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The Ojibwa Dance Drum: Its History and Construction by Thomas Vennum (review)
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Originally published in 1982 as a volume in the Smithsonian Folklife Studies series, this ethnography and history of a revitalization movement and the musical instrument that provided its point of focus remains the most important scholarly source on its subject. Vennum worked over a 15-year period with drummaker William Bineshi Baker, Sr., to produce a thorough treatment of the history of the Drum (a spiritual protocol), its place in the religious economy of the Ojibwe and other American Indian communities in the Upper Midwest, and the processes involved in construction of the large drum (a musical instrument used ceremonially) that provides spiritual centering. The work also draws upon previous field-based studies, including ethnographies from the late nineteenth century when the Drum was emerging as an important spiritual dimension of Ojibwe life. The Minnesota Historical Society’s reissue of the work in a paperbound version differs from the original only in the addition of an afterword by historian Rick St. Germaine, who provides some information on the status of the Drum during the generation since Vennum’s work in the 1970s.

According to its etiological legend, the Drum movement began probably in the 1870s with the vision of Tailfeather Woman, a “Sioux” who received spiritual instructions about how to stop the massacre of her people by United States soldiers. When they began to beat the drum and perform the requisite ritual, fighting between Indians and whites ceased. As soldiers observed how participation in Drum rituals created joy among the Indians, they realized that peace could exist between the two peoples vying for control of the northern plains and woodlands. Moreover, the peace represented by the Drum extended to the ancestral hostilities that had existed between Sioux and Ojibwe as well as other Native groups in the region. Nor did the Drum elicit the fears engendered by the contemporary Ghost Dance; it survived the purging of indigenous religious beliefs and practices that characterized US Indian policy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Drum had, in fact, been fundamental to spirituality among several Indian societies, now cooperating at least in this religious movement after years of enmity, for almost a century by the time Vennum conducted his research.

The Drum spread among various communities during its emergence and development, and Vennum carefully traces its routes of dissemination. In fact, an important feature of Drum ceremonialism has been handing over a particular drum by one community to another. Tailfeather Woman’s instructions for this aspect of the Drum agenda promoted peaceful relations among various communities. Though Vennum’s focus is on Ojibwe manifestations of Drum and drum, both the spirituality and the musical instrument have become pan-Indian phenomena in the Upper Midwest. Vennum notes that the Drum has roots in previously existing ceremonial activities such as the Plains Grass Dance, but demonstrates that innovations, particularly the use of a single large drum as accompaniment to dance, made the Drum distinctive.

Although the ceremonial dimensions of the Drum are important, Vennum stresses the significance of the musical instrument itself. Regarded as a sentient spiritual entity, the drum receives special attention. It enjoys a place of honor in the home of its “owner,” who ensures that it will not touch the floor. People must behave decorously in its presence, and they should pay visits to it periodically.

Almost half of Vennum’s book treats the process of constructing the drum, which became by the early twentieth century the most important musical instrument among the Ojibwe. For each component—the drum itself as well as decorations and accessories—he describes general construction methods and design patterns taken from earlier literature and then treats the specific procedures of his consultant Baker. He notes variations that have occurred over time, from community to community, and among different drummakers, and connects specifics in the physical appearance of the drum with the ritual symbolism associated with the Drum. Vennum has drawn not only on written ethnographies to supplement his own observations, but the extensive photographic record as well. He uses photographs and diagrams dating from as early as the late nineteenth century to depict every aspect of the drum’s appearance. Photographs also enhance his...

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