Manataka American Indian Council





March 2011





While preparing for the upcoming 2011 Manataka Powwow, a question arose when one drummer objected to the fact that Manataka has a drum circle where women play the drum. 


"I will not play the big drum if women are going to play!" he pronounced. 


We informed him in a quite way that Manataka's drum circle of both men and women perform only sacred songs and do not play powwow songs.  That did not cut any mustard with the man and while attending another powwow he loudly degraded Manataka for allowing women to even touch a drum. 


"It is not traditional!  They do not know what they are doing!," he yelled.


Okay, so this set into motion a flurry of activity to reconfirm our understanding of the history of the powwow drum. First, our extensive library of stories, legends and research failed to reveal any basis for his assertion that the ban against women on the big drum is a "traditional" belief. 


Next, we contacted a number of tribal historians and medicine elders who could not verify the validity of our friend's strong belief that women should never play the big drum.  Finally, we consulted with ethnomusicologists whose exhaustive research we felt certain would finally answer the question.  Nope.  There is no factual basis found within "tradition" for the idea that women should not sit at the powwow drum.


However, many of the authorities we contacted did acknowledge that prohibitions against women sitting the big drum began to creep into modern powwows sometime in the early 1970's.  


We accept, respect and appreciate the practice of some tribes who have certain ceremonies where the drum is played only by men; and other ceremonies where drums are played only by women.  But, we cannot accept, respect or appreciate the basis or vehemence of our friend's outright ban of women on the big drum.  And, here is why:

  • Pan-tribalism is the syncretic adoption of traditions from foreign communities.  According to ethnomusicological researchers, Bruno Nettl, William Powers and David McAllester, since the rise of the European dominance in the Western hemisphere, American Indians adopted common identities and invented pan-tribal music, notably the powwow, peyote songs and the Ghost Dance. In this process, Eurocentric ideas and beliefs crept into indigenous practices, most notable are chauvinistic attitudes toward women.  

  • For the Southern Plains Indians, it is believed that the first drum was given to a woman by the Great Spirit, who instructed her to share it with all women of native nations.   Therefore, Plains Indian women have an inherit right to sit the drum.

  • Southeastern tribes honored women in all circles of tribal life, including playing a variety of musical instruments during all ceremonies and dances.  Therefore, Southeastern tribal women are honored to play the drum.

  • Northeastern tribes have a long history of women involved in all aspects of ceremonial life, dances, and tribal leadership.  Women are considered the original song givers and played the drum for their people.  Thus, no one can say that Northeastern women have no place to sit the drum.

  • There are prophesies among several tribes relating to women and the drum. 

  • The drum represents the heartbeat of the Mother Earth -- the mother of all humans -- thus all drums are female and human.

  • Originally, "powwow" was an Algonquin term, "pauwau" or "pauau" and referred to a gathering of medicine men and women and spiritual elders.  "Pauwauing" referred to a religious ceremony, usually one of healing conducted by both men and women.  At the Pauwau or powwow there is no place for racism, sexism, or any type of prejudice.  Sexist behavior during American Indian religious ceremonies is outrageous and should not be tolerated -- especially in the name of false 'tradition'.

Our reasoning is open to your thoughts and ideas.  Read the story below. 





By Shannon Thunderbird


"Since the beginning of civilization, Drums were one of the main universal signals for calling people together in good ways. They were and are  humanity's common pulse. In other words, Drums do not know about race, racism, jealousy, hate, resentment, greed, language, genders, gender choice, human diversity. What they do know is the magic of inclusivity and the joyful sound of one heart beating. Wilwilaask, All my Relations"  - S. Thunderbird




In the twenty-first century, as Indigenous cultures continue to adapt, evolve and move forward, and given the fact that women are taking back the drum which is their right to do because of the lack of leadership shown by men, it is becoming more common to see women big drum groups at powwows. This is a slow evolution because of the fierce patrilineal protection of turf (unfortunately Euro-centric attitudes toward women have been learned well by many Native Men).


