Skip to main content

The True Language of a Pow Wow Drum

  • Author:
  • Updated:

The pow wow season is under way, and the sound of drums—the universal “heartbeat of the nation”—will reverberate in dance arenas around the country.

But in Denver, a major crossroads in Indian country, surprisingly few pow wow-goers may actually understand the words that accompany some drum songs—veterans’ songs, for example-- rather than just hearing the vocables, or syllabic sounds, that accompany others. The same gap is likely true at other pow wows.

Doug Goodfeather, Lakota, leads a drum group that carries his grandfather’s drum’s name, Rock Creek Drum, from the South Dakota side of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. His name, Goodfeather (“Wiyaka Waste’”), was derived from both who he is as a Hunkpapa Lakota and also from who he is in terms of his personal character. It was given him as a small boy in ceremony by his grandmother after an eagle flew at him in attack mode and then shot skyward, leaving a feather behind.

The values of his Hunkpapa band are embodied in Sitting Bull, to whom Goodfeather’s grandmother always referred to as “Grandpa Sitting Bull” not “Chief Sitting Bull,” he said, adding he has not done the genealogy that might describe lineal descent.

He estimates that only a very small percentage of the 40,000-some Native residents along the Rocky Mountains’ Front Range are regular pow wow attendees or participants who really know and understand the songs.

For the majority who don’t understand the words, a century and more of history may be slipping past with each drumbeat.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn is told in a series of six victory songs (called When the Battle Happened) sung in order, Goodfeather said, explaining that the songs tell of defending the women and children, what happened with Custer, events leading up to the battle, and the battle itself.

In addition to learning the words, drum groups singing those songs accompany them with three kinds of drumbeats—honor, round dance, and straight beat-- which differ in pattern and tempo, he said, alluding to the complexity behind what appears straightforward to casual pow wow attendees.

A pow wow drum has to know at least 30 songs, including four for each of six main dance categories, he estimates, and having had a good teacher will bring anyone out into the circle, said Goodfeather, who is also a men’s fancy dancer: “Teach others to sing in a proper way and any drum can get anybody out there.”

His is a northern drum, with songs sung at a higher key (“B or C, can’t go much higher than that”) than southern drums.

Andy Cozad, lead singer for his nationally known Waterbird Drum Group, a southern drum, said he doesn’t have an exact count of the number of songs his group has to know. If they are host (main) drum, “We prepare for the grand entry, we often sing an appropriate Kiowa veteran song, some without words from the Kiowa O-Ho-Mah Lodge wardance society.

“After that, we sing our traditional Kiowa flag song equal to the national anthem, then a victory dance song, as the veterans are posting colors, which can be a Kiowa veteran or an original O-Ho-Mah Lodge song.”

Scroll to Continue

Read More

As with the Rock Creek Drum and other northern and southern drum groups, the songs sung in contest pow wows are appropriate to the dance category: “In other words, we don’t sing whatever song that might sound good, but appropriately and significantly according to that dance category,” Cozad said.

The pow wow progresses through grand entry, where “the drum is telling the people to be vigilant, that the dancers are coming in, and stand for the veterans and the eagle staffs,” Goodfeather said. The grand entry song may be in vocables, or in Lakota, Cree, Ojibwe, Three Affiliated, or other tribal languages. Flag and victory songs follow, the latter often telling a veteran’s or warrior’s story, he said.

Contest dance categories follow, as well as intertribal dances in which everyone is invited to participate. There may be special categories and honoring dances, so in addition to sheer number of songs, the dances require songs of different types.

The men’s traditional dance category often uses words, rather than vocables, Goodfeather said, and maintains a dignified tempo. Men’s grass dance may include veterans’ songs or vocables and is usually slower-paced, while men’s fancy dance can include trick songs that attempt to catch the dancer off-guard. Often the words talk about the speed of a dancer.

Women’s traditional contest songs talk about women in their historical role as the backbone of the nation, while jingle dress dance songs talk about healing, and fancy shawl contest dancing songs are about speed and agility.

Drum songs for each category basically begin with a theme sung by the lead singer and repeated by the rest of the drum, with a repeated chorus punctuated by four or more distinct honor beats, after which the sequence begins again for an undetermined number of repetitions.

“In Lakota, the honor beats show the good feeling you have—the joy of living,” Goodfeather said.

While warrior/victory songs may have originated centuries ago, veterans’ songs in the stricter sense began during World War I, Goodfeather said. “We still came to the call of duty because we loved our country and our people and our ways,” he said, noting that American Indians were the largest enlistment, proportionately, “even before we were U.S. citizens.”

The songs weave their way through the history of tribal nations, engaging those who compose them as well as those who sing them.

Songs are composed for loved ones or to capture an experience, Goodfeather said. People may offer tobacco to have a song composed. “When they ask me , I ask them questions about how they live.”

Goodfeather was in the Iraq invasion and in the fighting afterward saw soldiers killed and wounded.

From the desert heat of the lowlands, they were sent on a mission toward Kurdish regions in Turkey, where snow in the mountains reminded him of home.

“I made a prayer—I heard a woman singing in my prayer, and the prayer I was saying I used for the words,” he said. “ That’s a veteran’s song.”