Native American Music

By: Solveig A. Turpin

Type: Overview Entry

Published: December 11, 2006

Updated: April 8, 2020

The accounts of early Spanish and French explorers confirm that music was an important part of Native American ceremonial life. In 1535 the first chroniclers of Indian life in Texas, the shipwrecked Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his party, were greeted by native people who shouted, clapped their thighs, and brought out gourd-and-pebble rattles to which they attached great importance. Almost 200 years later, in what is now northern Texas, the French explorer Bénard de La Harpe was treated to a ceremony that lasted twenty-four hours, "during which time their music did not discontinue for a moment." Spanish archives are replete with accounts of Coahuiltecan dances that lasted as long as eight days and were motivated by such diverse events as seasonal harvests, battles, astronomical phenomena, and the threat of disease.

Singing apparently accompanied most of the dances, with the human voice the dominant source of sound. The 1582 Rodríguez-Sánchez Expedition to the area of modern-day Presidio, in far West Texas, described a festival in which the dancers raised their hands to the sun and sang "with much compass and harmony" so that three hundred men performed as one. Circa 1605, Spanish chronicler Andrés Pérez de Ribas described another such communal celebration, or mitote, in which motets were sung in "the tone and rhythm that they use, the same way one pauses and then repeats the brief verses of a song when accompanied by an organ." In 1645, writing specifically about the mitotes of the native people in the vicinity of Monterrey, in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo León adjacent to Texas, Alonso De León commented that the people sang "in their own peculiar way," words with no meaning (to the Spanish listeners), but pleasing to the ear. He thought that the participants sang so harmoniously, with no discordant voices, that all together seemed to make but one voice. The same impression was voiced by Fray Francisco de Céliz, diarist of the Alarcón Expedition to East Texas in 1718. During a welcoming ceremony, the Caddo men, women, and children were seated separately but sang "without disagreeing one point in their voices," making "a gentle although coarse harmony." That the same response was elicited from European observers so widely separated in time and space implies that Native American music, and especially singing, conformed to some uniform standard that transcended linguistic and social boundaries.

By the time European settlers colonized Texas, the indigenous populations had been decimated by internecine warfare and introduced diseases. Many of the named tribes that are thought of today as native were in fact immigrants—the Apache in the late seventeenth century, the Comanche in the eighteenth century, and the Alabama–Coushatta and the Kickapoo tribes in the nineteenth century. The Tiguas of far West Texas are closely related to the Pueblo people of the Southwestern United States, rather than any more easterly Texas groups. The Caddos, with their tribal headquarters in Oklahoma, trace their ancestry to prehistoric agriculturalists of East Texas and Louisiana as well as Oklahoma. Although descendants of other native peoples undoubtedly still live in South and West Texas, their cultural identity has been lost. Unlike the sedentary Caddos, the vast majority of the indigenous people were hunters and gatherers who lived highly mobile lives that limited their ability to make and transport large or complex musical instruments. The early demise of so many native cultures is reflected in the paucity of the written accounts of their ceremonies, including their music.

The archeological record provides rare examples of rhythm sticks, rattles, whistles, and flutes but is incapable of recreating the totality of musical performances or explaining how and when they were played. Another bias is introduced by the preservation factor; more instruments have been recovered from the dry caves of West Texas than from the rest of the state, where wooden objects tend to decay rapidly. Taken together, and viewed in the context of New World cultures as a whole, archeology and ethnography do substantiate the interaction between music and ritual that undoubtedly prevailed in Texas as well as the rest of North America.

Percussion Instruments. Most of the musical instruments known archeologically are classed as percussive and probably served to establish and maintain dance rhythms and to encourage the trance state essential to some ceremonies and rituals. Various types of rattles and rasps were apparently used by all of the indigenous people of Texas and neighboring areas.

Commonly, shaken rattles, like those described by Cabeza de Vaca, were made of gourds, either dried with the seeds inside or perforated and filled with small pebbles, bits of quartz, seeds, or other hard objects that would collide with each other and the gourd when shaken. Alonso De León specified that the Nuevo León gourd rattles were perforated with many small holes and filled with the gravel-like detritus found around ant mounds. One of the more unusual fill materials detected archeologically is some 300 black drum teeth found in a coastal grave that also produced bone whistles. Gourds have the advantage of a fixed handle, but other containers are more durable. Turtle carapaces, filled with pebbles and transfixed by wooden handles or strung on cords, are not uncommon. Rare examples of rattlesnake rattler rattles were recovered from two children's graves in West Texas. The most intact specimen was made by attaching the tail skin and rattles of twenty-six snakes to the end of a wand made of an arrow shaft. These unusual artifacts may have been as much magical as musical, given their mortuary context. Animal skulls and basketry containers are reported from adjacent areas of Native America and may well have been utilized in Texas as well. The Caddos made hollow ceramic vessels that rattled although it is not clear that they were intended as musical accompaniment.

