Drum making, an act of healing for Indigenous women

Although German, Walburga Wallner was fascinated by the Indigenous cultures, especially the mocassins she learned to bead.

Five years later, she’s at the Fraser River Indigenous Society drum-making workshop to teach First Nation, Metis and Inuit women how to make them.

She met an elder who taught her how to weave a drum and its significance in Indigenous cultures.

“It’s not just a drum, it’s a prayer tool,” Walburga says.

For her, drumming is the heartbeat of her people. But Indigenous women were prohibited from drumming and Pierre never questioned it because back then, she recalls, elders were stern.

Before the workshop begins a group of First Nation, Metis and Inuit women sit together in the dining room where snacks are served.

As everyone grabs a bite, a round of introductions begins. Each person has a unique story to share about why they are attending this workshop.

For many of these women, it is the first time they would weave a drum, something that was stolen from them in the aftermath of colonization.

Read: In Conversation: FRIS hosts traditional kitchen to reclaim what was once stolen

The last woman to introduce herself is Colleen Pierre, an Elder from Tsawwassen First Nation who lives in Maple Ridge.

She inaugurates the ceremony with the Canoe Journey Paddle Song.

A rattle in her left hand and the right hand on her heart, she sings in high notes as everyone in the room stands still and in silence, lightly tapping their hands.

This is a song shared in healing ceremonies, funerals, weddings and celebrations.

It’s a healing song, Pierre shares.

“If you have mixed emotions, the more you get into the song, you get strength. Imagine, paddling a canoe and you’re digging – you paddle deep to make you feel better [about the emotions you’re feeling],” she says.

Pierre has been teaching women and children to make drums for five years. And this brings back many memories from her childhood.

The first time Pierre made a drum, she was 19 years old.

“My late brother-in-law was making drums and I helped him because his wrists were hurting. Even though I made it for the first time, it came naturally to me and he was shocked that I had never done this before,” she says.

drum making in process
An animal hide and cedar bark are used to make drums in Indigenous cultures/Ayesha Ghaffar

For her, drumming is the heartbeat of her people. But Indigenous women were prohibited from drumming and Pierre never questioned it because back then, she recalls, elders were stern.

Once, there was a child who was extremely hyper and it would take him three hours to calm down but after attending a drum-making workshop, he started listening to Indigenous songs, with his little drum by his side. Now, it only takes him 30 minutes to calm down.

Pierre shares to highlight the power of a drum.

For these Indigenous women, re-learning their traditions is a process of healing, too.

“I’ll paint a hummingbird on my drum because my father loves them and then gift it to him because the first time you make anything, you have to gift it,” shared Sarah who’s Cree and Metis.

For Starr Mang, it’s a way to reconnect with her late son.

“I made a drum with my son 15 years ago but it got stolen when we moved. I’m going to paint this with something that speaks to him like dancing in the stars and playing it [for him],” Mang says.

The act of weaving a drum once again is like medicine to her and makes her feel closer to her late son.

Woman holding a drum she made
Attending this drum-making workshop is Starr Mang’s way to reconnect with her late son, something they once did together/Ayesha Ghaffar

A drum is more than an instrument in Indigenous cultures and needs to be respected, just like a living being. Indigenous cultures believe that the spirit of the animal needs to be awakened when using the drum and using it as decoration diminishes its voice.

Drums are traditionally made from cedar tree bark and animal hide and tied seven times to represent the seven Indigenous teachings; love, wisdom, courage, respect, honesty, humility and faith.

And out of this respect for the animal who gave its life for the drum, it should be played even if a person doesn’t know Indigenous songs.

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