There has been much animosity and outright refusal to allow women drum groups to participate at powwows and other Indigenous events. This whole "which gender is allowed to play the big drum" is so sadly sexist and borne out of Christian dogma of recent history. There is no  irrefutable proof or teachings of any kind that stops women from sitting at a big drum other than those who have 'invented' new teachings as a convenient way of keeping women down. Not happening in my world!


If women think they are "offending" men by playing the big drum, I suggest that (a) it is time to reclaim your authentic power; and those men who are offended are hanging onto territory which they never owned in the first place, and who simply made up rules to subjugate women  As a result, they have no right to claim ownership, for the simple reason that the drum (no matter the size) is a universal symbol of healing, harmony, dignity, honor, respect, humility, love, trust, courage and wisdom. Moreover, since before recorded time, women across the world have played drums, kept drums, and enjoyed drums.


Both genders are entitled to participate in the beauty of those healing words by playing a big drum whenever and wherever they choose to do so.


Also, the drum is female, so it is simply  illogical that women are denied what is rightfully theirs.... a sister! Moreover, as noted below, if we are all given a heartbeat, why is it that women must shut theirs down during important events or ceremonies?


Wherein, it is true that women a long time ago gave the big drum to men so they could feel the resonant connection to the Earth Mother that women naturally feel, the gift came with some simple rules:

  • Men were to respect women, and women's leadership role in the community.

  • They were never to raise their voices or hands against women or children.

  • They were to protect the "giver of life" at all costs.  

Alas as recent history shows, this continues not to be the case as family violence in Native communities continues to be at least five times the national average, a national scandal in any language!  Men no longer have the right to ownership of a drum.


Moreover, the whole notion of 'ownership' flies in the face of even the most basic of Native teachings as regards sharing and caring for each other. Sandy and I, for example, do not own Moonstone or K'oolgyet Na Hool. They own themselves. We are simply their caregivers and they let us ride in the van with them as they go to various events to bring their healing messages!


The Haudenosaunee prophecy which states, "when the maple trees starts dying from the top, women will take back the drum" is  happening all over Turtle Island, the trees are dying.  Men have not fulfilled their responsibilities and promises; women must now re-assert themselves in order to save themselves, their children, their communities and the Earth Mother."


Get with it, gentlemen, times have changed, women's voices must be heard by whatever means if Mother Earth has any chance of survival.


Ownership of the Big Drum, Hand Drums and Drum Etiquette


The drum is the exclusive property of the person who made it OR purchased it OR traded for it OR had it given to them as a gift OR prayed for it. It is not community property unless it has been identified as a Share Drum. If the drum belongs to an individual, then permission must be given by that individual for anyone else to even touch it much less play it. In other words, look but do not touch unless permission has been given.  


Keep reminding yourself that the drum is human and one does not fondle other humans without permission!  Accord the drum the same respect. In my case, my Sisters, Kate and Sandy are the only ones allowed to touch my hand drum without first asking permission.


When playing a drum, it should never be hammered in an aggressive way. This suggests giving it a 'beating' and one must never 'hit' a woman!  The teaching goes even further by stating that the drum mallet should not be referred to as a 'beater' because of the suggestion of aggression contained in the word. There is already too much violence in Native communities.  We call them Grandmother's Arms that is a beautiful description.


The drum is a sacred object, therefore, when not in use it should be allowed to sleep in its own bag made of natural materials, (i.e. 100% cotton, animal hide).  Hanging a hand drum on a wall as an art piece to be admired diminishes its voice and purpose.  You wouldn't hang your mother on the wall would you? The drum should always be placed skin-side up when at rest as a sign of respect, it is also easier on the hide.


No drinking, no smoking, bad language or any other behavior that is disrespectful to yourself and the drum.





How many powwow drummers have you heard slam and smash  their 'beaters' on the big drum?


We ask anyone with an opposing view to stand up and give us factual history where the ban against women sitting the big drum was 'tradition' prior to a few years ago.  We also invite anyone to explain in detail why women should be excluded from sitting the big drum.  We seek teaching from intelligent and complete responses.  Smart-a-- opinions and anonymous responses will be deleted -- So sign your name and include your address.


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