Suspended rattles are difficult to identify archeologically, as the cords or strings have often deteriorated. Again, the dry caves of West Texas provide examples of drilled mussel shells that were presumably suspended rattles. Four deer scapulae, or shoulder bones, still strung on a cord when first collected from a cave in Southwest Texas, are on exhibit at the Witte Museum in San Antonio. Modern kachina dancers are depicted with scapula rattles or using a scapula as a sounding stick, drawn across a rhythm stick or rasp. Scapulae seem to have been prized for their broad flat surfaces, which were sometimes painted with abstract designs, as well as for the dry clacking sound they produce on contact. The relationship between deer and music is furthered by reports of wooden sticks or antlers being struck together to imitate the sound of combative stags, which may or may not be music to the ear.

Deer hooves, mountain laurel beans, and snail or marine shells were strung on cords to be worn as ankle or wrist rattles or suspended from clothing to augment the cadence of the dance. The hard red beans of the mountain laurel tree, which were traded as far north as Canada, had a three-fold attraction. In addition to their percussive sound and vibrant color, mescal beans were ingested for their narcotic properties during rituals that required the participants to enter an entranced state.

Shell tinklers were supplanted in historic times by pieces of metal that were cut and fastened to the dancer's costumes. The Caddos count among their traditional paraphernalia hawk bells, a type of miniature pellet ball that was introduced to them by the Spanish. A very few copper bells from prehistoric contexts in far West Texas were probably obtained in trade from Mexican metallurgists. Nearing the end of their journey on the west coast of Mexico, Cabeza de Vaca's party was given a copper rattle that the natives said came from the north.

Rasps or rhythm sticks are one of the more durable types of percussion instrument and thus survive in the archeological record, especially in dry caves. Typically, rasps were made of bone or hard wood notched at intervals and played with a sounding stick. Possibly, the sound was augmented by resonating devices, such as gourds, bowls, or skulls. Spanish chroniclers in Mexico noted that rasps made of human femurs contributed a lugubrious note to human sacrifices and funerals. Alonso De León described the rasps that accompanied dances in Nuevo León as sticks made of ébano (hard wood) and other kinds of wood, with deep grooves, so that rubbing another stick vigorously over the grooves made a pleasant sound. A well-preserved ironwood rasp and a sounding stick from a burial cave in the eastern Trans-Pecos were varnished with hematite suspended in an emulsion of plant resin. Another, also from a mortuary context, is a combination of rasp and atlatl or spear thrower with notches cut into the shaft that serves as an elongation of the throwing arm, thus adding propulsive force.

Stereotypically, drums are linked with American Indian music, but they are virtually absent from the archeological record. One possibility is that drums were made of materials whose function is not evident once the instrument has been discarded or dismantled, much like the scapula or snail-shell rattles. An example is a turtle shell and antler tine in the Witte Museum in San Antonio. A Mayan mural painting illustrates a musician playing a turtle-carapace drum with just such an antler tine, providing a possible analogue for the Witte specimens. Historically, turtle or tortoise carapaces were scraped or rubbed rather than struck, aligning them with rhythm sticks or rasps rather than drums.

Early in the eighteenth century, Spanish military documents report that attacks against their forces in northern Mexico, near the Big Bend region of Texas, were accompanied by fife and drum, but the novelty suggests that these tactics may have been newly adopted from the Europeans. The Caddos count drums among their traditional instruments, describing both wet and dry variations. The Alarcón Expedition of 1718 was feted at a welcoming ceremony in which the kettledrum and various timbrels accompanied the singing. The kettledrum was described as made of a large water-jug covered with a stretched and dampened skin. Wet drums are now antique kettles partly filled with water; presumably, in the past ceramic vessels served the same purpose. The diarist for the 1582 Rodríguez expedition to the pueblos along the Rio Grande mentioned a drum in the form of a tambourine, made by attaching skins to an unspecified vessel. Ethnohistoric accounts describe Apache drums as simple constructions: a piece of hide stretched over a pot or a gourd and struck with a stick. Pérez de Ribas mentioned that the Coahuiltecans had unusual little drums made of a special wood but his description ended there.

