My Journey into Traditional Ojibwe Drummaking

This summer, I travelled to Whitehorse, Yukon Territories which is the home of fourteen First Nations and many different languages.  The purpose of this trip was to visit my father and his amazing partner Liz, the grounding stones of my aboriginal identity.  It was also an opportunity for me to learn various aboriginal art forms.  

While there I was fortunate enough to attend the Adaka Cultural Festival, which is an indigenous art festival held annually in the summer time.   Adaka means “coming into the light” in the Southern Tutchone language which is very fitting as the festival definitely sheds light on the Yukons distinctive First Nations art and culture.   It is meant to be a way to celebrate, bring awareness to and develop the intergenerational learning of indigenous values and traditions.   The atmosphere within the festival promoted inspiration and feelings of pride in our heritage and communities while also created an engaging learning environment.

From carving canoes, to Elders talks to porcupine quill weaving. Artists from all over Canada were in attendance; giving workshops, talks and displaying their work.

Nearing the end of the festival my father signed me up for a two day intensive drum making course from Joe Migwans, an Ojibwe man from Manitioulin Island, Ontario who now resides in Whitehorse.  There were about ten of us who were able to come together and partake in this workshop.  We were able to sit and listen to his stories as he demonstrated and led us through the steps to creating our very own drums.

The first thing we made was the drumstick, this was made by using a length of maple (already cut to the desired length).   We then wound a cotton fibre around the maple to give the head of the drumstick size and padding.  While the glue was drying we began to sew the leather cover.   A soft leather was used for this to ensure our future drum would not be damaged from use.  The desired shape was cut from the leather and was turned inside out to began sewing the sides shut.   Once it was all sewn, with the exception of one side, it was pulled over the cotton padding and tied shut with a rawhide string.

Next we moved onto preparing the hoop.  Our hoops were made from strips of poplar bent into a circle and glued together.  The inside rim where the hide would be stretched was cut at a 45° angle and sanded down to give a smooth beveled edge.  In total, eight holes were drilled into the frame in four corresponding spots to allow for the strips of rawhide (babiche) to be woven through to create handles.  The rawhide was then wrapped in a thicker babiche and scraped to give our drums a soft, easy to hold onto handle.

For our drums we used elk hide which had been soaking in water to be ready to stretch.  After cutting the hide to the desired size I experienced one of life's greatest lessons: to have patience and determination.

Using an ulu , the traditional tool used to scrape hides, we began to scrape the water out of the hide.   It wasn’t easy by any means (especially for somebody like me with no upper body strength).  It took hours, but as Joe let us know, the more water we could get out know the better the drum will sound later when it’s all finished.  It was quite impressive the way Joe could make everything look so incredibly easy to do, when in reality it needed quite a bit of finesse.  It was at this point that Joe took out one of his own drums and began to play us a song.   With renewed motivation we kept at it until we were finally given the ‘all good’ by Joe.

At that point we gave our wrists a break and laid the frame on top of our hides, carful to make sure there was enough room on each side to stretch it over the frame.  Once the hide was all in place we pulled it tight, securing it onto the wooden hoop with pins.   We wanted it tight, but not too tight that it would warp our frames once it dried out.  Making sure there was enough left to tie around the handles, the excess hide was trimmed off.

Finally our drums were complete!  It took a few days for the hide to dry completely but once it was I was able to drum and play with it.  Once I was back home in Saskatchewan I decided to give it my own personal flare by painting the inside of the hoop a prussian blue and attached two white coyote tails to the back.

This was truly an amazing experience!  I can't wait to make my next drum.


kīhtwām ka-wāpamitin