New Brunswick

The healing powers of a hand drum

As an addiction counsellor, Brian Knockwood knows heartache. He works for Sipekne'katik Health Centre in his community of Indian Brook in Nova Scotia. He's also a highly regarded drummer who has crafted powwow drums for over two decades. 

Brian Knockwood's lessons in drum making help people along road to recovery

Brian Knockwood of Sipekne'katik First Nation is a well-known drum maker in Wabanaki territory. (Logan Perley/CBC)

As a prevention and addiction counsellor, Brian Knockwood knows heartache. 

He works for Sipekne'katik Health Centre at Indian Brook First Nation, a Mi'kmaq reserve in central Nova Scotia.

He is also a highly regarded drummer and has been making hand drums for more than two decades. 

As a longstanding member of the Eastern Eagle singers, Knockwood has travelled along the powwow trail and connected with people all over Wabanaki territory and beyond through his music.

The Wabanaki Confederacy includes Mi'kmaq, Wolastoqiyik, Peskotomuhkati, Abenaki and Penobscot, who live in a territory that includes Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and parts of Quebec and New England in the United States. 

Knockwood is a founding member of the Eastern Eagle Singers, a powwow drum group formed in the early 1990s. (Logan Perley/CBC)

Knockwood decided to bring his two worlds together — and a different type of healing to those who need it most. 

"What the drum represents is the heartbeat of Mother Earth," he said. "There's so much medicine and healing in that drum, just for them to leave that and to start their road to recovery and having that drum in their hand and that connection with Mother Earth, it just was so good to see that."

Twelve years ago, Knockwood gave his workshop in making hand drums to clients staying at the Eagle's Nest recovery house in Indian Brook, now known as Sipekne'katik First Nation.

"Just the pride you see in their eyes, the smiles on their faces and in their hearts, they were just so proud of that drum," Knockwood said. 

Knockwood continued to do two to three workshops throughout the year with different groups of patients. 

'You need to be in a good place'

Knockwood is also familiar with the process of healing. His work as a counsellor requires being a leader in a journey of healing. 

And when it comes to making hand drums, the process is a cleansing one. 

"You need to be in a good place. You need to smudge before you do it because any of that energy that you have, you'll put into it. So you want to make sure that your mind, body and spirit is in a good place."

Knockwood said it's important to use as much of the animal as possible for food or clothing, so that none of it goes to waste.

Addiction counsellor Brian Knockwood finds his drum-making workshops across Wabanaki territory have put people on the road to healing. 4:12

"When you make a drum you always have to keep in mind … whatever animal that you're using, that it gave up his life for a purpose," Knockwood said. "We were always taught that you don't take a life without a purpose … so we always have to keep in mind the spirit of the animal when we're making a drum."

He said he gets most of his cedar rims from a colleague in British Columbia, and his rawhides from a colleague in Quebec, who gets them from local butcher shops. 

Different hides, such has deer, moose or buffalo, give the drum a different sound, as does the wood used for the rim.

Hand drums, typically 30 to 40 centimetres in diameter and 10 to 15 centimetres deep, are played to a soft and easy beat as the user sings.

If you take care of the drum, the drum will take care of you.- Brian Knockwood

Creation of the drum is labour of love: cutting the hide into lacing and drum skins, punching the holes in the drum skin for the lacing, then lacing the drum skin and handle to the rim.

For Knockwood, the process has as much to do with his own healing as with those he counsels. 

"We didn't have this, we didn't have any of this when I was young."

He recalls being introduced to a drum by George Paul, who wrote the Mi'kmaq Honour Song, a song well-known across the territory and translated into Wolastoqey. Paul did a cultural workshop at the high school Knockwood attended.

"I was just drawn to the drum … we didn't have much of it in our community at the time," he said.

School cast shadow over culture

Knockwood's community was close to the Shubenacadie Residential School, which closed in 1967. The only residential school in Atlantic Canada, it was where children from across the region were placed. 

The school was the reason Knockwood didn't know what a traditional drum was until he was 16 years old, he said. 

"We're so close to the residential school, like just a stone's throw away, it had a big effect here in our community. Loss of language, loss of culture, lots of traditions."

Knockwood was fortunate that fellow community member Kevin Sack could teach him more about the drum. At that time, Sack was the only drum maker in the Maritimes. 

Sack noticed Knockwood's eagerness to learn and asked him to help make drums from rawhide and ash or cedar. 

Passing along teachings

"I would sit there and watch Kevin, then after a while he was like, 'Well, why don't you give me a hand?'" Knockwood said.  "He taught me how to scrape the hide and he would soak it down at the brook just below his house."

      1 of 0

      For Knockwood, that solidified the importance of giving workshops, especially to the younger generations. 

      "Just knowing all these kids are being able to grow up with these teachings and to be able to pass on these teachings onto them. It means so much … if they can go on to pass these teachings on to their grandchildren, that would mean so much more."  

      For Brian Knockwood, the drum has been both his greatest comfort and biggest motivation. 

      "I'm so thankful that the drum is a part of my life. I was always taught that the gift of having the voice is a gift from the creator. And if you don't respect those gifts, they can be taken away from you very quickly if you disrespect it."

      120 workshops across territory

      Knockwood has certainly respected his gift. After those first initial workshops for patients, word quickly spread.  

      "After a few years it started getting pretty popular and people said, 'Well, why don't you do workshops for people in your community?'"  

      Now, Knockwood gives drum-making workshops all over Wabanaki territory. He estimates that over the last five years, he's given roughly 120 workshops.

      "That one simple teaching that I learned: if you take care of the drum, the drum will take care of you. That's the number one teaching right there." 

      About the Author

      Logan Perley is a Wolastoqi journalist from Tobique First Nation and a casual reporter at CBC New Brunswick. You can email him at or follow him on Twitter @LoganPerley.


      To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

      By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.