Society for American Music
Bulletin, Volume XXV, no. 2 (Summer 1999)
The Drum as Icon and Teacher in D/Lakota Life
By Jonathan Ritter, UCLA
Among the Dakota and Lakota (D/Lakota), the drum occupies a position of great cultural
and symbolic power. Regarded as a living entity, it is simultaneously understood as a spiritual
guardian and a musical instrument, a living tradition and a reference to a past way of life.
Consequently, the continued spiritual, ceremonial, and musical duties of those who play the
drum, attendant to both the larger community as well as the living instrument itself, have
encourage the use of music and dance as an integral part of current D/Lakota cultural education
and identity. In this article, I first argue that the drum should be understood as an icon of
D/Lakota worldview, examining how circular symbols find meaning in multiple spheres of D/Lakota
thought. Second, I look at how the drum's dynamic cultural role has been adapted to the
contemporary urban Indian classroom as a unique form of cultural education and D/Lakota resistance
to assimilationist pressures.
The Cultural centrality of the drum stems from concepts in the very foundation of D/Lakota
spirituality. Circular and unified, holistic and holy, traditional D/Lakota theology is based on the
undertanding that a profound reciprocity exists among all elements, animate and otherwise.
Mitakuye oyasin, a phrase used in greeting or prayer meaning "all my relations," refers
to that reciprocal structuring of the world. The ramifications of such a belief system
permeated the traditional life of the D/Lakota, in birth and death, in the procurement
of food, in music, in social behavior, as well as in ceremonial life.
More than 160 years ago, the missionary Samuel Pond could find no "fixed, uniform belief" among
the Dakota, venturing to guess that "a harmonious system of mythology was never found among
any heathen people."1 Ethno- and theo-centrism aside, Pond's inability to recognize
a unified Dakota spirituality may have stemmed from that system's very "harmoniousness."
Contemporary Lakota author Vine Deloria, Jr. critiques Western understanding of what he calls
"Indian metaphysics . . . that set of first principles which we must possess in order to make
sense of the world in which we live."2 He argues that holistic native concepts, such
as mitakyue oyasin, stand in marked contrast to the Western vision of the world,
rooted on a fragmented mixture of folklore, religious theology, and Greek science.
Consequently, from Gideon Pond's era through our own, Westerners have often had a difficult
time equating or even reconciling native holism with the codified structures of the Christian
What Pond overlooked was as rudimentary and yet all-encompassing as the shape of a circle;
the D/Lakota understood and understand life through the comprehension of its inherent cycles.
Environmental cycles, imbedded in everything from astronomic observation to the subsistence
requirements of the seasonal round; life stage cycles, experiencing childhood, adulthood,
and old age through periods of illness and health, hardship and prosperity; and ultimately the
cycle of life itself, in which we all return to the earth from which we emerged, as attested to by the
Lakota creation story. Circles have been used traditionally as the physical representation of
this metaphysical construct., and were ubiquitous in the D/Lakota world. Tipis, shields,
ceremonial decorations, council seating arrangements, musical song form, and of course, the drum
were all symbolic manifestations of this circularity.
The D/Lakota are not alone in creating a material world that reflects their metaphysical one; to the
contrary, such reverberance is a hallmark of many indigenous societies. Gary Witherspoon's
study of Navajo art and language links the "dynamic symmetry" of verbal, visual, and musical
aesthetics with the "dynamic synthesis" of the intellect in the Navajo world.3 Indeed,
one could argue that the influence of semiotics in anthropology indicates that signs and symbols
as reflectors of cultural worldview are a universal aspect of human social and cultural life.
However, signs function in different ways, and it is the particular concept of the icon
that I wish to explore here in reference to the drum among the D/Lakota. Judith and Alton Becker's
seminal article on iconicity and the Javanese gamelan posited iconicity as "the non-arbitrariness
of any metaphor." "Metaphors gain power," they argued, "and even cease being taken as metaphors, as
they gain iconicity or 'naturalness'."4 Similarly, Steven Feld argues that musical
style among the kaluli of Papua New Guinea, what he terms, "'lift-up over sounding,' moves
from being a metaphor of style to being an image of identity."5 This movement shifts
the icon ontologically, away from the metaphor, or away from being 'like' something else, to
becoming the object in and of itself. I find this conceptual tool compelling and useful when
examining the recent history and contemporary role of the D/Lakota drum.
