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 a criteria for joining, even allowing non-Native Americans to be inducted into their gourd societies. However, the Kiowa allow only members which 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.
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. However, the name “grass” does not come from the stomping down the terrain; but, rather, from the old habit of tying braids of sweet grass to the dancer’s belts, which produced a swaying effect. Traditionally a mens’ dance only, it is thought to have begun with the northern Plains Indians, particularly the Omaha-Ponca and the Dakota Sioux. An old legend tells that it was created by 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, 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 and was said to have eventually later able to use his legs, performing the first grass dance. In addition to its practical purpose, another objective of the dance is to honor and respect the ancestors and to gain spiritual strength from their mother earth. A popular dance today in which both men and women participate, the is dance is full of color and movement. Dancers resemble a multicolored swaying mass of yarn or fringe which represents grass. As the dancers move in fluid and bending positions to the music, their positions replicate the movement of grass blowing in the breezes. The dance today is largely intertribal, owing its longevity, in part, to a modernization of ceremonies prompted by early 20th-century oppression. Special blessings are not only bestowed upon the dancers but to observers as well.
Going back for centuries, the Hoop Dance is a storytelling dance, which incorporates from 1-40 hoops to create both static and dynamic shapes. These formations represent the movements of various animals and other storytelling elements. 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. With no beginning or end, the hoop represents the never-ending circle of life. The hoops, typically made of reeds or wood, are used to create symbolic shapes, including butterflies, turtles, eagles, flowers, and snakes.
There are several tales of how the dance originated. Some say 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 in the Southwest tells that the hoops were developed by cliff-dwellers for children to learn dexterity.
A more prominent legend has the Hoop Dance originating 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, and created the Hoop Dance to teach the other Indians about the ways of the animals. Before long, Pukawiss was so popular that every village wanted to learn the dance.
Today, the Hoop Dance remains popular. It 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. Practiced by a number of tribes today, it has evolved over the years, becoming faster and incorporating many non-traditional influences. It has also become a highly competitive event, with the first World Hoop Dance Competition held at the New Mexico State Fair in 1991. Today, the most popular competition is held annually at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.