Heartbeat of life: ‘Voices of the Drum’ shares story of Osage Nation in Wichita

Painted powwow drums
“Voices of the Drum” features 20 hand-painted Native American drums from the Osage Nation.

The rhythmic sounds echo toward the sky, guiding dancers in the circle, with each pulsating drumbeat. Drum groups are the soul of Native American powwows. But the drum is more than an instrument, providing music as people, donned in colorful regalia, perform dances such as jingle, fancy and traditional grass. It’s the heartbeat of a culture, its people. It gives life.

From handheld to large powwow style, the drum is key to tribal gatherings. It’s the glue that holds people together. For several tribes, the role of drum keeper is one of honor.

Visitors to Wichita’s Mid-America All-Indian Museum can witness firsthand the beauty and history of powwow drums as “Voices of the Drum” celebrates the story of the relationship between the drum and the Osage Nation. Originally scheduled to close in mid-October, the exhibit has been extended through early December.

Drum with map of Osage reservation
A drum is painted with a map of the Osage Nation and its main communities.

Heartbeat of Osage community

The drum’s story is important to the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. With 23,000 citizens, more than 4,000 people live on the reservation near Tulsa, in communities such as Pawhuska, Grayhorse and Hominy. Each summer, people gather for the I’n Lo’n Schka (Playground of the Eldest Son), a series of dances in each of these communities. You’ll likely hear of the Osage if you’re a book or movie fan with the theatrical release of “Killers of the Flower Moon” in late October.

To help share the tribe’s story, Osage artists painted 20 drums created by Francis “Rock” Pipestem. He made each drum by tanning bison hide and building each rim from wood. Bison rawhide connected the hide and drum rim.

Pipestem delivered each drum to an artist in a respectful manner, with prayers. Often brought to an artist’s studio, the process involving Osage traditions differed from ones involving non-Native projects, said Anita Fields, one of the exhibit’s artists.

“Wherever these drums go, the people are going to see something beautiful, and they are going to be blessed by it,” Pipestem said as part of the display. “So, a lot of prayers went into making them, a lot of powerful prayers – even from our old people. Surely, they are smiling. Surely, they are standing up.”

Drums showcase Osage history and culture
Drums showcase Osage history and culture

Drums tell stories

Each painted drum depicts a historically or culturally significant story. The exhibit’s goal is to create a path for others to understand the importance of the drum to the Osage culture.

For her untitled piece, Harleigh Moore told the story of her growth as a dancer for the I’n Lo’n Schka celebration. At the age of 12, she decided to make her own clothes for the dance. Over a three-year period, she learned culture, history and tradition. Representing the Grayhorse district, Moore saw her growth as a new beginning, which is why she included the sunrise as part of her drum, which features a stallion inside an arrowhead.

Drum with sunset behind a stallion inside an arrowhead
Harleigh Moore’s drum describes her rebirth as an Osage.

Blackbear Bosin collection

The drum exhibit complements the permanent exhibits highlighting the works of Blackbear Bosin, who designed Wichita’s iconic Keeper of the Plains, a 44-foot-tall sculpture overlooking the confluence of the Big and Little Arkansas Rivers.

Blackbear Bosin in front of Keeper of the Plains
Blackbear Bosin in front of Keeper of the Plains

Bosin – Kiowa/Comanche – created paintings and sculptures sharing the stories of southern Plains tribes. Foregoing an opportunity to study art at the University of Oklahoma because he had a young family, Bosin instead worked at a Wichita plant building airplanes. He sold his art on the side.

The Mid-America All-Indian Museum also recognizes Indigenous tribes in the main hall with tribal flags hanging from the rafters. Dances are hosted there.

While visiting the Mid-America All-Indian Museum is an interesting trip anytime, the opportunity to see the Osage “Voices of the Drum” offers a special look into the tribe’s history and culture.