The D/Lakota do not view their drums as symbolic objects, metaphors referencing an abstract
theology, but rather as spiritual beings, capable of acts of healing or retribution and therefore
demanding respect. In interviews with D/Lakota musicians, nearly all had stories to tell of
when a drum began sounding by itself, or spirits in the form of human beings appeared in
response to some misdeed; futhermore, every person I talked to, without exception, referred
to the soud of the drum as a heartbeat. Walter "Super" LeBatte, Jr., a Dakota drummaker and
dancer, relates the following story on the power of the drum:
There was one guy that was telling me that they took the drum over to Wisconsin a few years
ago. They had this fishing controversy, and all of those wasicuns [non-Indians] were lined
up [chanting] "Save a walleye, spear an Indian"; really a lot of hatred and anger there. They
brought out that drum and they started singing. And as they were singing, the crowd just
quieted down and they started to turn their attention to that drum, and they were even
starting to move to that drum, you know, that is the power of that drum.6
Thus, the D/Lakota understanding of the drum's relationship to the spirit world is anything but an
arbitrary metaphor -- rather, the spirit world is concretely perceived in the drum itself, and
reflected in its performance practice and the protocol pertaining to its care.
New drums undergo a blessing ceremony, are named, and henceforth are treated as a living entity
under the care of a special drum keper. Periodic feasts are givin in its honor, tobacco and
prayers are offered to it before playing, and special songs are composed for it. Jim Clairmont, the
former head singer of famed Lakota drum group The Porcupine Singers, elaborates, "You have
to treat it just like your friend; just because the pow-wow is over, you don't throw it in the
basement and forget about it. You have to treat it with respect: no drinking, no smoking, none
of that when you are with that drum."7 However, following in the Lakota social ideal
of reciprocity, many people relate stories of how the drum took care of them as well, as a
guardian spirit on long summers touring Indian country on the "pow-wow trail," and even as a
healer for the sick, infirm, and disabled. Severt Young Bear, long-time drumkeeper for The
Porcupine Singers, relates the history of their drum:
Our drum received many honors over the years. Back in 1974 the drum received its own name at the
Ring Thunder Wacipi Days pow-wow. Four respected singers . . . gave it the name Oyate Ho
Nah'umpi (The People Hear Its Voice). That name made the drum a person and over the years it was
given a war bonnet, a sacred pipe, and an eagle-feather staff by way of recognition. Old and
young people have come to touch the drum to share its energy over the years; dancers have thrown
money on it in appreciation for the music it helped to make. I think that drum also took care of
the singers who sat around it in a respectful way.8
The living nature of a drum is reinforced by the Lakota's use of the term to refer to its accompanying
performance groups as well. The drum as icon gains particular resonance in this sense, as singers
perform in a circle seated around the drum. Young Bear points out that the drum group circle is
only one of many concentric circles at Lakota gatherings, with dancers, spectators, elders, and other
community members spreading out in physical space and level of social participation.9 The
drum lies in the central circle, "standing in the light" and Young Bear describes it, both spatially
and socially, as singers take on new roles and responsibilities in the community through their
participation in the musical ensemble.
The drumkeeper, as already mentioned, is responsible for the physical and spiritual care of the drum.
