Native American dance is rich in its diversity of symbolic songs, music, and expressions of life. Long before Columbus landed in America, Native American cultures had sophisticated social and governmental systems. Like other first people (indigenous people) throughout the world, Native Americans tend to perceive the world as a holistic and complex system in which all life is connected. This worldview influences their arts and culture.
Native Americans are native to North America, the third largest continent in the world and a part of the supercontinent of North and South America. North America includes Canada, the United States, and Mexico North America has many rivers, massive mountain ranges, grand prairies, vast deserts, and thousands of miles of wilderness. At one time North America and Eurasia were one land mass. The last glacial melt 15,000 to 10,000 years ago produced a rise in sea level that separated Siberia and Alaska. The original people of North America share a cultural kinship to Eurasians in the practice of similar ceremonies, social traditions, and languages.
History of Native Americans
Over 50,000 years ago, small groups of hunters moved from northern Asia seeking the ancient mammoth for the animal’s tusks and meat. These daring hunters journeyed to what is now Alaska. As more nomadic people arrived, they moved inland into this vast uninhabited continent. Evidence suggests that people inhabited inland areas such as New Mexico. Prehistorical Native American culture artifacts appeared around 13,500 BCE near Clovis, New Mexico. A group of Native Americans known as Paleo-Indians became known as the Clovis people, some of the first inhabitants of the new world. Similar early evidence exists of first people in Nevada, Alberta, and Alabama.
People who migrated to the new world were not all from the same place or ancestry. Ancestors of Native Americans were predominantly of Asian race and had black hair, brown eyes, and tawny skin. However, some had fair skin or very dark skin. These first people of North America spoke a variety of languages that stem from six distinct language families.
Native Americans in the United States, first nations and people in Canada, and pre-Columbian people of Mexico were the first inhabitants of the North American continent. In what is now the United States, people settled the land; they dwelled in the Southwestern deserts, the woodlands of the North and Northeast, the plains, the South, the farming areas of the Midwest, and the coast of the Northwest. These geographic areas and the people’s livelihoods as farmers, hunters, fishermen, and others influenced how the people’s customs, rituals, and beliefs evolved.
Evidence of agriculture in the form of a primitive corn (dating back to about 6,000 years ago) was discovered in the Southwest. This discovery is remarkable considering that during that time in geological history, the Southwest was a vast desert. Around the Great Lakes area, tools fashioned of copper, spear points, axes, and knives from around the same period have been discovered. By 1000 CE, the Anasazi (meaning ancient ones) and other peoples from the Southwestern region (now Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado) built fortified towns, including the dwellings at Mesa Verde, which is now a National Park. During this time, known as the Great Pueblo period, these cliff dwelling people were skillful farmers who worked the land and weavers who wove shawls, dresses, and kilts. Their ancient pit houses became circular ceremonial rooms called kivas. In the kivas, men held clan meetings and emerged from the rooms as masked gods (called kachinas) to perform ritual dances before the community. Around 1250 CE, these cliff dwellings and circular cities were abandoned. Evidence suggests the cause was a drought that lasted about 20 years.
In the Mississippi Valley and the woodlands of what is now the southeastern United States, 4,000-year-old pottery samples have been found. Pottery from these eastern regions is 2,500 years older than pottery found in the Southwest. Since pottery was used for cooking and storing food, these artifacts suggest permanent communities.
Around 400 BCE in the Mississippi valley, a significant culture of mound-building societies emerged. These societies lasted over 800 years and have been found as far west as Kansas, throughout the Midwest to New York, and north to Wisconsin. Their huge mounds are thought to have religious significance as places of burial called funeral mounds.
Discovering Native American Dance
Characteristics of regional dances relate to geography and to the people’s way of life as hunters, farmers, or fishermen. All Native American dances have some general patterns, but many exceptions exist. Some regional groups share similar attributes with others.
Woodland people east of the Mississippi River hunted, harvested, and had medicine societies. Native American agricultural societies created ceremonies connecting to the seasons and the crops they grew. Northern clans performed dances in open circles moving clockwise and solo dances. Southern woodland people did spiral dances, in which improvisation played a key role. Sacred clowns were masked characters in these dances. Nomadic tribes practiced medicine rites.
