"The Elder's Drum" Themes
The main themes in “The Elder’s Drum” are continuity between past and future, family, and pride.
- Continuity between past and future: The traditions passed on through the elder’s “sacred song” form a part of a larger cultural heritage that the speaker eagerly embraces.
- Family: The elder in the poem is the speaker’s grandfather, yet the speaker also expresses a broader understanding of family through references to the ancestors who have passed on the traditions of her culture.
- Pride: The speaker’s language throughout the poem speaks to her reverence for her culture and the genuine pride she takes in her heritage.
Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752
Continuity Between Past and Future
Various images and symbols appear in this poem to indicate the strength of the continuity between the past and the present of the First Nation to whose ceremony the reader is bearing witness. One of these images is of a "path" left to the modern members of the circle by their grandfathers, a route for them all to follow in order to continue in the ways their ancestors set out for them. The song itself is another such image, a "sacred" thing which stimulates joy in the spirits of all who hear it. The song and the beating of the drum help the group around the fire to remember the traditions of their ancestors, and to feel the joy of spirit which connects them all as a familial and religious group.
The speaker's language, and the parallels she draws between the grandfather-as-elder and the Nation itself, do suggest that the Nation is no longer as strong as it once was. Like the speaker's grandfather, the Nation is more "frail" than it used to be. However, also like the speaker's grandfather, there is a "clarity" to the essence of the Nation which remains today, embodied in the people in the circle. For as long as the song is remembered, and the ceremony of the sacrificial fire is enacted, there will still be a strong continuity between the past and the present of this Nation.
The theme of family, and the meaning of family, is evinced strongly in this poem, in a very nuanced way. Given that the poem is, to a considerable extent, about the speaker's grandfather, the title, which describes him simply as "The Elder," might seem to create an element of distance between granddaughter and grandfather. As the poem progresses, however, it becomes clear that the concept of family among the First Nations people is complex and multifaceted. The fact that the speaker's grandfather is a tribal elder beating a drum is what is most important in the context of this poem. At the same time, however, he does not cease to be the speaker's grandfather simply because he is performing a ceremonial function.
In the middle of the poem, the speaker stops seeing her grandfather as an elder and views him as the old man he is, noting the whiteness of his hair. In this moment, he is her grandfather first. The point, however, is that he is always both things at once, and that, moreover, family in this Nation does not simply mean close relations but may also refer to a shared, communal heritage among members of the tribe. Later in the poem, the speaker refers to "grandfathers" in the sense of the ancestors of the tribe as a whole. Those who began the traditions that are now enacted by the speaker's biological grandfather are also the ancestors of those who may not connect to them directly by bloodline. Everyone around this fire is a member of the speaker's family in their own way. The individuals in the circle engender feelings of love and togetherness in the speaker, and to all of them, the old man chanting and beating the drum is both elder and grandfather.
Many poems about First Nations people and their ceremonies contain strong elements of wistfulness and melancholy. In this poem, however, the theme of pride in the history of the speaker's people is paramount, and strongly affects the mood of the poem. The words the speaker uses to describe her people, and their ceremony, are overwhelmingly positive ones: she speaks of the strength of her...
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"spirit" and how it "rejoices" when she hears the song of her people. The nation is defined by its "dignity" and "heritage," and her love for the people around her "exuberates," an unusual word that neatly expresses the depth of feeling the speaker is experiencing. It is as if the experience of taking part in this ceremony represents perfect happiness to the speaker. She is "proud" to be part of a circle.
The circle itself, and the concept of a circle, underlines the strength of the connection between these people. It is evident that the speaker takes pride in this sense of togetherness and in the many positive qualities that have been retained in the community, despite the hardships they have faced. For the speaker, being a member of this group is not a source of sadness, anxiety or distress, but something to be proud of, and from which to draw strength.