Native American Dance Tradition


CulturallyOurs Native American Dance Tradition Podcast

CulturallyOurs Podcast Cover Karthika Gupta Oct 2018
Season 04
Native American Dance Tradition
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Show Details

In this episode, Karthika explore the dance tradition of Native American tribes. In Native American cultures, dance is a way of expression, a language in itself. Dances tell stories. They are used as a medium for prayer and each dance has its own significant meaning. From grass dance, hoop dance, fancy dance and even women’s traditional dances like jingle dance and shawl dance, we learn about the importance and significance of each of the dances.

Karthika also shares some dos and don’ts for experiencing a Native American pow wow, which is an inter-tribal dance celebration authentically and respectfully.

Show Notes

Karthika explore the dance tradition of Native American tribes. In Native American cultures, dance is a way of expression, a language in itself. Dancing promotes community interaction and meditation. Dances celebrate events such as harvest or seasonal changes, marriages, and representatives from other tribes or nations. Dances tell stories, they are used as a medium for prayer and each dance has its own significant meaning.

The Transcript

Among the all the many forms of art that have been inspired by the Native American people, dance is, perhaps, one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring of them all. To the average visitor or non-native person, Native American dances may seem like simple steps, hops, and jumps, that essentially keep rhythm with the beat of the drum. But in reality, these dances are so much more than that. Dance is a way of expression, a language in itself. They tell stories, and they are used as a medium for prayer and each dance has its own significant meaning in Native American culture.

Historically, dancing was a way to promote community interaction. Round dances were a way of introducing guests, tribes, and clans. Other types of dances were done to celebrate events such as harvest or seasonal changes, marriages, and inter-tribal meetings. Celebrations and gatherings would last for days, with dance, feasts and storytelling.

If you have ever been to a Pow Wow or had the good fortune of being invited to participate in inter-tribal gatherings, chances are you might have witness any of the following popular dances.

#1 Grass Dance
Grass dance is one of the oldest and most widely used dances in Native American culture. It was the job of the grass dancers to flatten the grass in the arena before other important celebrations. The name ‘grass dance’ was actually derived from the old custom of tying braids of sweetgrass to the dancer’s belts, which produced a swaying effect. The grass dance was considered only a man’s dance. It is thought to have originated with the Northern Plains Indians especially the Omaha-Ponca and the Dakota Sioux tribes. Native American culture is full of old legends that connect many different rituals with stories of ancient ancestors that lived in harmony with nature. The legend of the Grass dance talks about a handicapped Northern Plains boy who had a desire to dance. After consulting a Medicine Man, he was instructed to seek inspiration on the prairie. Following the advice of the medicine man, he went alone out on the plains where he had a vision of himself dancing in the style of the swaying grasses. When he returned to the camp, he shared his vision to the others and was said to have eventually later able to use his legs, performing the very first grass dance.

The grass dance also serves as a way to honor and respect the Native American ancestors as well as to gain spiritual strength from mother earth who is revered as an important part of Native American culture.

In modern day, the grass dance is a popular dance that is enjoyed by both men and women and is full of color and movement. As the dancers move in fluid and bending positions to the music, their positions replicate the movement of grass blowing in the breezes. The grass dance is almost always present in inter-tribal where special blessings are not only bestowed upon the dancers but to observers as well.

#2 Hoop dance
This is perhaps one of my favorite Native American dances. Going back for centuries, the Hoop Dance is a beautiful storytelling dance, which incorporates hoops to create both static and dynamic shapes. These shapes or formations generally represent the movements of various animals. In its earliest form, the dance is believed to have been part of a healing ceremony designed to restore balance and harmony in the world. There is actually a deeply symbolic meaning of the hoops. With no beginning or end, the hoop represents the never-ending circle of life. The dancers use the hoops to create shapes including butterflies, turtles, eagles, flowers, and snakes, all the while dancing to drum music.

There are several versions of how the hoop dance originated. Some tribes believe that the creator gave a series of wooden hoops and the “dance” to a dying man from the Northern Plains who wanted a gift to leave behind. Another story of the Southwest tribes tells that the hoops were developed by cliff-dwellers for children to learn dexterity.

Another legend says that the Hoop dance originated in the Anishinaabe culture when an unearthly spirit was born to live amongst the people. The boy did not show any interest in typical boys activities such as running and hunting, preferring to be alone and watch animals. This caused his father to shun him and earned him the name Pukawiss: the disowned or unwanted. However, the boy continued to watch the movements of eagles, bears, snakes, and birds and before long was spinning like an eagle in flight, hopping through the grass like a rabbit, thus creating the Hoop Dance to teach his tribe members all the ways of the animals. Soon Pukawiss became so popular that every tribe wanted to learn the dance.

