Drama: North American Indian Dance and Drama

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


In all regions of North America, indigenous peoples practiced various public rituals for the purpose of communicating with the supernatural spirits and powers that controlled their universe. The most ubiquitous and theatrical form of the dramatic performance was dance in which actors wore elaborate costumes and masks representing the supernatural beings they sought to appease. These dance dramas often involved a special performance area that included entrances and exits for the performers; a chorus of singers and dancers; principal dancers; scenic backdrops; special lighting effects; and, most importantly, plots revolving around myths of creation and supernatural beings and powers who were perceived to inhabit the everyday world. These dance dramas were characterized by masquerade, imitation, role reversal, burlesque, and reenactments of myths and personal visions.

American Indians relied greatly on their ability to mime the behaviors of those animals and birds that were important to their religious life. The environment played a great role in ritual performance, which was grounded empirically in knowledge of the seasons, flora, and fauna. As might be expected, hunters chose to emulate in their dances those animals that were important to their survival, while farmers performed rituals that focused on the agricultural cycle.

Dance drama was performed to the accompaniment of vocal music sung by an individual or chorus. The songs might contain meaningful text, sometimes short phrases that poetically captured the theme of the dance, or meaningless vocables that despite their lack of semantics were highly structured both melodically and rhythmically. The range of native musical instruments in North America was comparatively limited. Various sizes and shapes of drums served as the major accompaniment to song in all regions. Rhythmic patterns were characterized mainly by single unaccented beats, duple accented beats, and accented triplets. Only in the Pueblo Southwest do we find a highly structured sense of rhythm, particularly in some of the mimetic animal and bird dances, in which there is a perfect correspondence between song, drum, and dance steps without benefit of measured beats in the strict Western sense of time.

Costumes were both realistic and stylized. On the Plains, a Buffalo dancer would dress in the hides of a bull, complete with a headdress of horns, a robe over his shoulders, leggings made from the hairless part of the hide, and a buffalo tail hanging conspicuously from his waist. Similarly, Eagle dancers of the Pueblo Southwest soared gracefully in the dance plaza wearing costumes made from eagle feathers topped with a headdress representing the bald eagle's crown and golden beak. But in the Northwest Coast region, where wood sculpture reached its highest aesthetic form in all of North America, intricately carved masks, made to be manipulated by strings revealing masks within masks, and carved and painted dance houses and scenery frequently featured stylized representations of ravens, whales, bears, and other animals and birds significant to the coastal culture.

All ritual performances were for the benefit of the general public as well as the principal performers, and all performances required a specially constructed performance area. Frequently, the public part of the performance represented only a small part of a longer ritual that sometimes took several days or weeks. For example, among the Lakota on the Great Plains, the vision quest was regarded as a personal and private form of mediation and propitiation. However, it was necessary for a medicine man to interpret the candidates' visions. Frequently, in order to legitimate the experiences, the supplicants were directed to reenact their visions before the entire village. This reenactment took the form of imitation of various animals or birds that had informed them, and appropriate costumes representing the buffalo, wolf, elk, bear, or eagle were worn.

On a larger scale, Plains Indians performed the Sun Dance collectively, after individual dancers had participated in private vision quests. An integral part of the ceremony, the elements of which were widely diffused to nearly all Plains tribes, was the erection of the medicine lodge, or sacred arbor, in which the performance occurred. Dancers wore special costumes including long kilts, necklaces representing sunflowers, and wreaths of sage around their wrists, ankles, and forehead. The segments of the dance in which the Sun was propitiated were directed by the Sun Dance leader. The performance lasted for several days and was accompanied by other intrusive dances prior to going on the buffalo hunt.

