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Passing on the Culture: The Delaware Water Drum Story

Passing on the Culture: The Delaware Water Drum Story
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Press Release

A group of Delaware men met, as they often do on Tuesday nights, at the Delaware Community Center to drum and sing. This particular evening was special because elder Dee Ketchum, from the Delaware Tribe of Indians, was teaching Bear Tompkins, 25, how to tie the water drum for the first time.

First, a piece of buckskin is wet and stretched over a small brass kettle. The brass kettle is then filled about one-quarter full with water.

“One of the Jackson boys gave me these stones. We tie [the drum] off with the seven,” Dee Ketchum said.

According to Ketchum, the perfect number of the ancestors was seven. When the drum is finished, there should be a seven-point star on the bottom of the kettle made from the rope crossing back and forth.

“This is special rope…I had to go to Hominy to get it. You have to have a rope that won’t stretch,” Ketchum said.

The end of a deer antler is used to measure the distance between each stone. There is a mark notched into the antler for this purpose. Under the leather, stretched over the drum, each stone is placed one-by-one, and the rope is wrapped around them.

Once the rope is secured around the stone under the leather, Ketchum instructed Tompkins about what to do next.

“I just hold onto the drum and hold the rope down,” he said.

“You have it. Get it really good and tight or it will pull out,” Ketchum said as Tompkins finished securing the first stone.

Ketchum continued with his instructions as Tompkins tied the drum: “I start with the first stone over that first leg. You put the next stone in after measuring it right up on the lip.

“For each stone, you do the same thing. Measure it off, put it up underneath there, take the stone and tie it off.”

“Tie off all the stones first, then [with the rope] you start going under [the kettle],” ketchum explained. “There really aren’t many people who know how to tie the water drum.”

“When you pull them, you’ll see how important it is to have them tight. The frustrating thing is you get half way around and a stone starts to come out,” he explained.

“It just takes practice.”

And then he explained the hardest part about making the drum.

“Bring the rope under the brass kettle to the other side by going over the top and then holding the drum and stepping on the secured rope; secure it on the other side,” Ketchum said.

As Tompkins patiently stood on the rope to tighten it, Ketchum said: “[s]ome guys just jump on it.”

After a few minutes, Ketchum instructed Tompkins: “take your foot off. It’s twisted and then you secure it on the other side.

“Then you stick the remaining rope in there or you go around it,” Ketchum said.

Courtesy Delaware Tribe of Indians

ear Tompkins ties the water drum using a deer antler to measure the distance between the stones beneath the buckskin.

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After about 45 minutes, the drum was finished and the group began singing. They started with a song, which began, “Hey Johnny Boy” and continued in the Lenape language. “Ho ha way ho ya na…”

Ketchum told the group that the leather had been secured well, and that the drum would become tighter as it dried.

“He did pretty good for his first time,” Ketchum said.“Do you think you can remember that?”

“I hope,” Tompkins said.

“In the old days, they’d use a hollowed out log. Leave the bottom in it,” said Todd Thaxton, who was among the men sitting in the circle.

“They would burn them out to hollow them out like they did the canoes. They’d get rawhides to put over -- the tighter, the better. If too tight, it’s hard to tie down,” Thaxton added.

Ketchum handed Tompkins the drum and he tried it out.

Then Tompkins called his mom, “Mom, listen to this. It’s the drum I just tied!”

The group sang several songs using the water drum.

Regarding the songs, Ketchum said, “I know about 20 – 25 of these. Go Get ‘Em and the Duck Dance are easiest to learn. The Keetoowah is the hardest to learn; it’s kind of a love song. Only the women start that dance. You’re kind of calling in the women.”

“Fred Falleaf found some tapes of Bill Shawnee, but he died before he could give them to me. We’ve lost so many songs. These songs had meanings to them. We use these in our social dances; they’re not Pow Wow or war songs for us. Once a year they came together and sang these songs. In particular, the cultural dances were held at harvest time to show their appreciation for the growth of the vine that fed all the people. We sang the songs for that reason. The songs were to socialize. They’re not ceremonial songs.”

With regard to the stomp dances, Ketchum explained: “These songs are done out around a fire after the sun’s gone down. Delaware go counter-clockwise around the fire. When Bear [Tompkins] was headman dancer, he went counter-clockwise. He did it the right way.”

The reason for dancing counter-clockwise is that on the left is where one’s heart is, he said.

“All the good feelings come from the heart side. That’s why we shake hands left-handed because that’s on the heart side and then all the good feelings go to the drum and go up to our Creator.

“I say, ‘don’t even come out to dance unless you have good feelings.��”

Chief Paula Pechonick, recalled a time when a group had gone to Saint Angelo and Ketchum was tying the drum that day.

Chief Pechonick said, “it was a very hot day and Dee had a hard time, but he got it tied before it was time to drum!”

Ketchum added, “Our ancestors used this smaller drum. They used the kettle a lot when they became available. They brought the crock or pot. That goes way back. Other tribes also use the water drum.”

“We’re not a peyote people, but other tribes use [the water drum] in those ceremonies too -- Osage, for example.”

After the evening of singing was over, the drum was disassembled, and the water emptied from the kettle.

As the evening concluded, Ketchum said, “the culture is the most important thing -- more important than individual recognition. At some point, we’ll all be gone, but hopefully, they’ll keep our culture alive.

“The culture identifies the tribe and that’s why we’re trying to keep it alive. Without it, we might as well be a club.”

The water drum is on display at the Bartlesville Area History Museum’s Delaware Tribe exhibit with a life-sized replica of Ketchum playing the drum.