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Native American Dance History


    • Mixing spirituality and simple enjoyment, dance touched, and continues to impact today, nearly every aspect of native life. It may be a way to pray, express grief or joy, seek connection with nature and spirits, honor everything from birth to marriage to death, heal sickness, or, in previous times, prepare for war. Even today, only dance may properly protect and send off a warrior to the modern-day military.

      "Dance is the very embodiment of indigenous values and represents the response of Native Americans to complex and sometimes difficult historical experiences, "says W. Richard West, Jr., Director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. "Dance reflects the vast capacity of native peoples to endure culturally and to continue as a vital contemporary cultural phenomenon."


    • Early North Americans turned to dance as a tool for story-telling. Young men returning from battle or the hunt glowingly detailed accomplishments by "acting out" their experiences through dance. Performances like the grass dance, regularly shared at pow-wows and ceremonies today, stand as an example of the special harmony native people enjoy as part of their connection with Mother Earth.

    Grass Dance

    • The grass dance holds the distinction of being one of the most-common and universal dances among the wide variety of Native-American nations. Traditionally reserved for males in the majority of tribes, some cultures historically allowed females to perform the grass dance. In modern times, this is becoming more commonplace as women have increasingly begun to express an interest in the dance form.


    • Owing to the ancient belief that everyone and everything shares a connection, the history of Native American dance has always incorporated the circle as the primary formation. Although men and women sometimes share specific dances, most are male or female-only. Nearly all are accompanied by the ever-present beat of drums as the hypnotic heartbeat of the earth drives participants through the performance that unfolds the story of their experience or culture.


    • The Sun Dance, traditionally viewed as the most important religious ceremony of the many tribes across the Great Plains, paid homage to the buffalo that supported every aspect of native survival including food, shelter and clothing. Plains Indians expressed appreciation for the buffalo's life by undergoing painful, ritual piercings designed to pay back the sacrifice. Concerned over this human mutilation, the Canadian government outlawed performance of the Sun Dance in 1895 with the U.S. following suit in 1904. Canada lifted the ban in the 1950's while the U.S. waited until the presidency of Jimmy Carter to legalize the ceremony of the Sun Dance.

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