The Kwakiutl of the Northwest Coast were unsurpassed as dramatists with a full sense of lighting, scenery, costumes, and plot. The dance dramas were presented in cycles and depicted the kidnapping of the hero by a spirit who bestowed supernatural power upon him before returning the hero to the village. The hero was most frequently possessed by a "cannibal spirit" and therefore craved human flesh. In the reenactment, a frenzied hero was led back into the dance house by villagers and fed flesh believed to have been taken from a human corpse, although more likely it was animal meat. The dance house was replete with trap doors and tunnels, and performers could quickly appear and disappear magically. The dancers wore huge masks with movable parts, some representing the large beak of a bird, through which the dancers cried out "Eat! Eat!" Hollow stems hidden beneath the floor were used as microphones through which the voices of the actors could emanate from any part of the house. Dolls strung on ropes partly obscured by the dim firelight flew through the air for dramatic effect. Finally, the principal dancer, believing he had consumed human flesh, calmed down to end the event gracefully.

In the Northeast, the best-known Iroquoian sodality was the False Faces. The society was formed when a supernatural being called False Face appeared to the Iroquois in the form of detached faces and taught them the art of curing. The elaborate masks were carved and painted in grotesque ways, and when worn by the society, members were believed to frighten away malevolent spirits that caused sickness. The mask was carved from a living tree and was painted red or black depending on whether the carver began work in the morning or afternoon. Noses, mouths, and eye holes were twisted and contorted, and long shocks of horsehair fell over the wearer's shoulders. The False Faces performed during the midwinter festivals on the New York and Canadian reservations. Additionally, they visited every Iroquois house in fall and spring in order to exorcise evil spirits. Wearing the masks and tattered clothing, the False Faces carried turtle-shell rattles and hickory sticks. When someone had contracted a disease over which the False Faces had power, the leader of the society was informed, and the troop of False Faces appeared at the patient's house, striking and rubbing their rattles against the house as they entered. Once inside they sang and danced, accompanied by the shaking of rattles. Some of the dancers would scoop up hot embers from the fire and blow them on the patient in order to cure him.

In the Great Lakes area the ritual of the Midewiwin was enacted by the Ojibwa and other central Algonquians. Translated as "Great Medicine Society," the Mide (the shortened form of the name) held its meetings once a year in a special lodge resembling a large wigwam varying in length from one hundred to two hundred feet and in width from thirteen to thirty feet. In height it was seven to ten feet with an open apex that was covered with cattail mats and birchbark during inclement weather.

The Midewiwin was a membership organization, and people were admitted on the basis of application, of having a suitable dream, or by replacing a deceased relative who had been a member. Both men and women could join, and the religious leaders of the Mide were elected by its membership. The main annual functions were initiatory, and curing rites were conducted by carefully trained Mide shamans.

The Mide priests determined which candidates would be accepted into the society, and candidates were expected to pay for the rites of initiation, which included knowledge of the myths, rituals, songs, and remedies of the society. All ceremonies had originated in revelations and were carefully transcribed on birchbark scrolls with a bone stylus and handed down pictographically from generation to generation.

The initiation rite was the most dramatic. The candidates knelt on mats surrounded by four posts inside the medicine lodge. Two members held the candidates' shoulders, while four others thrust their medicine bags at them. As the four leaders approached, the candidates were overcome by the power of the leaders' spirits and fell lifeless to the ground. When revived, each candidate spat out a small cowrie shell called migis, which was the sacred emblem of the Mide. The initiator then offered the shell to the four directions and sky after which it magically disappeared again into the candidate's body, and the candidate was fully resuscitated. All members were required to attend meetings once a year for the renewal of their spiritual powers, but smaller gatherings could be held for the treatment of the sick, singing songs, and strengthening their belief in the power of the Mide. A feast was an inseparable part of all Mide functions.

