In modern times, traditional Indian
music and musical instruments survive. Now there are Indian bands
that play country swing; Indians who play saxophone, bass, and
electric guitar. Some things, sadly, are dying out – bone flutes are
no more and wooden flutes may not survive, being replaced by the
Music and musical instruments play an important part in the lives of
the Native Americans – most music is religious and used in many
traditional rites and ceremonies. Art, theater, medicine, and
religion are all integrated together, overlapping so that there are
often no separate terms for them to the Native American.
Southwestern Indian musical instruments fall into three categories:
(1) percussion, (2) wind, and (3) stringed instruments.
Drums – The drum commands life, and shapes creation; it unites time
and dissolves spaces at will; it brings man into whatever
communication his soul is set upon. Drum playing is an important
part of historic southwestern Indian ceremonies. The "foot drum"
existed before the coming of the Europeans in the 16th century. They
were used by both Hopi and Zuni Indians. For the Zuni’s Scalp
Ceremony, planks are placed in the ground and covered over for the
girls to dance on. This is the door for people inside the earth,
especially dead enemies, who can be reliable rainmakers if treated
properly. The Hopi summer Snake Ceremony – a plank is set into the
ground outdoors in front of a cottonwood bower. Members of the
Antelope and Snake fraternities sprinkle sacred meal on the plank
and stamp upon it. This is a message to the underworld that the
Snake Dance is about to be performed. Snakes are emissaries to the
Portable drums: Not finding any in early southwestern archaeological
contexts, it may be that portable drums among southwestern Indians
are a product of non-Indian influence.
Basket drums: Similarly with portable drums, they may have existed
in prehistoric times, but the material used didn’t survive. Also,
items may have served dual purposes, such as the basket in its
traditional role. It could also have been turned upside down and
material placed over the opening to serve as a drum. Basket drums
are common among Arizona Indians, particularly the Navajo, Papago,
and Quechan (Yuma) tribes. It consists of a closely woven grass
basket. It is inverted on the ground and beaten or scraped with
hands or sticks.
Navajos say that a sacred, specially-made basket must be used. If
used by a medicine man, it must be woven with a prescribed ritual
procedure. It is made of sumac twigs; the only decoration was a
zigzag band of red and black, broken at one point and intersected by
a narrow line of uncolored wood to assist in the placement of the
basket at night. It was most important it be oriented in a certain
manner for use in the ceremonies. It can be played by use of sticks,
bundles of arrowweed, the hands or a handheld gourd rattle. The
making of the drumstick is rigidly prescribed by the Navajos, using
four leaves from a single Yucca baccata plant. Navajos consider much
of their music to be extremely dangerous, unless the person is
specifically trained. After the ritual, the shaman must follow
procedures. The basket is inverted over specific designs so that the
evil taken out of a patient by the drum can escape without harming
Hide drums: This instrument is a stiff deerhide packet, rolled and
tied with thongs, laid upon the ground and beaten with sticks.
Pottery drums: A pottery jar with a flaring rim which has a piece of
hide stretched and tied over the top. Often the jars are filled with
water in a ceremony while sacred songs are sung by the practitioner
as several men pull a moistened buckskin taut over the mount of the
pot. The Zuni also use the pottery drum. A white hide pottery drum
is used by a young girl in the Flower Dance. The Apaches use a large
Wooden body drums: These have single or double heads of animal hide
laced to them and are most commonly used in native ceremonies in
which they provide the basic rhythm for dancing.
Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico is the drum-making center. Mountain
cottonwood is most highly valued for drum making. While deerhide was
used in the past, presently cowhide and horsehide are used. Metal
drums are now being used.
These are divided into two types, depending upon how the sound is
produced. The container form consists of a hollow object in which a
smaller object or objects are placed to make the rattle sound. The
second is a series of objects suspended close together which clatter
when shaken. Gourd rattles are the most common. The most common
rituals using gourd rattles are for bringing rain and to help treat
Plant and Insect Rattles: These are made from plant pods and
cocoons. The Hopis use dry seed pods to amuse their children. The
Navajos use three twigs from the rattle pod weed, called the “wind’s
voice,” as it travels around the earth. The cocoon of the giant silk
moth is used for some present-day ceremonies.
