Under a steel-blue sky one summer night, hundreds of people gathered in front of the main stage at the Folk on the Rocks music festival, their bare toes sinking into the cool sand. On stage, a group of about a dozen men stood around Nunavut band the Jerry Cans, with a drum in each of their hands. As they began to sing and hit their instruments, part of the crowd bopped to the rhythm while others slowly shuffled their feet, their hands resting on the shoulders in front of them, moving together in an impromptu drum dance.
The annual Yellowknife music festival closes off each year with the Yellowknives Dene Drummers to honour the land they’re on and to bring people together. It’s a powerful feeling listening to the traditional practice, whether you’re from the region or a visitor. Drums link cultures around the world to one another, says Bobby Drygeese, a member of the Yellowknives Dene Drummers.
“Drummers bring all the people together,” Drygeese says. “Everyone slows down and listens because they feel the heartbeat. That’s why everyone is connected through the drums.”
The North is no exception. From Inuit in Nunavut to Tlingit in Yukon, each culture across the three territories has its own type of drums, songs and drumming traditions.
Dene men in the NWT play songs for drum dances, celebrations, prayer songs and hand games using a 60-centimetre drum made out of caribou hide attached to a birch frame with babiche (sinew). A drummer’s hands manipulate strands of babiche stretched across the back as they drum and strike the front.
Inuvialuit and Inuit drummers hold the handle of a drum, which is sometimes more than a metre in diameter, rotating it back and forth to strike near the rim of each side. Caribou hide was traditionally used for these drums, but materials such as nylon are sometimes now used since caribou are increasingly difficult to source.
If you close your eyes and listen, you can hear the difference in sound because of the way each type of drum is played. Dene drums have a quick reverberation. Inuit and Inuvialuit drums are slower and the sound is much deeper because the drum is rolling back and forth between the drummer’s hands.
In Inuit and Inuvialuit culture, a chorus typically accompanies a single drummer who is singing. While some songs focus on a particular animal, most tell a story, explains Billie Lennie, a member of the Inuvik Drummers and Dancers for the past 29 years.
“A lot of dances talk about gatherings and going to gatherings and meeting their families and relatives,” she says. “One song tells the story of a young man who hears music and dancing coming from across the river and he’s asking his uncle to take him across to join the festivities. As you watch the dances, you can see the story.”
Yukon’s Inland Tlingit commemorate life events in their songs, such as when someone passes away. “We have songs for everything,” says Marilyn Jensen, who founded the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers in 2007.
“What I’ve observed over the years is that [the drum] touches people’s hearts,” she says. It calls to them and acts as “a connection to the spirit world and our ancestors…. Drumming is a very healing thing for us.”
Part of that healing is about reclaiming and sharing cultural practices that were once feared lost.
When Fort Smith drummer Peter Paulette was young, he was fortunate enough to accompany his parents to functions like the Dene National Assembly where he would hear traditional drum songs.
“I would be dancing every dance. It just drew me in,” he says. “The songs that they sang, I sing them now. It’s a powerful thing.”
Despite this early exposure to his culture, when Paulette began a drumming group in 1994 he only knew three songs.
“As Dene people in Fort Smith, we lost a lot of things in 100 years: our language, our harvesting, how to be a good Dene person.”
So Paulette turned to Elders from other communities to deepen his knowledge. He brought in Dettah Elder Alfred Belanger and David Echinelle from Tulita to teach Dene drum songs.
“All the songs being sung from Fort Good Hope to Dettah are all the same song,” Paulette says. “I might sing it different than Wrigley but it’s still the same prayer song.”
Paulette began passing that knowledge along to the next generation when he started teaching drumming and hand games at Aurora College’s Thebacha Campus over a decade ago. Recently, the Government of the Northwest Territories honoured him with the Minister’s Culture and Heritage Circle Award for his efforts.
Drumming, he explains, goes beyond simply learning a rhythm. It’s a full-body experience.
“You gotta teach your body how to sing a song,” he says. “Like a runner, you become one with your body. Running and breathing. Same thing when I’m drumming. If you don’t breathe when you’re drumming you’ll turn blue.”
On a cold winter evening this past February, attendees from across the circumpolar world gathered in Wood Buffalo, Alberta for the Arctic Winter Games’ cultural gala. On stage, a half dozen young dancers with a drum in their hands.
Dressed in scarlet parkas, the members of Iqaluit’s Inukshuk Drum Dancers moved and sang, twirling their drums back and forth, the beat in perfect rhythm with the choreography of the performers. Sound and shape came together to tell a story through song.
The pride was palpable. Ella Estey, one of the group’s six members, says drum dancing helped bring her closer to her Inuit culture. It’s been a powerful experience for her family to see that connection
“I’m really glad that after the impact of colonization, we’re still able to practice part of our culture.”
Teacher Mary Piercey-Lewis created this drum dance group at Inukshuk High School in 2008. “We are in a time where Inuktitut is being spoken less and less, and one of the most beautiful ways to preserve a language is through music,” Piercey-Lewis says.
Students perform a mix of traditional songs, such as one about an inukshuk on the land, and incorporate traditional elements into a more contemporary approach to drum dancing.
“It’s more about connecting to Inuit culture, connecting with Elders, bridging the gap with the culture,” Piercey-Lewis explains. “The fact that they are drum dancing traditionally and contemporarily will hopefully inspire a drive among young people to learn Inuktitut.”