Characteristics of Great Plains tribal societies focused upon age, status, male societies, and hunting themes. In the Great Plains, tribal societies expressed characteristics such as age, status, male society, and hunting in their dances. They did sun dances and celebrated the buffalo, the focus of their subsistence. Features of some of these dances included closed circles moving clockwise. The sacred number of four (relating to the four directions—north, south, east, and west) played a role in their dances. Clown performers wore masks made of animal hide. These male performers disguised themselves as animals, comical, sprits, or a mixture of personas for their ceremonial roles. The clowns’ pantomime sections and dancing added a different dimension to the main focus of the ceremony.
In the Southwest, dances related to agricultural ceremonies. Both sexes danced. Formations included single- or double-file circles that ranged from simple to elaborate. The symbolic use of the number four (see previous paragraph) was part of their dances. Clowns wore hide masks or painted their faces.
Tribes living in the northwest along the coast honored fish and whales as their livelihood. Dancers wore masks and impersonated spirits at gift giving feasts. They used mime, gesture, ecstasy, and frenzy in their performances. Men or women of high status performed solo dances.
This section presents an overview of Native American societies and how their cultural values and dances related to their geographic regions. For more detailed information about specific regions or societies, do a web search or see some of the resources in the bibliography.
Maria Tallchief (1925-2013)
Daughter of a member of the Osage tribe, Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief (later known as Maria Tallchief) was born in Oklahoma. Her mother was of Scottish-Irish descent. Her professional career as a ballet dancer started with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In the 1940s, she began a brief marriage to George Balanchine, artistic director of what later became the New York City Ballet. Tallchief had a strong technique and style, which she used to interpret many of Balanchine’s early neoclassic ballets.
Exploring Native American Dance
Like other forms of arts education in Native American culture, dance has been handed down from generation to generation through ceremonies, rituals, community and life events, celebrations, and festivals. Some dances are sacred rituals and known only to certain people in a particular tribe or society.
Although Native Americans did not keep written records of their dances, others who witnessed their dances did. In the 16th century explorer Jacques Cartier traveled down the St. Lawrence River in Canada. He wrote about making contact with first people of Canada and included accounts of them performing songs and dances. In the 17th century, Louis Hennepin was one of the first explorers to write about the Sioux and describe their dancing. In the 18th century, Jonathan Carver, an American map maker and explorer, wrote that dancing was a favorite exercise among the native people. During the early 19th century, European artists wrote field notes and sketched drawings of Native Americans to take back to Europe. In the early 1800s, George Catlin, one of the best-known American artists, portrayed Native Americans in his writing and paintings. He wrote that dancing was one of the principle and frequent amusements of most tribes.
From the time of Columbus into the 20th century, the relationship between Native Americans and Europeans who came to explore and settle has had a history of conflicts and wars over the land. Native Americans helped early European settlers, who would have otherwise perished. As settlers continued to come to the New World, Native Americans came to realize that Europeans had differing values about the land and its resources. The Europeans wanted to conquer the land. Colonists, explorers, and settlers brought with them new technologies and diseases that annihilated entire Native American communities, decreasing their overall population.
Over the 19th century, the people of the United States engaged in many wars with Native Americans. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 started government relocation programs to move Native American people from their homelands. On the famous Trail of Tears hundreds people of the Cherokee Nation died of starvation, exposure, and disease as they were relocated. In 1890, U.S. government troops massacred some 150 Native Americans at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. During the 19th century, Native Americans were relocated, stripped of their culture and heritage, forbidden to speak their languages, and forced to live on reservations.
In the later part of the 19th century, Eastern and Western Native American traditions met in the Oklahoma Territory, where they had been forced to relocate by the U.S. government. Tribes came together and started a movement that became known pan-Indianism. At this initial meeting, some Native American tribes shared their dances. This meeting planted the seed of a movement that continues today in many areas of society and culture.
In the 20th century, many Native Americans served heroically in World War I. In addition, Native American figures such as Jim Thorpe, Sequoyah, and Sacajawea, contributed to U.S. history through their exemplary lives. The actions of these and other Native Americans led to the passing of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which granted U.S. citizenship to Native Americans.
In 1934 John Collier, who was Commissioner of Indian Affairs, removed bans on dancing set by the Indian office. During the bans, more than a generation of Native American people were not allowed to perform their dances. Many of the old religious and ceremonial dancers and their artistic skills had passed away. The only dancing permitted during the ban was at public events. The dancers granted permission were Native Americans who were over 40 years old. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the Indian Religious Freedom statement so that Native Americans could worship in their traditional religions.