Hide Rattles: Not as common. Used in historic times by the Hopi
Snake, Antelope, and Soyal fraternities. These are wooden hoops over
which dampened skin is stretched. The hide rattle is used in the
Buffalo Dance of Santo Domingo and Cochiti Pueblos and in Navajo
Clay Rattles: Not thought to have the significance of the others.
They were often made in imitation of gourd rattles and used as toys
Turtle Shell Rattles: Common in the southwest. Turtle shells used
both as internal and external rattle, the latter more common in
recent times. Turtle shell rattles are used by the Kuhshari of Santo
Domingo Pueblo who are responsible for providing diversions during
particularly long and intense ceremonies. The rattles are a shell
with two deerskin thongs passed through holes pierced near the
carapace and plastron edges. Pieces of animal hoofs, four to each
thong, are attached to the ends of the thongs hanging from the
carapace. They are tied around the dancer’s knee. The medicine man
during the winter solstice ceremony also wears this around his knee.
Turtle shells are important since “turtles come down from the sky
when it rains and are sometimes found in the mountains, far from
water” – these people live in an area very dependent upon rain. The
Hopi use a similar rattle which has special sacredness, again
fastened to the knee.
Hoof rattles: These are made from only the hoofs of animals,
fastened so that they strike each other and are generally fastened
to belts or suspended from long poles. Navajos use these only for
their Flint Way ceremony, and they have to follow a prescribed
method of preparing them. The Yuma Indians use a hoof rattle, but
only during the cremation ceremony, using the dewclaws.
Miscellaneous rattles: Similar in form to the handled hoof rattle,
animal teeth, shells, copper and tiny jinglers, short chains, and
coins are attached to sticks and other ceremonial items so that they
strike each other.
Rasps: A very common Southwestern Indian musical instrument, the
notched rasp or scraping stick. Numerous rasps have been found at
prehistoric sites and continue to be used in modern ceremonies of
Southwestern tribes. Hopi rasps are used for the Turtle Dance.
During the Niman Kachina ceremony, the going-away of the gods, these
are played by the women while the men dance. The rasp is often used
for kachina dancing and is associated with grinding. The rasp is
also used to produce the croak of a frog to call for rain.
Bullroarers: The bullroarer is a flat, narrow, rectangular blade,
often of greasewood, oak, or cactus wood, suspended from a long
string or cord. The slat of wood is twirled around on the string so
fast that a whirring sound is created. Bullroarers are used in the
Hopi Snake Dance to demonstrate a hope for rain, growth, and
Bells: Copper bells have been the predominant type found in
prehistoric sites. Pottery bells have also been found in prehistoric
sites and have been used by the Indians in historic periods as well
as metal bells and bells made of animal hoofs or horns.
Metal bells: In historic times, metal bells have been used in
ceremonies by the southwestern Indians. Jemez Pueblo Indians wore
circlets of brass bells tied under each knee during the Flute Dance.
Sleigh bells are used frequently today, wrapped around dancers’
bodies as part of the costume. The Cibecue Apaches use bells, eagle
feathers, and other items attached to a wooden staff for the Nai’es
girl’s “coming out” ceremony. Until recently, Indian craftsmen
produced wrought silver bells of varying designs and styles. Navajo
mothers-in-law used to wear a large silver bell around their waist
to warn sons-in-law of their presence.
Hoof and horn bells: Suspended hoofs or horns are mainly classified
as rattles but because of the presence of “clappers” in some, these
are included as bells. Bells of mountain sheep horns with clappers
of the same substance have been found.
Church bells: A recent addition which plays a part in certain
activities. At times, bells of Christian churches and missions are
incorporated into ceremonies as a means of opening them. The Arrow
Dance at Nambe Pueblo uses a church bell as the accompaniment to the
initial procession. The Christmas Eve festival service at Santo
Domingo Pueblo uses a bell struck by three people to cause the sound
of many bells ringing at once.
Kiva bells: Also known as kiva ringing stones or punku – located
primarily in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, they are still
used in modern ceremonies. They are generally long crescent or
rod-shaped stones, often with notches cut into one end. They should
be stones that when struck will ring with the proper tone. In modern
pueblos, they are often suspended, then struck with a second stone.