Several very recent Indian rock art sites, such as Meyers Spring, Bailando Shelter, and Hueco Tanks , show lines of animated dancers, some with hand-held objects that may be rattles or rasps. Circular objects beside or between the dancers could represent either drums or shields. According to the modern Tiguas, one round pictograph motif at Hueco Tanks symbolizes a drum. The Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico, who are probably distantly related to the prehistoric people of South and West Texas, are well known for their commercial traffic in traditional drums. Thus, some form of drum was assuredly known by most of the Indians, but the instruments themselves have either not been found or not been recognized.

Wind Instruments. Archeologically, the most common wind instruments are whistles, usually made of the central shaft of bird long bones. The articular ends are removed or reamed to form a hollow tube with a round or rectangular air hole cut into one end. In some, asphaltum plugs inserted into the tube just below this hole channel the flow of air to achieve the desired sound. Caddoan eagle-bone flutes were reportedly used from about A.D. 1400 until the introduction of the Ghost Dance, circa 1880.

Along the upper Texas coast, bird-bone whistles, often made of whooping crane ulnas and incised with geometric designs, have been recovered in mortuary contexts that suggest a complex relationship between myth and music. In many American Indian religions, birds are icons for supernatural flight to the spirit world, and bones, the most durable elements of the body, symbolize resurrection. Cranes, in particular, are mythological guardians or spirit guides, thus explaining their metaphorical role as funerary offerings. The rattles found with whistles in some graves add the element of percussion to the ensemble.

The humpbacked, flute-playing Kokopelli figures generally associated with the Pueblo cultures of the American Southwest provide evidence of yet another wind instrument. The mythological Kokopelli beguiled women with his haunting music and plied them with gifts carried in his backpack or hump. The pictographs and fragments of wooden or bone flutes found in dry cave deposits indicate that the flute was tubular and played vertically although transverse flutes were recovered from an East Texas site dating to around A.D. 1000. Pairs of reed cylinders, lashed together with twine and placed in an Archaic infant's grave, have been interpreted as a panpipe. Perforated shell discs in the same context were thought to be part of a bullroarer or chiringa, but that interpretation is questionable since no other archeological or ethnohistoric evidence for such an instrument exists.

Discussion. The Native American musical repertoire in Texas appears to be limited to percussion and wind instruments of relatively simple construction but of immense ceremonial importance. Ethnohistoric accounts of festivals describe marathon singing and dancing, thus emphasizing the importance of vocalization and percussion. The fact that most of the archeological examples of prehistoric musical instruments were recovered from mortuary contexts indicates their special relevance to ceremonial, supernatural, or spiritual events. Rattles, tinklers, and bells were designed to be worn or held by dancers participating in communal or sacred rites, while most of the other percussion instruments probably accompanied them. Cabeza de Vaca was told that gourd rattles were used for important events and could only be touched by their owners due to their supernatural powers. Rhythmic music, and especially percussion, has long been recognized as one means of attaining the altered states of consciousness that were an important part of many Native American religions. The Caddos have endeavored to preserve their traditional music, making records that are available to the general public. The Tiguas are closely related to other Pueblo people of the American Southwest who have also recorded many of their songs. The Kikapoos, however, are reluctant to discuss their music, which is handed down from generation to generation, thus maintaining its ceremonial importance.

Cyclone Covey, trans. and ed., Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Cabeza de Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983). Fray Francisco Céliz, Diary of the Alarcón Expedition into Texas, 1718–1719, trans. Fritz L. Hoffman (Los Angeles: Quivira Society, 1935). Clarence Debusk, An Appraisal of the Musicological Resources of the Pecos River Focus (Master's thesis, University of Texas, 1963). Alonso De León, Historia de Nuevo León (Monterrey, Nuevo León: Biblioteca de Nuevo León 1, 1961). Frances Densmore, The American Indians and Their Music (New York: Woman's Press, 1926). William B. Griffen, Culture Change and Shifting Populations in Central Northern Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1969). George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, The Gallegos Relation of the Rodriguez Expedition to New Mexico (Santa Fe: Historical Society of New Mexico, 1927). Forrest Kirkland and William W. Newcomb Jr., The Rock Art of Texas Indians (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967). Andrés Pérez de Ribas, History of the Triumphs of Our Holy Faith amongst the Most Barbarous and Fierce Peoples of the New World (1645), trans. by Daniel T. Reff, Maureen Ahern, and Richard K. Danford (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999).


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Solveig A. Turpin, “Native American Music,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 21, 2021,

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December 11, 2006
April 8, 2020

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