His tasks range from the relatively simple, covering the drum when not in use and "feeding" it through
offerings of tobacco, to potentially resource-draining responsibilities, including giving periodic
community feasts in the drum's honor, and providing the drum whenever or whereever it is
requested by a community member, for social or ceremonial occasions. The head singer, in addition
to giving the introductory musical call characteristic of Lakota music, is responsible for the proper
selection of songs for specific ceremonial and social situations, a task that demands an extensive
knowledge of both musical repertoire and Lakota spirituality. With the drumkeeper, he also is
responsible to the drum and the community to provide muic and organize singers whenever and wherever
it is requested. Though singing in a drum group may be lucrative at some major pow-wows where prie
money and gifts to the drum can total in the thousands of dollars, community obligations and
responsibilities may quickly absorb all of that and more. Jim Clairmont remarks:
It is a hard role to be a singer. Because if you take on the role of a singer, if a tribe or some friends
ask you to come 1300 miles, give you tobacco and ask you to come and help them at a certain month,
at a certain time, then it is up to you when you accept that tobacco, then you are going to
have to get out there and help them, and never think about that money . . . When you take on
that responsibility of a singer, then you are singing for the people.10
In that manner we find the recriprocal, circular relationships on which the Lakota spiritual and
social system is based reproduced in the drum and its cultural performance. For a people
struggling with intense cultural change in the last century, the confluence of social roles,
spiritual relationships, and cultural norms inherent in the drum, its iconicity, has helped
it to emerge as, in Feld's phrase, an "image of identity" for the D/Lakota. Consequently, contemporary
Indian education in urban centers has turned increasingly to music and dance as pedagogical tools
to foster a greater sense of cultural identity in Indian students. In Minneapolis, the Heart of the
Earth Survival School, primary and secondary schools started in the 1970s by the American Indian
Movement, as well as a series of public magnet schools for Indian children, have instituted drum
groups as part of their cultural education program. By hiring drum group teachers and language
instructors, and bringing in elders for presentations and consultation, these schools are
involving the Indian community in contemporary education by linking traditional roles with
current school realities.
Historically, important roles such as that of drumkeeper were at times given to younger children.
The heavy responsibilities and demands of that role were beyond the capability of the child to
perform alone, and so the appointment became an exercise in family cohesion, as members of the tiyospaye
(traditional D/Lakota extended family unit) came together to meet its demands. Today, school drum
groups are drawing in the community and family members of students in similar ways, to help
young singers learn new songs, to sew dance costumes, or to help sponsor weekly or monthly
community pow-wows at the host school Thus, the adoptioin of a formal drum-oriented Indian
music education follows directly from the Dakota history of reworking an "old experience in a
new way," as one singer put it to me. Cornel Pewewardy, former principal of the Mounds Park
All-Nations Magnet School in St. Paul, comments:
When you talk about the drum you are really talking about societies and roles as young people
mature to be responsible adults, and you use the drum as king of that teaching tool. Every one of
the singers [on their student drum], those young boys understand what their responsibilities are
when they sit at that drum, and each one of them are very responsible young men. And so this is
a part of the curriculum that we have, that the boys understand that it is an honor to have them
sit down at the drum.11
Another example of the syncretic nature of old trationds and new educational systems is the incorportation
of elders in the instruction of students. Together with the American Indian Studies Program at the
University of Minnesota, the Heart of the Earth Survival School sponsored an Indian music seminar several
years ago. Three traditional musicians were bought in, representing the most common tribal heritage
of the school: Ojibwe, Ho Chunk, and Lakota. Preston Thompson, a Ho Chunk elder and singer, addressed
This is a sacred drum. When you sit at a drum, you're all equal, you're all at the same level. If
somebody donates something to that drum you divide that equally with the other singers. You are
brothers. You put tobacco down on the drum, say your prayer, put something under the drum, that's
to Mother Earch, because this drum has to stand on Mother Earth, and you start to learn how to
sing and how to drum. This is what we want you to do.12
The transition of learning systems to the institution is not seen in such a positive light by all.
Indian cultural education in the schools is, by necessity, inter-tribal in scope due to the mixed
backgrounds of many students in urban areas like Minneapolis. Consequently, the prevalence of
pan-Indian musical forms and "pow-wow-centrism" often obscures individual tribal practices. Elders who have lived
through a long period when particular tribal music, dance, and religious observances were forbidden by the
U.S. government now fear that their knowledge may die with them due to a lack of interest on the part of
the younger generation.
There is also fear in the Indian community that formal education cannot address the traditional
values and sacred aspect of singing at a drum. Jim Clairmont elaborates: "A lot of these young
boys are willing to learn how to sing, and I say humorously, they might know four or five intertribal
songs, and all of a sudden they become professional? If somebody asks them to come and help them to
sing, right away their hand is out. That's not [right]. we don't do that. If you are just
singing it, and there's no values in it then you are just wasting your time."13
Cornel Pewewardy is quick to point out, however, that out of the twelve student singers on their
school's drum, only three or four might be able to continue throughout the summer on their own, with
their family or on the pow-wow circuit. The drum and cultural education in school, for whatever
limits it has, is the only information on their heritage some Indian students are getting. The drum
teachers I spoke with were aware of that situation and, without exception, were conscientious about
making the drum experience as "traditional" as possible. Most linked their method of teaching to
oral tradition, another hallmark of native cultures, and stressed proper treatment of the drum and
knowledge of its cultural position within their classes.