Today many Native Americans participate in reconstructing or preserving ceremonies and using oral traditions to explain and demonstrate to younger generations their dance traditions and tribal heritage. Many tribal events are closed to only members of the tribe. Powwows (Native American social gatherings) can be ceremonial or provide social, entertainment, and performance festivities for tribes and for tourists. Powwows usually focus on Pan-Indian dances. Dance performances and competitions showcase performers and their dancing.
Native American Dances
Dances in Native American societies followed the life cycle of birth and childhood, puberty rites, maiden’s dances, vision dances, and mourning dances. Men did war dances, victory and scalp dances, sun dances, and animal dances such as buffalo and eagle dances. Agricultural dances included rain dances, corn dances and harvest dances. Community dances varied; they could be ritualistic or spiritual dances, chief dances, or social dances.
Native American dances have changed over time through migration and assimilation into other societies. The Calumet dance featured soloists performing with a feathered pipe. This dance spread down the Mississippi and the Missouri and the Yellowstone rivers to different tribes. The snake dance of the Cherokee was originally a fertility dance that became a social dance. The buffalo dance was performed by various Native American groups, so it has many versions.
Although they are not all the same, Native American dances share some common characteristics. In Native American dances, posture is as important as footwork. A dancer is judged by carriage, footwork, and use of head, shoulders, torso, and arms. The dancer stands tall with the knees flexed slightly, or the torso tilts slightly forward. The body is relaxed. Gestures are restrained.
The primary purpose of a dance step is to keep time to the drum and the song. The full foot is used for steps, stamps, or toe and heel actions. The dancer does single or double easy flex and release of the knees similar to a soft kick. Agricultural dances use vertical posture with a relaxed carriage. Male dancers bend the torso forward in war dances. Female dancers use smaller steps.
In dances, the head shakes up and down, moves side to side, or creates circles (like drawing a circle on a flat surface with your forehead). Dancers focus on changes of direction, sudden rising and falling, and abrupt turning.
Native American dance uses controlled movement. Some dances, such as war dances, are freestyle with no movement restrictions for the body, shoulders, arms, or hands.
The buffalo dance was done to celebrate the spirit of the buffalo. Many myths and stories tell the origin and meaning of the Buffalo dance. Buffalo dances were historically performed by male dancers who represented the buffalo and their hunters. The dance version presented in this section is very simple and includes repeated sections. Once you have learned it, you can incorporate variations on the basic steps; for ideas, view the video titled Hopi Buffalo Dance 4 (see Buffalo Dance Links). Any number of dancers can participate in the Buffalo dance.
In the thunder drumming introduction, dancers scatter over the space. Each dancer walks through the space, doing the steps while creating an individual pathway.
With each step, lift the foot off the ground as if you were walking through the tall grasses of the prairie. While moving, your head moves side to side as if you and your fellow dancers were buffalo moving across the prairie. You can change your posture from standing straight to bending low as you move through the space.
During the quarter beat section, dancers stand in place and perform a jump step.
In this section, your hands are on your hips or down at your sides. The body is vertical and the knees bend slightly. Jump on the first beat of the drum, returning to the bent knee position on the second beat. Perform the jump with the lower part of the body while the upper body and head remain still during the movement. These jumps can be in place or in small circles around you to the right and then the left. You can also walk a few steps to the drum rhythm between jump sections. On the walks, lower your head.
When the thunder drumming begins again, the dancers repeat their walking sequences from the introduction.
As you walk, move your head from side to side. This section is followed by the jumps outlined in section 2. These sections repeat as many times as needed to complete the dance.
Songs relate to all aspects of life from cradle to grave, and they are an integral part of the dance. Songs are passed down from generation to generation. New songs are created for annual celebrations. Singers and composers are respected men of the Native American community. Professional singers perform at celebrations. Popular songs travel from one community to another.
The singer uses a falsetto voice with a quaver. Songs may have few words, but the syllables carry the tune. Tunes create their own rhythmic structure. Most songs are repeated as many times as necessary for the occasion. Many regional societies have unique mannerisms in their singing styles. Musicians, composers, and singers are predominantly male.
Native Americans use many musical instruments. The drum is the most popular musical instrument. Some tribes use flutes, whistles, or rattles. Drums and rattles have special powers. The drum represents life’s forces in its rhythms. Drums come in various sizes depending on the tribe that uses them. Small drums can be 6 to 18 inches (15-45 cm) or large drums are 2 to 15 feet (0.6-4.6 m). Drums can have one or two heads. Most dance drums are made of animal skins stretched over wooden or metal frames. The wooden frames can be made from cedar or a hollowed log. Drum music can contrast or counterpoint the song. The drum beat determines body movement. The voice expresses emotion.
