"The Elder's Drum" Summary

The Elder’s Drum” is a poem by First Nations author Molly Chisaakay.

  • The speaker of the poem describes individuals gathering around a fire to witness a ceremony.
  • The “elder” of the poem is the speaker’s grandfather, who leads the ceremony with traditional singing and drumming. Despite his age, the elder’s song is clear and strong.
  • The “sacred song” of the elder causes the speaker’s spirit to soar, reminding her of the dignity and strength of her culture.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 14, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

Introduction

Molly Chisaakay is an Alberta-based writer who is a member of the Dene Nation, one of the First Nations of Canada. Her poem, "The Elder's Drum," is written from a perspective unique to First Nations people. In it, Chisaakay explores her ancient culture through the lens of the familiar figure of her grandfather, who connects the Dene "heritage" to the modern world.

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The poem is written in free verse, with no regular rhyme scheme or meter. Despite this, it may be read against a drum beat, as the title would seem to invite readers to do. When performed in this way, the rhythms of the poem evoke First Nations chanting.

Summary

The speaker describes the smoke rising up from a "sacrificial" fire. The circle of people around the fire is increasing, and many of those who are present seem to be becoming increasingly hopeful as the ceremony begins. This image sets the scene for "the elder," a man we later learn is the speaker's grandfather, to begin drumming and circling the fire while singing. At this juncture, however, the speaker introduces the man only as an "elder," suggesting that this is his primary role at the moment, rather than "grandfather."

The speaker feels her love for the people in the circle grow larger and spill over, or "exuberate." She is reminded of many other occasions when she has borne witness to the same rituals. Now, she notices that her grandfather, the elder, is a very old man. He has white hair and is beginning to seem frail. Despite the fragility of the old man, however, his song is incredibly clear.

The speaker feels her spirit rejoicing as she hears the song of her people. As she listens to the song, she realizes that every member of the Nation has the potential to be filled with dignity like the singing elderly man, the man who channels the shared history of the gathered group. They can all "determine the spirit," or choose their own route through life. Despite this, however, it is still possible and welcome to be proud of the heritage the group's ancestors have left to them.

At the end of the poem, the lines become shorter as the chant seems to come to an end. The speaker concludes by saying that all the "grandfathers" of the tribe, implying not only the literal grandfather of each person but the spiritual and ancestral grandfathers of the group, have left a "path" for the modern-day Nation to follow. This path is contained in the "sacred song" which the speaker's grandfather has just performed around the fire to the accompaniment of the drum. The drum thus represents a sacred beat which offers continuity between the old world and the new one.

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