This article was written by Dr. Will Connor for Wyldspirit issue 3 (the September 2014 edition of the Wyldwood Radio e-zine)

A Typical Tlingit Drum

Whilst researching instrument construction as part of my post-bac degree in Ethnomusicology from North Carolina State University, I had the great pleasure and honour of studying music with Elders of the Tlingit Nation. The Tlingit Nation resides in the upper section of the Alaskan pan handle. They are a potlatch matriarchal society that has undergone near decimation and severe changes within their culture as a result of contact with Christian missionaries and various military forces over time. This contact has effected both their music performance practices, musical instrument construction, and their shamanic traditions. Luckily, through some of my research I was able to unravel the ways in which these changes occurred and gained a better understanding of what those changes are and how these practices have survived, albeit in a much transformed manner, to this day.

Prior to the first contact with the Tlingit people by Europeans in the early 1700s, there is little documentation that fully describes shamanistic practices and music performance, even in a general way, but a few travelogues do exist, mostly written by missionaries, who tell us some useful and interesting information. Tlingit shamans, known as Ixt, were not only practitioners of healing and fortunetelling, but they also disseminated morally aware folk tales and were sort of keepers of the Tlingit history along with the clan’s Hit Satee, a person in charge of protecting and maintaining Tlingit culture. An Ixt would tell these stories using a form of drama that involved music and would inject into the stories elements of their shamanistic practice; some openly, some not. The use of ancestral names in these stories was not simply to perpetuate history, but also specifically to invite these ancestors from the spirit realm in order to have them assist the Ixt with solving problems or healing, etc. The dramas often used masks to play the various roles within the tales. Interestingly, the masks were not always the type of mask one may expect, meaning on that fits over the face of the person playing a particular part in the story. Instead the Ixt would perform accompanying music on frame drums and would paint faces of the characters inside the frame drum head, then hold the drum in front of their face, inside facing forward, and crouch down, beating the drum from behind whilst chanting or telling of the character’s actions in the story. The Ixt was said to embody the character, allowing the ancestor to semi-possess them for the duration of the drama/ritual through the playing of the drum with their depiction on it.
A photograph of Tlingit natives from the town of Yakutat circa 1904
A photograph of Tlingit natives from the town of Yakutat circa 1904
This method of painting on the inside of the frame drum was employed up until the missionaries and military took root in Alaska starting from the early 1700s. Over time, up through the late 1800s, missionaries mostly, demanded that the Ixt music and drama practices were pagan/non-Christian and therefore attempted to banish these traditions. Ixt were driven from the clans, stripped of their possessions considered to be magical, and even killed in several cases. The majority of drums were destroyed or buried with the Ixts. Anyone who was caught attempting to replicate these performances would be punished using embarrassment techniques, to washing out their mouths with soap, to torture and occasionally being put to death. These methods of using the Tlingit frame drum almost entirely disappeared as a result.
A photograph of a modern elder. © Dan Heller
A photograph of a modern elder. © Dan Heller
It wasn’t until much later, when Alaska had become a U.S. territory that these drums started reappearing and at that point they had changed significantly. The paintings of ancestors and moieties of the clans because a tourist obsession, and poor Tlingit traders would make or have made drums to sell to travelers. The artwork, then, was no longer for shamanistic use and became merely decorative, so Tlingit artisans began painting on the front of the drum head, assuming the drums would never be played, but only displayed. Furthermore, the images that called forth ancestral spirits could not be misused and were not to be sold to outsiders for their amusement. Instead, the paintings became simulated characters and moiety depictions, with features altered or impossible combinations of clan representations (eg: Magpie and Shark on the same image, for example, would not occur within the Tlingit clans, so it became acceptable to sell artwork of such a made up combination to military personnel on shore leave). Drums at this point were no longer used for Ixt moral dramas or rituals and the practice of which had almost entirely vanished. After Alaska had become an official state, the potlach nations (Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and others) were invited to participate in multinational pow-wows in the Southwest of the United States. It was at these pow-wows that the Tlingit re-learned to make frame drums and reintroduce them into Tlingit song and Ixt performance. The construction difference between the pre-contact and post-contact drums is somewhat minimal, but still noticeable. The performing techniques, however, took a more Southwestern style, standing more or less upright, beating the drum sideways, with the skin, if painted, and displaying artwork on the outside and slightly hidden from the audience. In part, the bending over to play the drum was a leftover from Tlingit drummers avoiding being seen by missionaries when attempting to hold on to their Ixt drama traditions. Today, the performance style has evolved to be a combination of Southwestern playing techniques and reformed Ixt drama techniques as a result. Ixt drama has not yet returned in full to the Tlingit Nation, at least not publicly. The few remaining Hit Satees that are keepers of the clan’s regalia also are supposed to maintain the songs of their clans, including the surviving Ixt dramas, but until the people of the Tlingit Nation feel they are safe to pursue their shaman traditions again, these ancestral communication rituals and music performances will be either kept secret or remain unengaged. Hopefully, not to the point of losing what has been saved all together.
A drum made by Dr Will Connor
A drum made by Dr Will Connor
(There is much more information than space and time afforded me to include here. Names and specifics of my informants and research have been withheld by request of the Elders who taught me. I conducted this research and had these experiences between 1999 and 2003. I maintain their request out of great respect for those willing to share their fantastic knowledge with me.)
Find out more about Dr Will Connor here: http://www.willconnor.co.uk/