They have been used by the Pueblo Indians for the purpose of
summoning the men of the village to meetings in the kiva or
ceremonial chamber. Cochiti Indians revere them since they are very
old and found in places where lightning has struck. Santo Domingo
Indians use them in certain ceremonies connected with sickness and
death, and use them in the winter solstice ceremony.
Tinklers: Instrument consisting of hanging items, usually small
shells or pieces of metal which strike each other when the wearer
moves. Shell tinklers used to be the most common. Tinklers can also
be attached to belts or edges of clothing. Santo Domingo Pueblo use
them on the dance kilt in the Buffalo Dance. The Havasupais have
made them of deer eyes (Yuck!).
Whistles: Fairly common prehistoric artifact and used in modern
times for ulitarian purposes such as game calling and for ceremonial
observations. The Zuni used two oblong pieces of bone, and it is
used today by the Bitsitsi in the ceremony of the Shalako rites,
except it’s now made of vegetable matter. Hopis use a bone whistle
to summon the deities. Santo Domingo medicine men use reed whistles.
Hopis use whistles to imitate cries of the eagle. Navajos have
special rules for the use of whistles. Bead Way and Eagle Way
require that the whistle for summoning eagles be made from the femur
of a jackrabbit killed by an eagle. All whistles should use the gum
of a pine tree which has been struck by lightning and gathered by
Navajos who had been captured by enemies during their youth and then
returned to their own people after many years.
Flutes: Found in numerous archaeological sites and used in modern
Bone flutes: Most found from pueblos in the Rio Grande Valley south
of Santa Fe, NM.
Wooden flutes: Found in both historic and prehistoric sties. Elder
is especially popular since it’s easy to hollow out.
Reed flutes: Made of cane or reed, they are somewhat smaller than
wood or bone, made in a different way, and geographic location is
distinctive. The Papagos currently make them of cane. Navajos have
replaced a whistle in their Coyote Way ceremony with a four-holed
flute made from either a big reed or a sunflower stalk. Hopis use a
five-holed flute for their ceremonies. There is a strong association
for the Hopis between the flute and the Locust, which is the musical
and curing patron of the Hopi Flute societies. Locust medicine is
used for wounds. When Locust plays the flute, it causes the snow to
The Yuma legend of the flute involves two boys who were children of
a bird. They went out to get material to make a flute. One took the
material in his hand and said, “The girls will love me when I play
this flute.” The idea of the flute’s being used to lure girls has
remained with the Yumas to the present day. The Apache associate the
flute with love magic – if a young man plays his flute in the
correct manner, the girl he has in mind cannot resist him.
Flute playing is required when corn is planted and ground, according
to traditions of the Santo Domingo Pueblo.
Flutes today: The art of flute making and playing is dying out. Taos
Pueblo used to be known as the center of flute music. Today only a
few old men remember how to play the flute and few instruments
remain in the village. The use of flutes by the Navajos is also
rare. Use of the flute for present ceremonial purposes is most often
associated with the Hopis.
Shell trumpets: Prehistoric and historic Southwest have seen large
shells used as trumpets. A shell was used to imitate the roar of the
Great Plumed Serpent in the Palulukonti and Soyaluna ceremonies of
the Zunis. It was usually blown just at ceremonials, though its
power could be used to bring death to the enemies of the Zuni. The
Hopis used a gourd with a sound hole to represent the hoarse
bellowings of the Great Plumed Serpent.
Musical bows: Rarely used in the Southwest. The Maidu Indians of
northern California and other non-Southwest groups use an ordinary
hunting bow with a tightened bowstring. One end is held in the mouth
while the string is tapped with an arrow or finer nail.
Apache fiddles: Termed “the only native stringed instrument in the
Americas” this is a type of simple fiddle made and played by the
White Mountain and San Carlos Apaches of Arizona. It came into being
fairly recently and believed to be a simple copy of violins made
either by Europeans or Mexicans, which is why it is not used in
Types of musical instruments used by the Southwest Indians have
increased in recent years. Most of the more traditional instruments
are still used in ceremonies and dances, and Western music and
instruments have come into usage, including Hopi Indian rock music