The Ojibwe Dance Drum: “It’s History” and Construction

Guest blogger: Becky Howard, Circle of Life Academy, White Earth

Thomas Vennum’s book was written only four years after it was “legal” for us as Anishinaabe people to openly practice our religious rights and customs up until then, we illegally practiced pow-wows and our ceremonial rights.  Up until1978 when a federal law and a joint resolution of Congress the United States passed the, “Religious Freedom Act”, in 1978. Even though it was illegal, our communities practiced our own religion and drum ceremonies; we had our own homes and places we did them. My grandmother told me every day is a ceremony as Giizis or the sun rises and you put your asema or tobacco out by a tree the ceremony begins. I remember as a small child attending many ceremonies my grandma had at the house and also traveling to neighboring Minnesota Ojibwe reservations to go to attend others.  Our ceremonies were illegal, but never impossible. This book captured many events in my life and early childhood. Most of the illustrations are very sacred and I chose not to include them, but there are a few in which sacred ceremonial aspects are not prevalent.

“According to its etiological legend, the “Drum” movement began probably in the 1870’s with the vision of Tailfeather Woman, a Dakota woman who received spiritual instructions about how to stop the massacre of her people by United States soldiers.”

Growing up and being raised in Chachabahning or Bowstring in Ojibwe, also known as Inger, Minnesota, my grandmother told us many stories I have read in my adult higher education life in which I already knew most of them through her narratives.  My grandmother, Rose Howard, told me of this account and with even more details the author, Thomas Vennum never received.  My grandmother told me as Tailfeather Woman was breathing through the tubes of cattails while hiding in the water she was told by Gichi Manido or Great Spirit, “I will give you time to get out and get over to the men tell them to kill a horse right away and take the hide for the drum there is no time to hang, dry or scrape it and they should just wrap it around the hollowed out drum frame.  Everything was made rapidly as many Anishinaabe were being hunted down and killed. So the people along with Tailfeather Woman’s instruction made the drum with the hide taken right off the horse and began to beat it as Gichi Manido instructed, “It will still be wet beat on it anyway.”  So as they did the soldiers and Anishinaabe stopped everything, they stopped running, they stopped fighting and warfare; they stopped and began to listen, they just stopped and listened.

Like the rest of the story said, back in the late 18th century to modern day, the Chimookomaanag or Caucasians want to hear the powwows, even when they were illegal many communities of Caucasians still sought after them for various holiday events throughout the year.

Referred to as the “heartbeat of Mother Earth”, the drum used at pow wow’s and ceremonies has been utilized by every nation throughout Anishinaabe Country. There is tremendous emotion involved through the drum it can move one’s spirit, as they dance in the circle with many emotions involved at various times, sorrow, gratitude, and joy.

There are many songs given and composed by singers at the drum, and those who are the caretakers of the drum.  The drum is the heartbeat of our Anishinaabe Nations it brings humility and honor as well as spiritual guidance.

We believe as Anishinaabe people and know to be true; the drum has a powerful spirit and it was a gift from the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people who also shared their songs of the drum with other first nations.

This book for is a great resource for young students to hear about the history of the drum and its connection to the Anishinaabe people, they will realize its history of long ago and its significance to today’s Anishinaabe.  Also it will assist teachers  on how to honor and to reach there Anishinaabe and non-native students and bring them a moral topic of the drum today. Let’s not take for granted students know this history or were told it because they are Anishinaabe because many have not been told and do not grow up traditional. Many Anishinaabe people find their way back to the circle in various times in their lives. It will provide a rich history about the drum and will have a good impact on those who would like to know more about a pow-wow and ceremonies where they honor the drum.

I grew up with my grandfather Ernest Howard Sr. being our singer who sang Ojibwe songs that lullabied us to sleep and he was also our alarm clock in the mornings to jump up and get ready for the day so it is very sacred watching singers and being at the drum and knowing how natural the songs have come to the singers just as the corresponding ceremonies. As Anishinaabe, we feel the drum and connect with it as though it was our own heart, a feeling of belonging. You’ll know it when you feel it, it will be like no other feeling you have ever felt in your life an enigmatic connection that for some, is a long meaningful journey back to themselves, minobimaadiziwin.

Mino bimaadiziwin is an Anishinaabe phrase – it means to “live the good life.”



Vennum, T. (1982). Ojibwa Dance Drum: Its History and Construction. doi:10.5479/si.folklife.2

Images from Vennum’s book: 4289_001

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