The importance of drumming for the Dene

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Drumming, dance and song are an important cultural practice for Indigenous peoples across the country, with practices varying from community to community.

The Yellowknives Dene First Nation Drummers bring a crowd together for an afternoon of lively drum dancing at Somba K’e in June 2018.
NNSL file photo

As Indigenous People’s Day draws closer, Bobby Drygeese of the Yellowknives Dene Drummers shares the importance of drum and dance in contemporary Dene life with News North.

“Everyone says it’s the heartbeat,” said Drygeese. “It’s how life begins for us, with the heartbeat, so it’s important for Dene people to listen to the drums together.”

Drygeese says a lot of drumming typically happens when the community gets together, from formal ceremonies to more casual events.

“A lot of times a lot of people are in for meetings or travelling from different places, so we’ll get the drums out and do songs and dances,” he said. “When we’re playing our drum songs, for ceremony we start with prayers.

“A lot of these songs are about giving thanks to the Creator and ancestors and when we think about the wellbeing of our families. We give thanks because we wouldn’t be here without our ancestors being strong and the blessings of the Creator.”

Dancing usually does not accompany prayers, often being more solemn and thoughtful, but after the prayers the celebrating begins.

“A lot of the time it depends on the kind of ceremony being held but we drum a lot of celebration songs as well and for those a lot of people will get up and dance,” he said.

For Drygeese and many members of the Dene community, this is something they’ve grown up around and participating is particularly important because it keeps the traditions alive.

“As a kid you would see your parents drumming, your grandparents drumming and a lot of elders and leaders were drumming,” said Drygeese.

“Not everyone in the community can or will drum, it just depends on the families and how connected you are to your community.”

Right of passage

Receiving a drum to participate is a right of passage in a way, and it is something that must be given, he says.

“An elder or leader will give you a drum,” said Drygeese. “You don’t just get up there and start hitting one, so it’s really important when you’re young to receive one.”

When it comes to actually making the drum, it always comes from the land, with the skin coming from harvested caribou hide and the wood coming from a tamarack tree. This process involves spiritual practices and giving thanks.

“Every time you take an animal or tree you’ve got to be respectful and pay for the animal and take care of the meat and take care of the hide, take care of the bones and everything as much as possible,” said Drygeese. “You must also give an offering for the tree,”

Using the drum right away and often is also very important,

“You can’t let it just sit there because the trees and the animals are moving on the land,” said Drygeese. “So out of respect you keep the drums moving, because they will crack and break if left to sit.”

Once a young person receives the drum, they learn by ear and practice at ceremonies, following the lead of an elder or community leader who would begin the song.

Drumming, he says, is still quite popular with the young generation who are keen to participate.

“They’re always drumming when they’re out at celebrations and learning,” said Drygeese.

“There is lot of drummers all the time in our First Nation and it’s always been that way for us. We want to make sure they learn together.”

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