Not all the members of the group are Inuit, which also raises awareness among non-Inuit people in Iqaluit of the culture around them. Aura Kwon says she appreciates the opportunity to learn about Inuit culture through music and drum dancing. “My family is not from Nunavut so it’s important for me to connect with the place where I live,” she says.
Youth like these are one of the major contributors to the revitalization of drumming and drum dancing in the North. Lennie, a Gwich’in mother married to an Inuvialuit man, joined the Inuvik Drummers and Dancers to help her four-year-old son and one-year-old daughter connect to their Inuvialuit culture. Now her husband, adult children and young grandchildren also drum dance. And they aren’t the only ones.
“A lot of kids when I first started [dancing] now have their own families that come, too. My kids bring their kids. Our group has quite a few families.”
Young children are drawn to the drum, she says. “Nobody ever forces the kids to drum dance.” Youth develop cultural pride and build self-esteem through their participation — particularly in performing in front of audiences. This is particularly evident when the group travels to other communities to perform.
“Sometimes we take youth who have never left Inuvik,” says Lennie. “When people ask them questions about where they live, they’re so proud of where they’re from.”
Jensen, who has been drum dancing since the age of two, founded the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers in 2007 to share her Tlingit culture with visitors. “We weren’t present in tourism in Carcross,” she says. “That summer we had learned six songs…. We kept going, and we ended up with something far more spectacular than a dance group for tourists.” Since then, the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers perform regularly in Whitehorse and other venues.
Like other passionate Indigenous drummers, the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers are finding ways to keep traditions alive while embracing contemporary music. The group collaborated with DJ Dash from Toronto about five years ago to bring their drumming to a wider audience.
“We want to do it again because it’s about Indigenous people doing stuff today,” Jensen says. “We aren’t just static. We’re always creating.”
And the beat goes on.
SIDEBAR 1: Choosing The Right Hide
Drums are the foundation of Indigenous cultures, Yukon drum maker Joe Migwans says. “It’s the first thing that we connect with because the drum represents the heartbeat of our mother…. That beat is what we know to be life-giving.”
When Migwans, an Ojibway man adopted into the Wolf Clan, moved to the Yukon he learned how to make drums from a local Elder. That included learning to harvest the wood and scrape and clean hides. Later, he started offering drum-making workshops to teach other people and keep the tradition alive.
Migwans says that hides on traditional drums need just the right amount of tanning to sound good. “Rawhide turns to a tin-can sound. You have to work your hide a bit,” he says. “Deer hide you gotta work it a bit before it gets to that good-sounding place.”
Deer hide tends to shrink back when placed on the frame. He has also used moose, elk and caribou. The latter is the best, by far, he says. “If you put caribou on a frame it will snug up but for the most part, it will stay where it is. Caribou hide is strong.”
Bobby Drygeese, a member of the Yellowknives Dene Drummers agrees. “A lot of us make our own drums using caribou hide from fall time. They’re the strongest and best ones.”
Tlingit drums, which vary in size, are typically made of moose hide or deer hide. They also have box drums that look like large hollow cedar boxes, which a drummer hits with their palm. While the drums carry the main beat, the box contributes an off-beat sound heard in between the main rhythm.
Tlingit drums also usually feature a clan crest or identity. Jensen, for example, belongs to the Killer Whale clan. “When people see me, they will see a Killer Whale design on my blanket and on my drum. That’s how you know who they are.”
Regardless of how the drum is used, you need to treat them with respect, Migwans says.
“These drums have a spirit once you put them together. The deer and caribou were alive before. You still have to be respectful with the drum.”
In 1992, Migwans apprenticed with Johnson Edwards —who was raised in the traditional Northern Tutchone lifestyle – to make 14 birch and caribou hide drums for the Yukon Arts Centre. Vernon Asp and Ken Anderson painted each with a logo from the territory’s 14 First Nations. The drums are now displayed in the YAC lobby to create a sense of welcome.
SIDEBAR 2: Drums Around The Polar World
Fort Smith Métis artist Michel Labine made his first drum when he was six years old, using birch bark and a squirrel pelt. “My dad was making drums and I made mine,” he says. After moving from Ontario to the North in 1980, he began learning to make Inuit and Dene drums from local Elders in Cape Dorset and Tulita.
“If you over-tighten the hide on the frame, you will have a banana,” Labine says. “It’s not so much about tightening as much as having enough give for the hide.”
Before beating their drums, drummers often use the warmth of a fire to adjust the sound of their completed instruments, Labine says.
“They’re tuning their drum to play it. When you play the guitar, you adjust the string because it’s made out of living material. Drums are the same way.”
When the Arctic Winter Games were held in Yellowknife in 2008, Labine met a Sami man from Sweden holding an egg-shaped drum with a handle made from reindeer. That sparked an idea. Labine received funding from the Canada Council of the Arts to make drums from nine circumpolar countries. Drum makers from Fairbanks, Alaska to Greenland and the Yamal region of Russia taught him how they made their traditional drums.
The drums from Yamal have 13 bumps placed around the perimeter to represent each of the culture’s 13 common laws. Greenlandic drums are smaller, in order to be portable enough to carry during trips by kayak and dogsled. Egg-shaped Sami drums have stick drawings depicting family histories. “It shows what the family did, if they were fishermen or reindeer herders,” Labine explains.
Once drums are made, an awakening ceremony is held before the drum is used, particularly for Cree and Dene cultures. “Drums have to be awakened properly,” Labine says. “The awakening ceremony takes into account the spirituality of the drum, and we thank the Creator for the materials. Everything used in the drum comes from the land.”