Jeffery Hewitt & Ruth Buchanan

Hewitt drum
Drum from Manitoulin Island c. 1846 on display at the British Museum. Image (c) J Hewitt 2017

Object: Anishinabe ceremonial / British military drum
Location: The British Museum Room 26 (North America)

We have a shared interest in the various intersections of art and law. One strand of Ruth’s ongoing research has explored the relations between experience, affect and legal pluralism; while a facet of Jeffery’s research examines sources and forms of law of Indigenous Peoples in what is now known as Canada – particularly Anishinaabe and Cree laws. Together we found ourselves at a gathering last September of colleagues involved in GRASAC – Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Culture[1] – and through various discussions found ourselves drawn to this particular drum from Manitoulin Island as an object of law. Among other things, we wondered what role this drum might have played in the unfolding of British imperialism on the North American continent and how the drum might be understood as a site of law that engages with versus erases the relationship between Anishinaabe Peoples and the British Crown.

This drum speaks to us as a ‘legal object’ in several different ways— including the roles that it likely played in British military discipline, in the Anishnaabe legal order, the intersections and encounters between those legal orders in the mid 19C and today. In its qualities of mobility and mutability, the drum reminds us that we need to approach it on its own terms, which for us is to say in terms of its ongoing process (of becoming ‘drum’) rather than something static, congealed and in the past.

This is not to say that the drum does not call upon us to consider the particular law-scapes in which it was entangled—the law-scape of the colonial British administration of the 1810’s and 20’s and the law-scape of the Anishnaabe peoples of Manitoulin Island of the same time frame. But the drum asks us to think about those law-scapes as also soundscapes—to consider the rhythms of those peoples and their relationships of the time. We can also consider, then, in the beats of the passage of the military drum from British to Anishnaabe back to British hands, what also travelled or was transformed? The challenge for the sensory material historian of legal culture is to try to make sense of the object that has been dis-embedded from its time, its place, its use, its peoples.

“Within the museum’s empire of sight, objects are colonized by the gaze.”[2]

The drum, in its current walled off silence, compels a reflection on the ‘empire of sight’ that is constitutive of the contemporary museum and the ongoing legal, social, and cultural orderings that uphold that regime. This variety of overlapping roles and potentialities that reside in or are possessed by the drum also suggest to us a particular way of engagement with its thingness—what it has to teach us is goes beyond an ‘object lesson’ in the sense of it having a fixed or unitary meaning or symbol.  In our thinking, the drum requires us to address it on its own terms.


What might be said in particular about the place of this drum in the law-scapes that it travelled through and ignited? There is much we can only speculate about –where it may have travelled, who made it and for what purposes, to whom it was gifted and on what occasions, and how it eventually arrived in the British Museum’s vast collection of North American indigenous objects, which numbers about 100,000. But there are a few things that can be said.

Thinking of it first in its incarnation as a military snare drum, we are reminded of the ongoing armed conflicts in the great lakes region that extended beyond the time of what is known as the 7 year war (1755-1762) right through to 1815—so extensive that they are called by some historians the 60 years war. We know that the snare drums are valued highly by the military—drummers were paid more than regular infantry and they were in high demand. Drums were necessary to military discipline—both on and off the battlefield. In the smoke and confusion of battle, sound was more reliable conveyance of information and discipline than sight. Off the battlefield, the daily routines of military life were tapped out on the drums.   Notably, drummers were also frequently the individuals called upon to administer corporal punishments (which in the British military was usually flogging). On occasion, drum rolls also dramatically accompanied these public displays of authority.

While the fur trading posts to the North were largely removed from the epicenters of military conflicts they were also connected in that they served both military and commercial functions.

How the drum came to the Anishinaabe and what meanings it carried at that time is unclear. It might have been viewed as a trophy of war, not unlike flags or uniforms. It might have been traded for—or received as a gift. We know that there was an annual gathering on Manitoulin Island at the time where peoples from around the region gathered and met with colonial authorities for a distribution of gifts. A very similar drum was sketched by the painter Paul Kane about ten years previously on Manitoulin Island. This gathering is likely also the place where it was acquired by the collector Henry Christie during a trip he made in 1856. It was received by the British Museum only a few years later as part of the Christie bequest. Manitoulin Island was at the time, and remains contested land. The Manitoulin Treaties were entered into in 1836—but they were deeply contested almost immediately and the territory, and many adjacent territories, subject to an ongoing legal dispute. What is uncontested is that for the British Crown, treaty engagement with the Anishinaabe on Manitoulin Island was about possession of lands and resources. For the Anishinaabe, however, the treaties were about relationships that made way for the sharing of lands and resources – but not transfer of ownership.

Treaties are a solemn form of contract. To be binding, Canadian contract law requires a meeting of the minds. Material culture at the time of the Manitoulin Treaties – such as the drum – offers us a rich line of inquiry in which we might view the perspectives of the Crown and the Anishinaabe Peoples in relation to treaties. For example, the Manitoulin Island drum contains imagery of transformation and is illustrative of the Anishinaabe view that land is a connection between the sky and underworld versus the Crown’s view of land as a possession to be deeded, divided, bought and sold. That the drum is now in the sole possession of the British Crown and entombed behind a wall of glass as a cultural artifact (rather than an object of law), is indicative of an ongoing Crown (mis)-interpretation that land, like drums and other objects, are possessions to be collected and displayed as a signal of imperial wealth and power. Classifying an object of law – such as the Manitoulin Island drum – as an artifact is an act that orders the world exclusively within the Crown’s vision. Yet, as an act of resistance to this ordering the drum sits silently in the British Museum as though waiting to be sounded again and invites an examination of what extraordinary objects are sometimes created through intersocietal engagement. And as the imagery on the drum boldly declares: transformation can indeed be beautiful.

Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada.


Perhaps our relationship to things has what might be called a musical quality, which we forget at our peril. Music has, of course, routinely been degraded as evolutionarily peripheral and even non-adaptive but it keeps stubbornly reappearing as a quality we cannot reduce to something else, including the history of evolution. Perhaps the aesthetic quality of things has the same kind of resonance, one that can be ignored but only with dire consequences for the power of our explanations. Things may not just talk to us, sometimes they sing.[3]

The ways we ‘make sense’ of the world implicate not only an epistemic but a phenomenological orientation in relation to a particular sensorium—our material surrounds and the ways we engage in them are relational and in process.   Instead of thinking of ourselves as subjects and the things we interact with as ‘objects’, we might think as makers or users do—what is this thing ‘for’, or what does this [drum] ‘want’?   This approach finds a great deal of resonance in relation to Anishnaabe understandings of material culture, in which objects are generally considered to have particular sorts of ‘agency’ emanating from their attributes, their relation to a particular individual, family or community, and/or their particular origin or use. Anishnaabe objects may want to be feasted, smudged, sounded, even allowed to deteriorate or decay.

In its location in the British Museum, the drum sits silently behind glass, among an assortment of other once useful objects, carefully arranged according to a foreign logic. It is helpful to note here that this is a relatively recent development for in the 19C people touched and held and sounded museum objects routinely.   This focus on ‘conservation’ as ‘preservation’ is only one of many possible ways one might imagine engaging with the material culture of the past.   That is a more general point. Specifically, in relation to this drum, we think one needs to as much as possible take into consideration an Anishnaabe worldview/orientation, and importantly, Anishnaabe law. As Ruth Philips says: “When an elder lifts up a moccasin or a mask in a museum storeroom and begins to sing a song or recount a story, we realize the unique potential of museum objects to trigger memories of and offer access to aesthetic and cognitive systems that are not, in the first instance, visual, but have to do, rather, with hearing, touching, smelling, or tasting.”

The idea of a ‘law-scape’ that we’ve been using here goes well beyond the ‘meaning’ or ‘cultural specificity of a legal order to connect with this insight about how sensory landscapes are variable across cultures and time periods and constituted in large measure in and through the things or technologies that we interact with.   The ways in which the various senses are ordered valued, utilized, relied upon or subordinated is not given or static. The ‘empire of sight’ in the museum needs to be provincialized, so that the place of the other senses might be ascertained. And yet, to accomplish this task on site in the British Museum while at the same time, engaging with the drum respectfully and lawfully in relation to both British and Anishnaabe legal orders presented a bit of a challenge.

As part of our presentation, we were asked to distribute a trace (a reflection of the essence of our object). The drum was originally a British military drum that was painted with Anishinaabe cosmological representations making the drum neither wholly British nor Anishinaabe but rather something of both – an intersocietal object. For our trace, we opted to present British-sourced glass jam jars with tin lids, which held a handful of wild rice grown in Anishinaabe territory. Like the drum itself, our trace was also intersocietal. Though the drum was on display behind glass and therefore unable to be sounded, it is a drum nonetheless and therefore meant to be heard. When our trace was shaken the rice against the tin lid sounded like the snare of the drum, allowing participants to imagine the soundscape of the drum itself. 

Jam jar
‘Trace’: Jam jar & wild rice.  Image (c) J. Hewitt

We are indebted to Amanda Perry-Kessaris, who – like the sound of the drum – called out to scholars to engage with each other on various objects found throughout the British Museum’s vast collection. It was deeply enriching. All of the participants’ generously offered thoughtful engagements with law and material culture that will continue to inform our own lines of inquiry. We are grateful too, for the opportunity to continue our work with each other in exploring the many connections between art and law.

[1] For more on GRASAC see https://grasac.org/.

[2] Classen and Howes, “The Museum as Sensescape: Western Sensibilities and Indigenous Artifacts” in Sensible objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture Edwards, Gosden, Philips eds.

[3]Nigel Thrift “Afterword” (2010) Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies Hicks and Beaudry, eds. at p. 657.

References  and further reading

Four Views of a Drum Crystal Migwans, GRASAC Knowledge Sharing System. Available at: https://grasac.org/exhibit/four-views-drum

Alan Corbiere and Ruth Philips “A Dehigan (drum) from Manitoulin Island”. Available at http://www.native-drums.ca/index.php/Scholars/Deheigan?tp=a&bg=3&ln=e

Edwards, C. Gosden, R. Philips eds. (2006) Sensible objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture (Berg Press: Oxford/NY).

Hicks and Beaudry, eds., (2010) Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies (Oxford).

Laxer (2015) “Listening to the Fur Trade: Sound, Music and Dance in Northern North America, 1760-1840” [unpublished dissertation, University of Toronto].