fell far out of favor with many tribes and is rarely used today.

Appreciate All Types of Music

Music appreciation can stretch across many different cultures and traditions. Learning about different types of Native American instruments can help you get a better appreciation for Native tribes and their music. You may be inspired after learning more to take some drumming classes, or to learn how to become a DIY musician by using materials around you like many Native people did. Once you have an understanding of the types of instruments used, you can gain a better appreciation for the music they produce and the instruments used today. Learn more about all types of music you encounter to make the most out of the music you create.