Grass Dance drum - ROM2020_17813_9


Grass Dance drum

Maker: Plains Cree/Lakota (Sioux)
Medium:Wood, hide, metal, paint, golden eagle feathers, dyed porcupine quills
Geography: Battleford, Saskatchewan
Date: c. 1885
Drum: 48 x 21 cm
Leg:s 63 (less feather) x 5.5 cm
Sticks: 65 x 5.5 cm
Object number: NS31903A
Credit Line: Gift of Mr. Frank Yeigh
Not on view

The wooden frame of this Grass Dance drum is bound with a rivetted metal strap and is probably adapted from a cut-down barrel. The heads are formed from a single, bi-lobed piece of hide sewn tightly over the frame. Inside the drum is a single jingle-bell. When played, the drum was raised above the ground, suspended by its loops from four support stakes, or legs, that were planted into the earth. The legs are painted yellow and the upper drumhead with a blue ring. The legs were also decorated with brass tacks and eagle feathers with dyed porcupine quillwork. Finally, there are two wooden drumsticks with spatulate ends. More typically, drumsticks were round and wrapped with hide or cloth to muffle the sound, and presumably protect the drum. This drum would most likely have been played by four singers. 

In earlier times, the peoples of the Great Plains of North America exclusively accompanied their dances with hand-drums played by groups of individual singers. The practice of singing around a single, large drum came about in the 1870s and it became popularized through the Grass Dance society. The Grass Dance traces its roots to ceremonies of the Omaha and Pawnee tribes. Its major diffusion occurred soon after the advent of the big drum and, at the same time, the Sioux added songs and social features that made the dance much more appealing. After that, it quickly passed from one tribe to another until it became the most wide-spread dance society on the plains. It is said that sometime after the Sioux had defeated the U. S. Cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 and had taken refuge in Canada, they transferred the regalia, songs, and rituals of the Grass Dance Society to the Plains Cree of Poundmaker’s First Nation. Given these circumstances, the Grass Dance was often known among the Northern Plains tribes as the Sioux Dance, and the drum was often called the Sioux Drum. 

The collection documentation states that this drum is a "Cree Sioux war drum" taken from Poundmaker’s band. Although at intervals dancers would pantomime warlike deeds, the Grass Dance society principally fostered peace on the plains as it passed between tribes who were formally at enmity. Nonetheless, perhaps because the drum was collected in 1885 at a time when First Nation communities violently confronted Settler populations in the Battleford area, it was thought to have been used "by the chiefs to work up the war spirit." 

The documentation also states that a government Indian Agent forcibly took the drum while a dance was in progress by making "all manner of threats" such as, "shutting down the grub pile" (government food rations).  Poundmaker’s people had formerly lived off the buffalo, however around 1880 the herds disappeared, and like other plains tribes they became reliant on government rations.

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