Simply put, without a drum, there is no powwow. The drum consists of the instrument and its singers. It is the center of the arena and the center of attention. The drum sings songs for all occasions – from a contest song, to a birthday song, flag songs, memorial songs, veteran's songs, intertribal songs, etc. Drums travel many miles to attend powwows and will sometimes sing for eight hours straight, giving their all to make the dance successful. Good drums draw the best dancers, so every powwow committee tries to get the best drum possible.
Drum (Instrument) – The actual drum is made from a wooden shell covered in rawhide. Today, cowhide is usually used although a buffalo hide drumhead is not unheard of. The average size drum is about 26 inches in diameter and can seat about eight men around it. In the Northern style of singing, drums are smaller and are often commercial bass drums, like those used in marching bands. The sticks used to strike the drum are usually thin fiberglass rods with a leather handle and padded leather head. There are about 10 people on an average drum – 7 or 8 men and 2 or 3 ladies. In the Southern tradition, ladies are not seated at the drum or allowed to strike it, but instead sit on the second row behind the men. The people on a drum are required to know many songs because a good drum is expected to be able to sing an entire dance without repeating a song. A song is started by the lead singer, who will not announce the song, he simply begins with the lead. Today, there are many fine drums that travel the powwow circuit, spreading their songs throughout the continent. Most drums write their own songs, a task that requires talent and blessings from above.
To newcomers, songs can be the most puzzling aspect of a powwow. It is not uncommon to hear visitors say, "I didn't know that you were singing different songs". This is far from the truth - there are literally thousands of songs that have been composed, with more being composed each year. Every song has its unique characteristics and subtle effects. It takes time for a newcomer to adjust to hearing the differences in songs beyond the obvious. One of the differences between Southern style powwows and the Northern style are the way the songs are sung. Northern songs are sung in a much higher falsetto voice and follow a different format in the way they are arranged. There are songs written for all occasions, as well as for families and individuals. The following is a listing of some of the specific song categories:
Flag Songs – Just as the United States has its own National Anthem, almost every tribe has its flag song, which is the song dedicated to the flags that are brought in during Grand Entry. The Flag Song is sung every time the flags are brought in, and every person in the arena must stand and be silent to give the flag its proper respect.
Contest Songs – Contest songs are written to test the dancer's skill. They often speed up quickly or stop in unexpected places for judges to determine who among the dancers is the best. Contest songs are usually written to suit a particular dance style, such as Jingle or Grass Dance.
Intertribal – Intertribal are the most common form of a song. They are sung for everyone to dance or are used as an all occasion song. There are sets of three or four Intertribal songs throughout powwows to break up the monotony and get everyone back on their feet and dancing.
Veteran Songs – There are very few people in the Native American culture who are as highly regarded as veterans. Going back hundreds of years, Veteran Songs have been sung to honor their actions and this tradition continues today. In the 20th century, Veteran Songs were written for WWI and WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. Several tribes have their own Veteran Songs. When a Veteran Song is sung, all those who can, must stand, and remove their hats in respect for those who have served their country.
Quitting Songs – It is customary at the end of a powwow to close the dance with a Quitting Song. This is a slower song and it is given respect. All should rise when a Quitting Song is sung and not talk or try to leave. This is a custom from long ago that should be respected.
Honor Songs – Spectators should always stand and remove caps or hats when an Honor Song is being sung. These songs are requested to honor an individual or family. The reason for the request varies from someone returning home or to the circle, or in memory of a deceased relative. In some Native traditions, people with Indian names have their own song, while others have a 'generic' honor song. Request for an honor song is usually made prior to the powwow to a member of the committee, who works with the arena director to decide when the song would be performed and by which drum. It is customary for the person requesting the song to give a gift to the drum (singers) and usually the Powwow Committee for making the arrangement.