Choctaw Musical Instruments

Choctaw drummer Charlie Denson demonstrates traditional drumming for fourth grade students.

Four instruments are used for traditional Choctaw music. They are the Choctaw drum (alepa chito), sticks, fiddle, and guitar.

The Choctaw drum is one of the oldest traditional instruments that the Choctaw still use today. It is primarily used at the beginning of the stickball games. Long ago, the drum was used to call the members of the tribe for a special gathering or social event. The noise began to disturb the neighbors of the tribe, and this use of the drum has ended. Today, the drum is used to call the dancers together at traditional dances and to announce the starting of the stickball games.

The drum which is now used by the Choctaw is modeled after military drums used by British and American troops in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The design has changed very little in the last 200 years. The body of the drum is wood, usually sourwood, black gum, or tupelo gum. These trees are often hollow by the time they reach a suitable size for drums. When a likely tree is found, a section of approximately the size of the finished drum is cut from the trunk. The interior of the drum-blank is cut to the desired size using chisels. Then, the outside of the drum body is shaped using chisels and a draw-knife. When the desired thickness for the wall of the drum body is reached, the drum body is set aside to allow the wood to dry. Often at this stage, the drum body will warp out of shape and will have to be discarded. If it survives the drying process, then the rims, head, and rope laces are put on the new drum.

The rims of the drum are made of strips of hickory which are bent into a hoop and just fit around the drum body. A raw deer hide whose edges are wrapped around a second hickory hoop held tight by the rim of the drum forms the head of the drum. A goat hide is often used instead of a deer hide for the bottom head because the goat skin is thicker than the deer skin. The rope laced around the sides of the drum is threaded through the holes along the rim and is used to keep the head of the drum tight for playing. The final touch in making a drum is to attach the snares which are formed using small pieces of lead attached to a string fitted along the bottom of the drum. This gives the Choctaw drum its distinctive sound.

The sticks that are played are about 10 inches long and are usually made of hickory wood. The sticks are beaten by a chanter in time to the beat of the chant being sung for that dance. The sticks replaced the drum when the nearby neighbors complained of the beating of the drums. They are still used today to start the dances at most traditional Choctaw gatherings.

The guitar and fiddle are used by some Choctaws when the dancers perform the House Dance. This is the only dance that uses these instruments.

Additional Student Reactions

The Sticks

Billy Amos showed us how to (play) beat the sticks in our classroom. The sticks are used to beat together in time to the dance steps.
By: Talisha Bell

The sticks that Mr. Amos showed us were about 10 inches long. He said that they were made of hickory wood. He uses these when we dance the traditional Choctaw dances at our festivals and at our fair.
By: Naomi Thompson

Choctaw drummer Charlie Denson teaches fourth grade students to play his 100-year-old drum

The Drum and the Drum Player

Mr. Charlie Denson is a Choctaw drum player. He is from the Standing Pine community. He plays the drum for the festivals and the fair. The drum is used to let the stickball players know the game is about to begin. Sometimes, the drum is played to call the dancers together. Mr. Denson learned to play the drum by watching his elders. He has a drum that is 100 years old.
By: Kristen Wallace

Charlie Denson showed me how to beat the drum. He is 79 years old, and I am 10. I enjoyed beating the drum with him.
By: Michael Ray Morris

I got to beat the drum in our class today when Charlie Denson visited. He showed me his drum that is 100 years old. I really enjoyed watching him play and listening to him chant.
By: Tuskahoma Tubby

Choctaw musician Billy Amos teaches his grandaughter to play the sticks.

Story about my Grandpa

My Grandpa is pretty cool. His name is Billy Amos. He works as a janitor at our school. He volunteers to help teach Choctaw traditions like chanting, dancing, language, story telling, and playing the sticks. These are very important things that belong to our Choctaw culture, and he wants the students to keep with them. He works very hard at our school and makes me proud. I hope that I will be like Grandpa and keep my Choctaw traditions alive for my future.
By: Kaneshia Hickman

The fifth grade has information about Choctaw beadwork.
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This page was last updated on March 7, 1997
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