One of the most important ceremonies of the Southeast was the Green Corn Dance, a celebration of the harvesting of one of the major food staples of North America. Known among the Creek as the Busk (from the Creek word puskita, "to fast"), the ceremony of first fruits took place in August. The Busk was actually an aggregation of different ceremonies, including the drinking of Ilex cassine, or "black drink," used as an emetic to purge the participants and purify themselves. A sacred fire was built, and young initiates had their flesh scratched to make them brave. Both men and women performed various dances including the Stomp dance, which was performed in a serpentine pattern by a line of alternating men and women. The women wore turtle-shell shakers around their knees that accompanied the antiphonal singing of the group. At the end of the Busk, the various clans participated in a stickball game that marked the conclusion of the ceremony. Variations of the Green Corn Dance were found also among the Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Yuchi of the Southeast, as well as among other tribes where corn was cultivated.

The Southwest is where the highest concentration of dance drama is found not only with the elaborate agricultural rituals of the Pueblos, but with the various curing rituals, puberty ceremonies, and mimetic animal dances. Literally hundreds of these rituals were performed by the Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo peoples each year. In many cases native rituals are still held in conjunction with feasts of the Catholic Church. All provide colorful spectacles equal to any of the religious pageants of North America and Europe.

The Hopi of Arizona perform a number of masked dances on their mesas. The kachina dances, named after the spirits of the dead, are the most intriguing. The Hopi believe that in mythological times the kachina s came from their homes in the West to bring them rain and to ensure them long and happy lives. Later, the kachina s showed the people how to make masks and costumes and taught them their songs and dances with the understanding that if the people performed the ceremonies correctly, the supernaturals would continue to bring prosperity to the villages. There are over 250 named kachina spirits among the Hopi, each represented by a different mask and costume. It is believed that the men who impersonate the spirits at the kachina performances become the spirits they represent. Women and uninitiated youth are not supposed to know that the kachina dancers are really their clansmen. At each performance the kachina s bring gifts for the children and place them in the center of the village plaza. The kachina dances are performed during the first half of the year, when their appearance is supposed to ensure the successful planting of crops. The ceremonies represent intense periods of ritual performance in which all men and women in the village undergo instruction in their faith. It is also a time when the people entertain their spiritual benefactors.

At the time of the summer solstice, the Niman dance is performed in which all the kachina s appear en masse before the villagers who thank the supernaturals for the gift of a good harvest. It is believed that the kachina s then leave to return to their homes. When they return to their homes, they visit the dead, who are performing rituals of the winter solstice while similar ceremonies are being performed by the living during the summer.

In New Mexico among the Zuni the Shalako ceremony is held in November or December each year. Six dancers are dressed to represent giant birds, the messengers of the rain gods, with conical costumes attached to their waists measuring in height from ten to twelve feet. They have birdlike faces complete with beaks that are movable, protruding eyes, and upcurved tapered horns. At midnight, they enter special houses that have been built for their performance. They utter birdlike calls and clack their beaks in rapid succession. They dance and make speeches telling the people to pray for an abundant harvest and long lives for the villagers.

The Shalako dancers are joined in their ritual by the ten Koyemshi, or "Mudheads," the children of a legendary incestuous union. These impersonators are appointed by the Zuni priests to serve for one year and are then free from further duties for another four years. The Koyemshi entertain at all public rituals when the kachina s are away from the village by providing comic, and sometimes obscene, interludes between the more serious dances. Sometimes they play Euroamerican games such as beanbag. The jokes, puns, and riddles that they cry out to the villagers are filled with scatalogical references, and they play pranks and make obscene jokes about the most respected and sacred aspects of Zuni religion. In this manner they make moral and ethical points by burlesquing those institutions and individuals with whom people come in contact every day. They also burlesque their most sacred beliefs through vulgar references that strongly constrast with appropriate Zuni behavior. For the duration of the ritual, the onlookers participate vicariously in what is temporarily socially approved behavior.

The Koyemshi appear as ludicrous figures. They wear formless baglike cotton masks that have bumps or knobs protruding from them. The knobs are filled with raw cotton seeds and earth or dust taken from the footprints made by the people in the streets around the village. Sometimes feathers are tied to the knobs, and the lower part of the mask is tied to the knobs with black cotton in scarflike fashion. Under the scarf they wear a small bag containing squash, corn, and gourd seeds. Their masks and bodies are painted with pink clay that comes from the sacred lake. These clowns also wear black homespun kilts, and the leader adds to his kilt a black tunic worn over his right shoulder. As is true with the Hopi, the Zuni dancers and clowns serve to underscore the religious values of the society by occasionally emphasizing the absurd.

