Sunday, May 5, 2013

Music Therapy Part Three - Spirit of the Drum

by Chuck Jones

As I mentioned in last week’s blog article, I had the privilege of attending a Native American Christian Church located in East Peoria, Illinois, and had the pleasure of meeting their pastor, Pastor Gary Billiot. Pastor Billiot is Native American. The church is The Native American Fellowship Dayspring United Methodist Church, 201 North Norwood Place, East Peoria, Illinois 61611. 

If you’ve ever been to the EastSide Centre in East Peoria, Illinois to use their fitness center or attend a school baseball or basketball game or go swimming at the Splashdown Water Park you have probably seen the large log cabin building that is the church up on the hill. If you ever want to attend a unique, spiritually uplifting church service, I urge you to attend there on any given Sunday. Their church services start at 1:15pm so try to be there by 1:00.

The church service is basically a Methodist church format similar to most Protestant churches. The congregation is mixed Native American and non-Native American. The atmosphere and dress code is relaxed, non-formal. The congregation is seated in a double row circle around a large ceremonial drum instead of in rows of parallel pews. During the church service five Singers sit around the ceremonial drum, with other church officers sitting behind them. The Call To Worship begins with a prayer led by Pastor Billiot, followed by 
the awakening of the drum, scripture readings, from the bible, by a congregation member, and the sermon by the Pastor. There is even a children's "sermon" led by a lay person reading a Native American story.  

A couple times throughout the service the ceremonial drum is used to offer prayers to God, the Holy Spirit, and our Savior Jesus Christ, to give thanks, to request healing and to provide guidance in our lives. I cannot explain the effect the drum ceremony had on me personally. Suffice it to say it is an uplifting experience.

The bulletin I was handed the day I attended Dayspring contained an insert with following description, written by Pastor Billiot, of what the drum ceremony meant to the Native American culture, how it enriches their lives, and still has meaning to them and to Dayspring today.

The following is that bulletin insert:

We as Native American Indians have a rich culture and because of this Indian drums are probably the most familiar instruments among the Native Tribes and non-Native people alike. From the beginning the Drums have always been at the center of a lifestyle for Native Tribes. This type of relationship and respect forms a meaningful foundation of our religious views, Native American spirituality as well as social gatherings where the drum is represented as the heart of all Native American events. The Native Indian drum has become an essential way of expressing Native American spirituality. Not just music, art or dance but also it is a method of praise to the Creator and honoring Mother Earth who provides the space for dancing, or for gathering for religious purposes.

Embellishing the drum becomes a very spiritual and personal task to the owner. The ones who sit around the drum become communicators who express their inner most spiritual feelings and beliefs in the Creator. They honor and respect the drum not because it holds great significant powers but honor it for what it represents. The drum is, “the bringing together the spirits” of everyone who has touched the drum in a good and positive way. It is honoring the one who have touched the drum and has gone on to the spirit world; the ones who have bled and dripped their sweat on the raw-hide or wood while putting the drum together to bring out that perfect sound. This sound will inspire the listeners and bring them to a special place of spiritual power and energy. In some tribal cultures the Singers (sometimes known as drummers) will place something of personal value inside the drum to permanently join himself with the drum. This has always been a spiritual aspect of life pertaining to Indian beliefs and the Indian drum. In our history we have always used drums in various ways to connect with a higher power known to most as Kitche Manitou, “The Great Spirit”. To the Native people, the drum is much more than just a decoration or a remarkable musical instrument. The drum is believed to speak to the Singer in a positive spiritual way and in turn, this is transferred to the listeners. The circler patterns of the Native drum represent the earth and life cycle and when the drum is awakened it awakens a new spirit in us ready to receive whatever the Great Spirit has for us. The most well-known drums are Indian hand drums used in many personal healing and religious ceremonies as well as public ceremonial Gatherings.

When Native Americans begin to see the drum as a living entity and when the songs and dances are being done by beats of the drum, they begin to find a closer spiritual relationship with the Creator, the mysterious powers of the Great Spirit. These Native American drums are recognized as a living entity, this indicates a strong connection with the Creator. To many Native American tribes the Native drum contains thunder and lightning, and when it is awakened it helps to get the Great Spirits’ attention and it also helps contact the spirits of the Native American ancestors.

With all this in mind when you build a drum, a selected person who is referred to as the drum keeper, will be chosen to watch over the sacred drum. In Native Indian culture this is a highly regarded honor to be the keeper of the sacred drum and in some Indian Tribal culture and custom the drum keeper is usually the oldest son of a selected family.

Because we look at the drum as a living and breathing entity; we believe that the spirits of the tree and animal that the drum was made from live within the drum. We also believe that the beats of the drum help call out to these spirits and the spirit of our ancestors to protect and watch over us. However, it is not just that of the wood and animal skin, it is the power of our Creator that dwells within all living things that brings all this together, (otherwise all we would have to do is go and touch the logs that are sitting on the ground or touch a cow).

Many of the Native American drums differed in sizes among diverse tribes. Also, the drums were completely different and made different according to Native Indian traditions. However, most all of the ancient Native American drums were made from wood with animal skin heads. In addition, depending on where the tribes lived some Native American drums were made from deer skins and others were made from buffalo skins or other type of skin found in the area. These drums were extremely important and sacred to the Native American tribes, and there were many sacred ceremonial guidelines surrounding a drum. Many Native Americans also had other percussion instruments such as hand rattles, which is similar to the drums in the standpoint of honoring the Great Spirit. The drums had many other uses to the Native people and some included healing ceremonies, war preparation dances, good hunting, and even festivals to honor the Creator to help bring a good harvest. There are many handmade Native drums that can be found nationwide on many Native American Indian reservations and at many of these places you can see sequence of events from some of the tribal ceremonies. The beating of the drum is compared to the beating of the human heart and is said to represent the heart beat of Mother Earth, “which is a belief of most traditional Native American”. As a result, the drum in this respect, become the vehicle which connect one's spirit with that of Mother Earth and the Great Spirit throughout the history of Native Americans.


  1. Mitakuye Oyasin, All My Relations. Chi miigwech, Charlie. Thank you for posting this link on Facebook. This is the second time I've been exposed to the Drum used in a Christian Church, and the first with the Drum integrated in church ceremony. The experience you write about, and the Native pastor allowed to explain the tradition and sacredness of the drum are truly remarkable. Less than 40 years ago the Drum keepers, and the Drums were federally outlawed. Chi miigwech.

  2. Michael,
    Thank you for your reply. And thank you for enduring the stupid word verification needed to make your reply. Pastor Billiot is indeed a remarkable person.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.


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