Most important Potawatomi gatherings, pow wows, ceremonies or festivities begin with a song. Whether it’s with a rattle, a hand drum played by one singer, or a big drum—around which many men sit and sing, and women might stand and sing—the event starts off in a good way if it includes a song.
Some stories say that before the Creator made anything, the sound of the rattle accompanied the beginning of creation. Its sound was the first to fill the emptiness with its unique rhythm. The drum--which is thought of as the heartbeat of the people—is the gift to men from women. Men traditionally took life during war, while women have the gift of creating life. The drum is a way men can create a heartbeat, and that’s why rarely or never will a woman sit at a drum. Many factors determine whether a singer chooses to use a rattle or a drum to accompany him or her: where the song is sung, or the type of song that’s sung. The sounds of either inevitably command everyone’s attention and bring together a group’s focus on a commonality we all share.
Often men are called to make drums after dreams, just as sometimes a jingle dress dancer receives her call to that dance in a dream. “A lot of what happens to our people that manifests itself in the physical world might come to them in dreams,” says one singer. He describes composing songs that might visit him while in a dreamlike state. Likewise, big drums are bestowed with names through dreams, or elders, spiritual leaders or the community.
Like dance, songs are a form of prayer and communication with the Creator, and singers sing their songs with vocables. One singer likens vocables to a chant. Some say the songs predate the Potawatomi language, so the vocables can be considered the first language. “Through a teacher’s guidance, if you train your ear, it’s almost as if you learn and understand a new language,” says one singer. “The best singers are the ones that can listen really well.” Other times Potawatomi words are sung with the songs. It’s hoped that this will inspire others on to learn and use the native language more.
Singers start off at a high pitch, and work down low and back high again during a song. The higher ranges are calling to the Creator. Moving the range down then builds a melodic stairway for the Creator to descend and join us. The songs are repetitive; sometimes a song will be sung four times, one verse for each direction. If it’s sung a fifth time, which is called a tail, it is to honor a person, an occasion or something of significance.
Special songs mark special moments. During a pow wow, the procession of veterans, head dancers and other dancers begins with a grand entry song. This song aids dancers in their role during the grand entry of telling the story of how humans first came to earth, and how the earth revolves around the sun. An intertribal song is sung for a social time inviting everyone, regardless who you are or what your heritage, to dance together. An honor song, a welcome song, a flag song and a traveling song all mark other distinct circumstances.
All aspects of traditional Potawatomi heritage are interconnected. A song, a drum, a rattle don't stand alone. Each is a spiritual tool. Like dance, the pipe and the fire: all communicate prayers and strengthen the connection to the Creator together.