Powwows feature distinct music that is recognized by many as the central, unifying feature of these culturally meaningful gatherings. Powwows commonly feature three or more drum groups, also referred to as Drums, each one comprised of five or more singers who strike a large drum in unison. The drum groups take turns performing songs for the powwow, with the type of song determined by the purpose of the dance (e.g., an intertribal social dance to which everyone can dance, a competition dance for a specific style of dance, or a flag, honour or healing song as requested by a powwow organizer or attendee). Further distinctions for song selection are based upon the dance competition categories (e.g., men’s fancy, women’s jingle, etc.) (see Powwow Dances).
The musicians in each powwow Drum strike the drum together and sing a song that they have selected that suits the dance or powwow activity. In most cases, powwow drums are only struck by men, with women serving in a supportive capacity, standing behind the seated men and joining in singing at particular points in the song. Common practices and cultural teachings prescribe this gender restriction; however, some all-women’s and mixed-sex drum groups have gained prominence and success, such as the Crying Woman Singers.
Although individual musicians and drum groups travel across North America to perform, to learn new repertoire and to visit with family and friends, drum groups often have a distinct style, based on the musical tendencies of its members. For example, language differences will impact on the sound produced by a Mi’kmaq drum group when compared with a Cree drum group, and the singing style and drumming patterns may also change according to the region in which a drum is located. Some Drums perform their songs in a lower singing range, whereas others have men singing at the uppermost extreme of their vocal range. Regional variation is also evident in the song selection; while many groups will perform the same powwow songs, some groups will also incorporate nation-specific music in their repertoire, such as the Prairie Chicken Dance or the Haudenosaunee Smoke Dance in the Ontario–Québec region. These regional songs sometimes require different instruments (e.g., water drums and rattles instead of a powwow drum) and singing styles (relaxed versus “strained” singing voices).
Powwow Drums can include non-Indigenous, Métis and Inuit singers, although they are mostly comprised of First Nations peoples. Groups can be based within a particular community, organization or First Nation, and they can also be intertribal in character, comprised of individuals from different Nations (e.g., Cree, Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, etc.).
Roles and Membership of Powwow Drum Groups
Within each drum group, specific roles are fulfilled by individual members. The head singer has a large repertoire of songs in his memory, and he usually selects appropriate songs that the group performs. The lead singer starts the songs, with the other group members joining in after the opening notes of the lead singer; this pattern is repeated throughout the duration of a song’s performance, generally with at least four repetitions of this song structure.
The drum keeper is responsible for the physical and spiritual care of the drum, transporting and storing the drum, ensuring its integrity as a musical instrument and giving it offerings of tobacco and smudging before it is played to acknowledge its spiritual significance. At performance venues, members of the Drum ensure that the instrument is never left unattended, for both practical reasons (e.g., not wanting it to be stolen) and for spiritual reasons (respecting the drum by not leaving it alone). Members of the drum group follow the teachings of the powwow drum, which includes being respectful of the instrument, keeping the area around their drum clean at powwows, and maintaining a clean and healthy lifestyle.
Normally, there is a core group of singers for each powwow Drum; however, “drum hopping” — in which individuals join other Drums — can happen, based on the event and the needs of the drum group. Sometimes singers will join other drum groups if they are friends or acquaintances with group members, or to join in the performance of a specific song. However, there are also many powwows that absolutely prohibit drum hopping.
The group determines which powwows and activities it will attend and participate in. Usually, if the group is awarded a prize for competing or an honorarium at a powwow, the winnings are shared amongst the members.
Reasons for Participating
Some powwow Drums perform for their own purposes or entertainment, or to support community events. Others are interested in pursuing high-profile reputations as a powwow Drum. Drums may have local reputations within their community and the surrounding area, and others have more renowned statuses, with recording contracts, websites, CDs and recordings for sale on iTunes. Each member of a drum group participates at a powwow drum for their own reasons, which can include the pride they feel in their Indigenous heritage, the sense of belonging to a musical group and the personal pleasure they experience by making music with other people.
Many musicians are proud of the joy they bring to dancers and audiences of their music, and they recognize the importance of powwow music to cultural revitalization for First Peoples across Canada. Powwow singers are highly regarded for their musical talents, and for contributing music to important social and spiritual gatherings for their families and communities. They are also respected for the cultural knowledge that they learn and share with Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences, fostering cross-cultural understanding through their music.
Powwow Drum Names
The names of drum groups can be based on their home community, a family name or they can choose a name of personal significance to the group members. Some prominent powwow drum groups include the Northern Cree Singers, Bear Creek Singers, Black Bear Singers, Red Bull, Midnite Express, The Boyz and Young Spirit.
Northern Cree is just one example of a prestigious drum group. Performing for more than 30 years, the group, originating from the Saddle Lake Cree First Nation near Edmonton, Alberta, has received numerous music awards for their recordings. They have taken many first place positions and have been award “best drum group” at various many powwow competitions across North America. As a result, Northern Cree has been inspirational to many other drum groups and powwow musicians.
Red Bull Singers also has a long history as a powwow drum group, singing together for over 25 years. The Red Bull Singers, from the Little Pine Cree Nation near North Battleford, Saskatchewan, are highly regarded powwow musicians. They also gained notoriety for Edmund Bull’s co-creation of the Juno-award-winning round dance song “Darling Don’t Cry” with Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Other, more locally celebrated Drum groups include: the Sitting Bear Singers from Wikwemikong, Ontario; the Ottawa River Singers from Ottawa, Ontario; Eastern Eagle, a Mi’kmaq group from Nova Scotia; and the Black Bear Singers, a drum group from Manawan, Québec. Drum groups perform at powwows, community events, public rallies and private gatherings to support Indigenous issues in Canada.