frame drum (Yakama/Yakima)

Title: Heartbeat: Voices of First Nations Women—Stick Game Song; Mary Ann Meanus and Verbena Green, singers and frame drums. Label: Smithsonian Folkways. Format: CD. Catalogue#: SF CD 40415. Track: 12.

Contextual Associations

This Native American frame drum membranophone originated with the Yakama (also Yakima) people whose reservation is situated in the south-central part of the state of Washington, U.S.A. It left the Yakama Reservation in the summer of 1959 when it was purchased at a pawnshop in Toppenish, the main reservation settlement, by an outsider. After passing through an unknown number of collectors it was acquired by the Grinnell College collection in 2017—the drum is therefore at least 60 years old, and in all likelihood even older. It therefore was created and used in Yakama life at the time when many of the anthropological writings about this group were being researched. At that time, the primary context of use of this variety of drum by the Yakama was in their Washat religion, also referred to as the “Longhouse” and “Seven Drum” religion. Walker and Schuster (1998) describe Washat as “a complex mixture of older elements including vision questing, tutelary spirit power, and, in some locations, shamanistic curing, along with various Christian elements, in a distinctive nativistic framework in which the tribal language, behavioral norms, morality, relations, beliefs, and customs are perpetuated” (p. 502). This syncretic religion was at the time practiced in several reservation longhouses and included in its practice the use of seven drums and drummers (seven being a sacred ritual number) situated at the West end of the ceremonial space. Washat ceremonies included the singing of seven sacred songs, one by each of the drummers as all the singer-drummers kept the beat. Other participants in the ceremony would dance on the dirt floor at the center of the longhouse as the songs were being performed. The Yakama also used, and still use, the frame drum in other contexts, including intertribal pow-wows. The deerskin drumhead of the frame drum pictured here has been stained a purplish-red color, possibly with huckleberries (a seasonal source of food for the Yakama), but it is not known if this decoration carries any symbolic meaning.


The frame of this drum appears to be constructed from locally-produced birch bark plywood.  Several slats of approximately 3-inch wide and 4- to 12-inch long plywood were used in its construction. It appears that two thicknesses of plywood were used: 3-ply (about 5/16-inch thick) on the outside of the frame; and 2-ply (about 3/16-inch thick) on the inside (see detail #1). These slats of varying length and thickness are staggered so that the ends of the slats used for the outside of the frame do not coincide with those on the inside. Numerous tacks are used to secure these inside- and outside-layers of the frame to one another (see detail #2). The resulting length of 3-inch wide and ½-inch thick plywood (approximately 56 inches for this drum) is then bent (possible with the aid of steam) into a roughly circular form with its two ends secured together with a final slat of wood and tacks (see detail #3). A circular, berry-stained deerhide membrane of greater diameter than that of the frame itself is lapped over the frame. A pliant hoop, which holds the drumhead in place and introduces a basic level of tension to it, is made by tying tightly together the ends of a length of rawhide lacing that runs through several perforations just inside the circumference of the head (see detail #4). Further drumhead tension is added with four lengths of twisted rawhide that connect the membrane hoop across the width of the back of the drum, creating four intersecting diameters (see detail #5). Another length of twisted rawhide is woven around the intersecting point of these diameters at the center of the backside of the drum to create a decorative grip that also serves as a convenient handle by which the performer holds the drum (see detail #6). No beater came with this drum, but pictures showing such drums being played illustrate that a single stick beater, perhaps 16-18 inches long with the half of it that comes into contact with the drumhead covered with thin cloth padding, is used to sound the drum.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player of this frame drum holds the decorative grip at the center of the backside of the instrument with his or her left hand. From photographs of the drum being played it is evident that the playing head is positioned in front of the performer anywhere from nearly horizontally to nearly vertically, or at any angle between them. The beater, with its lightly-padded end, is held in the player’s right hand and is used to strike the drumhead. It would appear the desired sound from the drum involves striking only the head; no use of rim-shots is mentioned in the literature or audible in recordings of Native American frame drums. It is not uncommon for a singer to sound the drum in accompaniment of their own voice, and oftentimes multiple frame drums are sounded by multiple performers/singers simultaneously and in in rhythmic synchrony. The relative pitch of this surprisingly deep and resonant sounding drum can be adjusted at the time of a performance by spreading water on or heating the drumhead to lower or raise its pitch, respectively. Otherwise, the basic tension of the drumhead is set at the time of manufacture.


Haefer (2001) reports that the frame drum is the most prevalent type of Native American membranophone, found throughout the country except for a small area in the Southwest. This broad distribution makes it very difficult to credit the origin of the drum type to any single Native American tribe. It almost certainly spread from tribe to tribe from some unknowable ancient moment of invention both during pre- and post-European contact epochs. 

Bibliographic Citations

Haefer, J. Richard. 2001. “Music Instruments. In Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 3 Ellen Koskoff, ed. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 472-479.

Olsen, Loran. 1998. “Music and Dance”. In Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 12 Plateau. Deward E. Walker, Jr., vol. ed. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, pp. 546-572.

Schuster, Helen H. 1998. “Yakima and Neighboring Groups”. In Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 12 Plateau. Deward E. Walker, Jr., vol. ed. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, pp. 327-351.

Walker, Deward E., Jr., and Helen H. Schuster. 1998. “Religious Movements”. In Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 12 Plateau. Deward E. Walker, Jr., vol. ed. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, pp. 499-514.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.311 membranophone--single-skin frame drum (the depth of the body does not exceed the radius of the membrane)

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - frame

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: framed with pliant rope hoop

Membrane attachment: framed membrane hoop cross-laced to itself on backside of shell

Membrane tension control: none, tension set at time of manufacture

Sounding for membranophone: striking with one handheld beater

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


17-18 in. diameter 3 in. depth

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin

Entry Author

Roger Vetter