Today, the Hoop dance is generally performed by a solo dancer who begins with a single hoop, evoking the circle of life. Additional hoops are added representing other life elements, including humans, animals, wind, water, and seasons. The dance incorporates very rapid moves in which the hoops are made to interlock and extended from the body forming appendages such as wings and tails.

#3 Fancy Dance
Perhaps the most well-known or popular of all Native American tribal dance, the fancy dance in fact was not a historical dance of any one tribe. It was created by members of the Ponca tribe in the 1920s and 1930s, in an attempt to preserve their culture and religion. At this time, Native American religious dances were outlawed by the United States and Canadian governments. Traditional dances soon went “underground,” to avoid government detection. However, this dance, loosely based on the traditional War Dance, was considered appropriate to be performed for visitors on reservations. It was further made popular by Buffalo Bill in his ‘Wild West’ shows

This dance is fast-paced, colorful, and highly energetic. The dancer needs to have a lot of stamina and strength to maintain all the extremely athletic movements for an extended period of time. The dance regalia is bold and colorful adding to the impact of this dance. It often includes brightly colored feather bustles and headwear, beaded bodices, leggings, shawls, and moccasins. Beaded cuffs, chokers, earrings, bracelets, and eagle plumes are also worn. Fancy dancers are the most common scene in public pow wows today and it has become a competitive sport in inter-tribal pow wow gatherings. If you have ever been to a pow wow, chances are you have seen dancers perform this particular dance.

#4 Women’s Jingle Dress Dance
Women are considered the backbone of tribal nations. Women’s traditional dance is a very graceful dance that requires concentration and stamina. With movements that are very focused, it can seem as though dancers are floating along the ground as they dip and sway to the rhythm of the drum. Throughout the dance, the women stay connected to Mother Earth at all times, by always keeping one foot attached to her, as they move in time with the drum.

The women’s jingle dance originates from the Ojibwe people. It is a healing dance and is considered to be based on a young Ojibwe woman’s dream. Jingle dress dancers are often called upon to dance for the sick or injured. In order to be a jingle dress dancer, one must dream of becoming one. This dress is adorned with 365 cones, one to represent each day of the year, and each cone contains a prayer. When the accompanying drummers play honor beats on their drums, the jingle dress dancers raise their fans to spread prayers to the four directions, and the prayers are released from the cones of the dress.

#5 Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance
The women’s fancy shawl dance is considered a fairly new dance among Native American tribes. The regalia worn is bright, colorful, well adorned with bead work or applique. It is said that the fancy shawl dance is an adaptation of the ceremonial butterfly dance. Native American legend associates this dance and its regalia to a young native American woman as she transitions from a child to a young lady just like a butterfly transitions and emerges from its cocoon.

Isn’t it amazing how Native American culture is so in tuned with nature?

Understanding the Native American dance regalia

A huge part of any of these and other Native American dances is the regalia worn by the dancers. Regalia is actually an expression of each individual dancer, and often takes years to gather and build. Adornments are often handmade, by the dancer, or passed down from family members or another dancer. Regalia is built upon over the years, as a dancers life evolves and new pieces are added. Dancers show care and respect to their regalia because many of the elements are deeply spiritual with meaning and attachment.

Dos and Don’t at a Native American Pow Wow

I don’t know about you, but being invited or even just being a spectator at a Pow Wow is a very moving experience for me. I feel like I am a part of a culture so very different from my own but one that I can learn so much about myself and my place in the circle of life by listening to all the legends, stories and watching the dances. I always have so many questions and try to find an elder or someone who is open to answering them for me.

Remember that while a Pow Wow is a social gathering among Native American tribes, it is a very spiritual and meaningful event. As such there are some commonsense things we should follow when being a part of the Pow Wow

1) Show respect to the dancers, dance and tribal ceremonies
2) There will generally be an MC who will give a running commentary about what is happening and what is appropriate behavior. Make sure you follow that.
3) In most cases, taking photos and videos are allowed except for certain parts of the performances and ceremonies.
4) Do not touch a dancer’s regalia without first asking, as these outfits have very deep spiritual meaning.
5) Think of yourself as a guest at someone’s party and behave appropriately

Leave your comments below

  1. Bonny says:

    Thank you for the great information on this page!. I’ve heard the stories behind the hoop dance at the Calgary Stampede and have seen them performed a number of times, but didn’t know anything about the other dances. I try to teach my kids something new every day during the summer, and today’s theme is dancing, and this has really helped me add to the discussion. I’ve loved learning about all different types of dances from all different cultures myself.