Manataka™ American Indian Council






Big Drum Knowledge and the Power of Women

By Shannon Thunderbird, M.A.

Coast Tsimshian First Nations Elder


Aboriginal history is clearly delineated between Pre- and Post-European contact. In pre-contact history, the egalitarian nature of original Aboriginal societies which underlay all cultural references meant that women and men were of equal status. Indeed, what is refreshing about this reality is that no one had to endlessly talk about gender issues, everyone simply did what they were good at in order to further and protect the communities. Recognition of the matriarch as a natural and equal leader gave women powerful voices in the decision-making processes of day-to-day tribal life.


Women created stories, songs, prayers and ceremony in a time when there was no written language for Indigenous people. We sang and drummed on our "female relatives" to remember language, to teach our children, to heal hearts, to honor nature, our communities, notwithstanding both women and men. Men respected and respected us in our role as cultural guardians, and our world view was sustained for a millennia. No one had the time, in other words, to wallow in false ideologies.


It is the cultural references that we create that we call traditions. Traditions are immutable, in other words, they are not supposed to change. Yet for Aboriginal women in post-European contact times, starting approximately in the fifteenth century when the first Europeans began to arrive, negative changes for women were and are legion. In many respects, traditions are codes of conduct. Therefore, anyone who sees the joy in her or his culture should seize all manner of what is represents. If a drum is part of the equation, no matter its size, there should be no argument, not even a comment because it is not a question of power-over mentalities which never existed in the tribes in the first place. It Simply IS.


Unfortunately, lack of knowledge gives naysayers fuel for opinions that are not only based on faulty logic but dishonors thousands of years of Indigenous living.


Only as post-European contact belief systems began to insinuate their patrilineal stances into Native communities, clearly placing the male above the female, that things drastically changed for women. It has only been in the late 20th and 21st centuries that women have been regaining their equal place in their communities. This has been demonstrated all across Turtle Island by the act of women "taking back the drum", a metaphor for advocating and demanding our historical right to play the big drums, and to live our culture wherever, whenever and however we do choose.


Anyone who has to comment on freedom, peace, salvation, gender issues, gender equality in a relentless fashion will never find it. Sadly, Indigenous women continue to be the most marginalized citizens in North America. I have great sorrow for those sisters who choose or who are forced through violence to support the chaotic actions of men who would prevent them from coming into their own power. Those of us at the big drums have an honor song for them and for all people who have lost their voices.


No one has the right to claim ownership, for the simple reason that the drum is a universal (global) female 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, created songs and celebrated feminine power by playing drums of all shapes, ALL SIZES.


Before any of us can claim the nobility of soul, we must first recognize our equal, vital roles in the preservation and sustainability of humanity and Mother Earth. As former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan said, "The role of women in decision-making is central to the advancement of women around the world, and to the progress of humankind as a whole." Thus, does the continuity of peace continue for ALL nations. Therefore, the Nobility of the Female Soul rests on standing in the truth of who we are as "whole people", born to be leaders, decision-makers, mediators, negotiators, the keepers of family history, the centre of the family and community. Global Women comprise more than half the world's population, yet we continue to place ourselves or be placed on the sidelines of our own lives and societies. If we are not standing in the truth of who we are, then to paraphrase Irish poet, William Yeats, the centre cannot hold.


There is nothing in any Native culture that speaks to voice removal unless we are referring to post-European oppressive tactics such as the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Indian Act of 1876, Residential schools, and the imposition of non-Native religions. They all contributed to the loss of the feminine voice. In the case of the prohibition against women playing big drums, the ban only began to insinuate itself into Native cultures in the 1970s, as more false prophets setting themselves up as Elders continued to rewrite history. The 1970s does make for an immutable time-honored tradition!


Does it really make any sense for women to shut down their voices at any time, never mind during important events or ceremonies? Absolutely not. We are simply taking back the drum -- we ask no permission to do so, as it is our right, no less, no more than our right to breath. We are taking back what has always been ours to share, and we deny no one else the right to play the drums. It is not a matter of us verse them, men vs. women, we all have the same right to the drums of our culture. It Simply IS. So, Sisters, Stand Tall, Sing Loud, Drum Proud so that everyone and no-one is listening. See ya’ll at the big drums.


Wilwilaaysk, All My Relations. Nii’sabbat, It is finished.


Watch Video: The Enduring Spirit of Aboriginal Women