Music has cultural significance for Native Americans; in fact, they often used music for recounting archaeology, history and traditional narratives. As a result, Native American instruments held a special place among most tribes; though they used several different types, some were more commonplace than others.
In particular, Native Americans used drums, flutes, and rattles throughout history. They could make these instruments in as little as one or two hours from naturally occurring materials. Below is a more in-depth look at specific Native American instruments and the cultural impact that they had.
Native American Drums
The drums that Native Americans used varied greatly across the continent, though nearly every tribe had its own version of a drum.
Drums varied in size and in the materials that they were made from. Typically, though, they were made using rawhide or animal skins. Native Americans would strike the animal skin with sticks much in the same way that people play drums now.
Of all the uses for Native American drums, rituals and ceremonies were where they made the greatest impact. In some cases, they were used in shamanic magic or when talking to spirits. In such cases, drumming would represent the presence of a spirit. Drumming would pick up speed to signal the spirit’s manifestation.
Keep in mind that these drums varied greatly in size. Sometimes one drum would be played by multiple people. For example, the Great Plains tribes were known for making very large powwow drums. These drums could be several feet across, so they were large enough for several people to drum at the same time. They were a sign of the tribe’s amazing craftsmanship as well as an indication of the large number of dancers at a celebration.
Native American Flutes
Much like the drums, Native American flutes varied greatly between tribes. In most cases, they used block flutes, which are constructed very similarly to modern-day recorders. The flutes worked by forcing air into one side and letting it escape from holes along the body. The pitch and sound that the flute made could be changed by covering up some of the holes.
The number of holes in the flute body was the most variable between tribes, usually from three to six. Regardless, flutes were used in a number of cultural ways. Healing and courtship ceremonies were the most common uses.
Unlike the drums that were mostly made of animal skin, the flutes were typically made from the wood of cedar trees. However, some tribes would make flutes from cane or hollowed-out animal bones.
Native American Rattles
Another popular instrument among most Native American tribes, rattles were typically used in spiritual ceremonies. They were often referred to as shakers. Much like the drums, they were usually made from rawhide. However, they could also be made using an animal shell. Inside the rattle were beans, rocks or corn to make the rattling sound.
For the majority of tribes, the shakers were made to represent the three nations or kingdoms, important beliefs for most Native Americans. The three kingdoms were the mineral kingdom, the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom.
The wood handle of the shaker represented the plant kingdom, the animal skin or shell represented the animal kingdom, and the rocks or corn inside represented the mineral kingdom. Together, the three kingdoms could make beautiful music and live in harmony.
Get Your Own Native American Instruments
At Kachina House, we offer a huge selection of Native American arts and crafts, including instruments. Since 2004, we’ve been Arizona’s largest supplier of Native American art. Take home a piece of Native American history today.