Rattles come in a wide variety and are important to performing rituals. In the eastern region, rattles were made of gourds with seeds and later with shot, or pellets. In the western region, tribes used a variety of materials such as rawhide shaped to look like gourds, shells of snapping turtles, hickory bark, or cow horns. Dancers wore rattles, then later bells around their knees and ankles or hanging in clusters from their regalia. Dancers carried hand rattles.
The drum symbolizes the rhythm of the entire universe and the heartbeat of all creation. Drums are considered sacred or mysterious power. Plains and woodland tribes use simple, precise rhythms. Southwest rhythms are complicated. The drum accents the rhythm of the song. Male dances use 2/4 meter, and female dances use 3/4 meter. As in the example of the buffalo dance, thunder drumming often introduces a dance.
Rhythms are usually simple and played in slow, medium, or fast tempo. The buffalo dance uses very slow tempo. Accelerated beats in war dances and round dances keep the dancers moving in step. Tribes use drum accents in songs. Nearing the end of a song, the drums get louder. The dancers dip low or turn rapidly for what is called honoring the drum. The dancers doing these movements express their appreciation for the singers and the musicians.
Masks and Paint
Some tribes used masks. Northwest tribes created the most elaborate masks, which sometimes were even double or triple masks. The dancer wearing the mask was transformed into the person, animal, or spirit for the performance. Mask carvers were master craftsmen and artists. In the Seneca tribe, masked healers performed annual ceremonies.
On the Plains, realistic masks were used in the bear and the buffalo dance. When masks were unavailable, paint was used on the face and body. Face and body paint have many meanings and function as part of the entire clothing. Paint could designate membership in a warrior society or have secret or symbolic meanings. Red and yellow were symbolic of the sun. Red represented the morning sun—the source of life, light, energy and power. Yellow represented the setting sun—its beauty, sincerity and peace. Black signified mourning ceremonies for the dead. Red and black together were regarded as war colors.
Male and female dancers painted their bodies and their faces. Natural pigments mixed with tallow or grease also provided protection from the weather. Colors depended on tribal locations. Tattoos indicated adopted people. In the Northwest and East, a tattoo of a design on the face or chest identified the person and clan.
Did You Know?
Powwows are festivals where Native American people meet to dance, sing, and socialize to continue and preserve their heritage. If a powwow is in your area and you are able to attend, take the opportunity to learn more about Native American dance.
An MC (master of ceremonies) conducts the powwow. The MC provides you with instructions and the information you need in order to be a respectful visitor and experience the social and cultural traditions at the powwow. Powwows have several general rules of etiquette. If you are a first-time visitor, you’ll need to learn these social and cultural rules:
Always stand respectfully during special songs such as the Grand Entry, Flag Songs, Veteran’s Songs, or any other song that the emcee designates. During these songs, men should remove their hats.
Some Native American groups consider pointing with the fingers to be poor manners. If you must point, use your head to nod in the direction you wish to indicate.
Ask permission before taking photos or video of dancers in regalia. If it is for publication or commercial use, you must explain this before taking the photo or video.
The correct term for a dancer’s outfit is regalia, not costume. Never touch a dancer’s regalia. Many of the ornaments have religious meaning and are cherished family heirlooms.
Powwows are held all around the nation. You can locate one in your area by searching on the web. The website powwows.com provides a listing of powwows for various tribes and states.
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Hassrich, Royal. B. 1974. North American Indians. London, England: Octopus Publishing Group Limited.
Heth, Charlotte. 1998. Native American Dance: Southeastern Woodlands. International Encyclopedia of Dance, vol. 4. pp.558-560. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kassing, Gayle. 2007. History of Dance (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics).
Kurath, Gertrude Prokosch. 1998. Native American Dance: Overview. International Encyclopedia of Dance, vol. 4. pp. 549-556. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kurath, Gertrude Prokosch, Heth, Charlotte. 1998. Native American Dance: Northeastern Woodlands. International Encyclopedia of Dance, vol. 4. pp.556-558. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Native American ceremony Sioux Ghost Dance 1894 -Edison Kinetoscope.
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Native American Dance: www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=31173.
Ney, Marian Wallace. 1983. Indian America: A Geography of North American Indians. Cherokee, NC: Cherokee Publications.
Powers, William. 1998. Native American Dance: The Plains. International Encyclopedia of Dance, vol. 4. pp.560-562. New York: Oxford University Press.