Dances have always been significant in the lives of Native Americans as both a common amusement and a solemn duty. Many dances played a vital role in religious rituals and other ceremonies; while others were held to guarantee the success of hunts, harvests, giving thanks, and other celebrations.
Commonly, dances were held in a large structure or in an open field around a fire. Movements of the participants illustrated the purpose of the dance — expressing prayer, victory, thanks, mythology and more. Sometimes a leader was chosen, on others, a specific individual, such as a war leader or medicine man would lead the dance. Many tribes danced only to the sound of a drum and their own voices; while others incorporated bells and rattles. Some dances included solos, while others included songs with a leader and chorus. Participants might include the entire tribe, or would specific to men, women, or families. In addition to public dances, there were also private and semi-public dances for healing, prayer, initiation, storytelling, and courting.
Dance continues to be an important part of Native American culture. The dances are regionally or tribally specific and the singers usually perform in their native languages. Depending upon the dance, sometimes visitors are welcomed; while, at other times, the ceremonies are private.
This list of dances is far from all-encompassing, as there were literally hundreds of dances and variations across the continent.
There were a number of semi-religious festivals or ceremonies in which a large number of individuals participated which were handed from one tribe to another. One of the best-known examples of the Plains Indians was the Omaha or Grass Dance which was also practiced by the Arapaho, Pawnee, Omaha, Dakota, Crow, Gros Ventre, Assiniboin, and Blackfoot. Its regalia is thought to have originated with the Pawnee, who taught the dance to the Dakota Sioux in about 1870. The Sioux, in turn, shared it with the Arapaho and Gros Ventre, who taught it to the Blackfoot. Later, the Blackfoot carried the dance to the Flathead and Kootenai tribes to the west.
Meetings of these associations were held at night in large circular wooden buildings erected for that purpose. Some of the dancers wore large feather bustles, called crow belts, and a peculiar roached headdress made of hair. A feast of dog’s flesh was often served. Members of some of these associations were often known to have helped the poor and practice acts of self-denial.
Other dances, such as the Cree Dance, Gourd Dance, and horseback dances also had associations. However, from tribe to tribe, each had its own distinct ceremonies and songs, to which additions were made from time to time.
Not a historical dance tradition of any tribe, the Fancy Dance 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 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 and at “Wild West” shows. Two young Ponca boys are specifically credited with developing the fast-paced dance that the audiences loved and the Ponca Tribe soon built their own dance arena in White Eagle, Oklahoma.
Within no time, other tribes continued the practice and created new dances that could legally be danced in public. In the 1930s, the Kiowa and Comanche created new styles of dance regalia that was incorporated into the Fancy Dance.
Even before the Fancy Dance was established, an intertribal Pow-Wow circuit had already been organized where various tribes held dance contests. These became an important source of revenue during the Great Depression. In the late 1930s, women also began to perform in the Fancy Dance
The dance is fast-paced, colorful, and highly energetic, often including tricks and extremely athletic movements. Dancing regalia includes brightly colored feather bustles and headwear, beaded bodices, leggings, shawls, and moccasins. Clothes are also decorated with fringe, feathers, embroidery or ribbon work, and other rich designs. Beaded cuffs, chokers, earrings, bracelets, and eagle plumes are also worn. Fancy dancers are the most common scene in public exhibitions today and the dance has also become a competitive sport.
The Ghost Dance (Natdia) is a spiritual movement that came about in the late 1880s when conditions were bad on Indian reservations and Native Americans needed something to give them hope. This movement found its origin in a Paiute Indian named Wovoka, who announced that he was the messiah come to earth to prepare the Indians for their salvation. See full article HERE.
Believed to have originated with the Kiowa tribe, gourd dances are often held to coincide with a Pow-Wow, although it has its own unique dance and history. Kiowa legend has it that when a man was out alone he heard an unusual song coming from the other side of a hill. Investigating, he found the song was coming from a red wolf who was dancing on its hind legs. After listening to more songs through the night, the next morning the wolf told him to take the songs and dance back to the Kiowa people. The “howl” at the end of each gourd dance song is a tribute to the red wolf. The dance in the Kiowa language is called “Ti-ah pi-ah” which means “ready to go, ready to die.”
The dance is performed by men but women can participate by dancing in place behind the men and outside the circular arena. The drum can be placed on the side or in the center of the circle and the dancers perform around the perimeter of the area, usually dancing in place. The dance is simple, with the participants lifting their heels with the beat of the drum and shaking their rattles. The dress is also not elaborate, with sashes being worn by the dancers, around the waist or draped around the neck, reaching the ground.
Beginning in 1890 the United States government began to actively enforce bans on these dances and by the 1930’s it was out of practice. However, several tribes have resurrected the dance today. Some gourd societies do not distinguish race as criteria for joining, even allowing non-Native Americans to be inducted into their gourd societies. However, the Kiowa allow only members who are half-blood or more. During Pow-Wows today, gourd dancing generally occurs before the Grand Entry. The rattles used in Pow-Wows are not made of a gourd; but rather a tin or silver cylinder filled with beads on a beaded handle.