Nearby in Arizona and parts of New Mexico and Oklahoma, numerous bands of Apache perform a ceremony used variously as a puberty ceremony, or to cure illness and avert catastrophe. The Mountain Spirits dance, or Gahan, as it is properly known, is an essential feature of the female puberty ceremony, in which the young initiate ritually represents White Painted Woman, the divine mother of the Apache culture hero, or in some cases, Mother Earth. The Apache believe that performance of the ritual brings good fortune to the initiate, her family, and to the entire tribe.

In this ceremony four male dancers represent the four directions, or Mountain Spirits, powerful supernatural beings who act as intermediaries between humans and the Great Spirit. The initiate is secluded in a special lodge. She is painted and dressed by a woman of impeccable reputation who also has received a vision from the White Painted Woman. Each day a male singer sings appropriate songs for her. Each night the masked dancers appear in spectacular and grotesque costumes. They are dressed and painted by a shaman in a special brush arbor before the evening ceremonies begin. The shaman paints their bodies with designs representing the sun, moon, lightning, planets, rain, and rainbow. After being painted and instructed, the dancers line up facing east. They then spin clockwise, spit four times into their headdresses, and put them on after feigning this action three times. A fire is made in the ceremonial lodge by rubbing sticks together, and each night the masked dancers enter the lodge and dance around the lodge in a prescribed manner. They wear wooden headdresses shaped like huge rainbows projecting from their black-hooded faces. Yellow buckskin kilts are tied from their waist, cuffed by long fringed boots. They carry wooden swords in each hand, and as they dance in rigid, angular patterns, bending and crouching in near-balletic movements, they slap their swords vigorously against their thighs and legs. On the fourth night, the candidate joins the dancers dressed in a yellow buckskin fringed dress with designs like those of the masked dancers. At the end of the four days, the young woman scatters pollen over the people who were brought to her to receive her blessings.

The Apache regard the dance as particularly powerful, and each of the aspects of the dance must be done properly lest harm befall the tribe. If the dance is not executed properly, it is believed that the dancers may have trouble with their eyes and noses, their faces will swell, or paralysis will set in.

Among one of the most vivid ritual performances of the Navajo of the Four Corners region of the Southwest is the Yeibichai, also known as Night Chant. The word yeibichai is partly a corruption of the Zuni word for "spirit" plus the Navajo term for "maternal grandfather," hence it literally means "grandfather of the gods." The ceremony was handed down by supernaturals and was thought to be particularly efficacious in curing both psychosomatic and somatic disorders, especially insanity, deafness, or paralysis.

The ritual is sponsored by one man and his clan relatives in winter and is performed outdoors on a barren plateau. A sacred hogan is built at the west and a brush arbor shelter for the dancers at the east. Between the two a row of bonfires is built.

The ceremony takes nine days, the first eight being composed of secret ceremonies, and the last day, a public performance. In the dance the Grandfather of the Gods is personified by the lead dancer, who wears buckskin hunting clothes. The other dancers wear masks and kilts and resemble Pueblo kachina s.

The ritual specialist in charge of the Yeibichai is the chanter, a person who has chosen to learn the sacred ritual. He pays to be taught and studies for many years learning by rote every detail. During this time he collects sacred objects such as prayer sticks, herbs, turquoise, white shell, abalone, and jet, which he will use in his ceremonies. The specialist also may learn a few lesser rites plus the Blessingway, a ritual that must follow every other ritual to atone for any possible mistakes in them.

During the first four days, the patient and his relatives purify themselves by sweating and taking emetics. The patient and the chanter pray to the supernaturals to aid them in the ceremony. Each supernatural must be named in the proper order lest misfortune befall them. The chanter sings sacred songs and administers potions and sacred pollen to help rid the patient of evil forces.