I sat in on a song and dance class at Johnson Senior High in St. Paul taught by Jerry Dearly, a
singer and teacher from Pine Ridge, South Dakota. He started off the class describeing the Eagle
Feather ceremony that has been adapted on some reservations for high school graduation, discussing
with the students whether they should begin one there. In his description of the ceremony, he covered the cultural
significance of eagle feathers, the importance and value of giving (in this instance, a Pendleton
balnket is given to each graduate), and finally, the prevalence of honoring ceremonies among the
Lakota. The rest of the class was dedicated to learning a new drum song. "You learn the language from the
songs," he explained, going over the pronunciation of each work and its meaning.14 He
explained again to them the role of honor beats and their placement within a song, and etiquette for
when a drum is being honored by a grass dancer, who blows a whistle to indicate that the song
should be played through again. Through all of this, the students received cultural knowledge
about ceremonies, responsibilities, language, and music.
In the school setting, the experience of being on the drum firmly identifies Indian children with their
ethnic heritage; it also puts them in constructive contact with the realities of the multi-cultural
world they inhabit. With the exception of the Heart of the Earth school, the ethnicity of most magnet
schools is mixed, and the drum group provides a positive, valued space for Indian students, and
occasionally together with non-Indian students, to learn about and express their culture in an
environment that until recently was quite hostile to such expressions.
In conclusion, I would argue that the continued viability of the drum to teach across institutional
boundaries and cultural barriers erected by changes in D/Lakota life lies in its iconic relationship
to D/Lakota cultural ideals. While the Beckers posit that for Javanese music iconicity is lost with
encroaching modernity, for the D/Lakota, the drum has gained prominence as an image of identity
with the loss of traditional life, indicating that is iconic relationship lies less with a passing
lifestyle than with a continuing worldview. Generosity, oral tradition, respect, honoring, and social
reciprocity are all a part of the drum's teachings, whether passed on in the school classroom or the pow-wow
arena. For those who can sing and dance in the D/Lakota world, those who cancega nabonpi ("hear
the drum"), the tradition will continue for, in the worlds of Super LeBatte, "the way the drum can make you
1. Samuel Pond, The Dakota or Sioux As They Were in 1834 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society
Press, , 1986), 68.
2. Vine Deloria, Jr., Indian Education in America: Eight Essays (Boulder, CO: American Indian
Science and Engineering Society, 1991), 10.
3. Gary Witherspoon, Language and Art in the Navajo Universe (Ann Arbor: University Of Michigan
Press, 1977), n.p.
4. Judith and Alton Becker, "A Musical Icon: Power and Meaning in Javanese Gamelan Music," in
The Sign in Music and Literature, Wendy Steiner, ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991),
5. Steve Feld, "'Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style' (Uptown Title); or, (Downtown Title) 'Lift-Up
Over Sounding': Getting Into the Kaluli Groove," in Music Grooves (1994), 132.
6. Walter "Super" LeBatte, (Dakota) drummmaker and dancer, interview with author, 1994.
7. Jonathan Ritter, "Cancega Nahonpi: The Drum in Dakota Life" (BA thesis, University of Minnesota,
8. Severt Young Bear, and Ronnie Theisz, Jr., Standing in the Light: A Lakota Way of Seeing
(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Pres, 1994) 48-49.
9. ibid, xx-xxvi.
10. James Clairmont (Lakota) head singer of the Porcupine Singers, spiritual leader, interview with
11. Cornel Pewewardy, Kowa-Comanche, former principle of the Mounds Park All Nations Magnet
School in St. Paul, MN, interview with the author, 1994.
12. Preston Thop\mpson, Ho Chunk elder and singer, interview with the author, 1994.
13. Clairmont, interview.
14. Jerry Dearly (Lakota) singer and cultural education specialist for St. Paul Public Schools,
St. Paul, MN, interview withe the author, 1994.
15. LeBatte, interview.
Jonathan Ritter received his B.A. in Americn Indian Studies from the University of
Minnesota and an M.A. in Ethnomusicology from the University of California at Los Angeles.
He is currently a doctoral student at UCLA researching Andean popular music and identity.