Music and Musical Instruments

Woodland Indian music has been an integral part of the daily lives of Woodland Indians.

Songs accompanied ceremonies for the dead, preparations for war, nearly all the games, and were essential in treating the sick. For the observance of the Midewiwin rites, the songs were as important as the spiritual leaders themselves because there could be no rituals without the appropriate songs. Many songs were inspired by dreams either during an individual's vision quest or later in his life. Songs could be learned from the dreamer or, in some cases, bought from the owner. Songs were often passed from tribe to tribe, and men returning from journeys were asked what new songs they had learned.

The instruments included drums, rattles, and the courting flutes. Whistles were also made from reed, split alder, or bone, but they were not used as musical instruments. Instead, they were used as war signals and were part of war bundles and war bundle ceremonies.


There were three kinds of drums: the large drum for the Dream Dance, the water drum for the Midewiwin rites, and the tambourine drum (also called a chief's drum) used in the War Dance, moccasin game, and by Native doctors.

The water drum was about 15 inches long with one solid end and was fashioned from a hollowed log. The other end was covered with a heavy piece of tanned deerskin held down with a wooden rim. Through a hole in the side, water could be poured to a depth of three or four inches and the drum shaken to wet the head or skin. It was beaten with a curved drumstick, producing a soft sound that carried well.

The hand drum was a circular wooden frame about a foot and a half in diameter and two and a half inches wide. It was covered with thin rawhide on both sides and ordinarily would be painted, sometimes with the symbols of the owner's vision. Two parallel cords were strung inside, and attached to these were short sticks which vibrated against the heads when the drum was struck. The drummer put one hand through a rawhide loop attached to the frame and resting the lower side of the drum on his knee, he struck the drum head with the wrapped end of a straight drumstick.

The largest and most dramatically decorated drum was that for the Drum Dance or Dream Dance. The bottom of a large wooden washtub was removed, and both top and bottom were covered with rawhide heads. The top head was painted symbolically, one half blue, the other red. Through the center ran a yellow stripe representing the path of the sun. The drum hung suspended from four stakes set in the ground -- the drum itself was never allowed to touch the ground -- oriented so the painted sun path ran east and west, with the red half to the south. The stakes were heavily beaded, and the drum itself was ornamented with beaded belts, perforated silver coins, and bits of fur. A piece of silk, colored cotton cloth or a blanket was spread beneath the drum. The male members of the drum arranged themselves around it and accompanied their songs with straight drumsticks wrapped at one end. The drum and the smoke from their pipes carried their invocations to the manido.


Shakers could be made out of almost anything, including gourds, tin cans, and cow horns, and contained seeds, small pebbles, or shot. Shakers were usually equipped with a wooden handle. They were part of the necessary equipment of Native doctors and Mide priests. During later times, women used small shakers to song with men at the drum for social occasions.


The lover's flute or courting flute was primarily used for courting and for playing a song being used as a love charm. However, it was occasionally played to warn a village of an approaching war party. Some tribes insisted that youths play their flutes outside the bounds of the village because the courting flute's tones were thought to be too seductive for unmarried girls to resist.

The flute (more properly called a flageolet) was made of two sections of cedar joined to form a hollow cylinder about 18 inches long and an inch and a quarter in diameter. When iron became available, the flute was then fashioned from a single piece of cedar that was hollowed out by burning it with a hot iron rod. A solid section was left near the top, and a rectangular opening was cut on either side. Over this was fitted a wooden pitch control, which was sometimes carved in the shape of a horse. The flute was end-blown and players produced the tones by fingering six holes spaced about an inch apart. The courting flute was strictly a solo instrument.

Singing and Songs

The Indians placed great emphasis on the personality of the singer. To them, the idea, the melody, and the rhythm of the song were essential elements and were more important than the words. Because of their sacred character, Midewiwin songs were in a separate category. Because they were musical expressions of religious ideas, they depended more on melody and rhythm than on the words, which could sometimes not be understood except by the initiates.

One characteristic of the singing of nearly all Woodland groups was a wavering vibrato tone which was considered a sign of musical proficiency. A nasal quality was confined to love songs, but women accompanying the men's singing in the Drum Dance also produced a nasal, high-keyed humming by keeping their mouths closed and holding their noses partly shut. Rhythm was as much a part of the composition as the melody since the rhythm often expressed the idea because the words could often vary. Some of the supernatural power of the songs derived from the repetition of phrases and words. Different rhythms were appropriate to different kinds of songs, including those used for different dances and those which accompanied games.

The Drum Dance had songs which were the property of its members, and when a particular song was begun, the member who owned that song rose and began to dance. Other songs ensured were part of hunting charms and were sung only by certain men. Small drawings were used by the singers to remembered the idea of the song. There were also songs to assure good harvests of maple sugar and wild rice. Social songs include those heard today during Indian powwows and publicly performed dances.

Music and Curing

Songs were an integral part of curing the sick. Native doctors often sold a medicine after singing the particular song that assured its success, but the song itself was never bought or sold. Charms were also accompanied by certain songs, and charms and their songs could be purchased. For instance, love charms involved securing personal items such as bits of clothing or hair from the person who was the object of the charm. When worn by the one working the charm, these items and the proper song ensured success.