During the next four days, the chanter and helpers coax the supernaturals into the ritual area by constructing sand paintings of them. The final power will arrive when pollen has been sprinkled on the sand painting. In these paintings, male divinities are represented as having round heads, while females have square heads. The yei s, as these male and female divinities are called, are pictured as standing on clouds or lightning and guarded by rainbows. The completed painting forms an altar sometimes ranging in width from four to eighteen feet.

Next, the patients are bathed and dried with cornmeal and painted with the symbols of the supernaturals. They are then brought into the hogan to receive power from the supernaturals represented in the sand painting. Sand from various parts of the painted figures is pressed against their ailing parts, and they are made one with the supernaturals and share their power. Finally the sand is swept up so that it may not be contaminated. The Navajo word for the design means the "going away of the group" and the design itself is regarded as a temporary visit from the supernaturals. On the ninth night, both the chanter and the patient must stay awake until dawn while the power increases in them. The Yeibichai impersonators are dressed in grotesque masks and decorated kilts with as many turquoise and silver necklaces, bracelets, and bow guards as they can put on. They spend the night publicly dancing and singing. The patients must not sleep until sunset, when they enter the sacred hogan and stay there for four nights. The rite is ceremonially concluded with the Bluebird Song, sung in honor of the bird of the dawn that brings promise and happiness.

Although most dance dramas were performed by groups of singers and dancers, the Deer Dance of the Yaqui of the Southwest is a unique solo performance. The Yaqui believed that the deer had the power to cure or cause illness and also to bring thunder, lightning, and rain. Dancing to the deer deity also ensured food and fecundity for the people and animals.

A religious pageant announcing the Deer Dance, which took place just before Easter, was suddenly interrupted by the presence of four to six dancers and four singers striking gourds with sticks to create a rasping sound. All dancers were naked from the waist up and wore grotesque masks representing human faces. The lead dancer, however, wore small deer antlers attached to his head and a cocoon rattle, six to eight feet in length and filled with pebbles, wrapped around one leg.

The lead dancer performed most of the Deer Dance alone. His movements mimicked that of the deer with great realism, his head moving quickly and erratically from side to side as if he had picked up the scent of danger. His feet scratched the earth before he quickly bolted upward, leaping gracefully over some imaginary barrier. Then, as the dance came to a close, the dancer became hunter and hunted, imitating the actions of a man with bow and arrow carefully stalking his prey. Letting fly the arrow that mortally wounded him, he fell to the ground quivering as he breathed his last.

See Also

Clowns; Iconography, article on Native North American Iconography; Music, article on Music and Religion; Sun Dance.


Densmore, Frances. Chippewa Music. Bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology, no. 45. Washington, D. C., 1910. A classic work on the Chippewa with detailed discussion of the Midewiwin.

Densmore, Frances. Yuman and Yaqui Music. Bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology, no. 110. Washington, D.C., 1932. A good description of the Yaqui Deer Dance.

Drucker, Philip. Indians of the Northwest Coast. Garden City, N.Y., 1955. A discussion of various tribes of the Pacific Northwest with some emphasis on material culture and ritual drama.

Kurath, Gertrude P. Iroquois Music and Dance: Ceremonial Arts of Two Seneca Longhouses. Bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology, no. 187. Washington, D.C., 1964. A description of music and choreographic patterns of numerous Iroquoian rituals including the False Face society.

Ortiz, Alfonso, ed. New Perspectives on the Pueblos. Albuquerque, 1972. The section entitled "Ritual Drama and Pueblo World View," by Ortiz, himself an anthropologist and Pueblo, is one of the best theoretical introductions to ritual drama.

Powers, William K. Oglala Religion. Lincoln, Neb., 1977. Includes a description and analysis of the vision quest, sweat lodge, and Sun Dance of the Lakota Indians of the Great Plains.

Powers, William K. Sacred Language: The Nature of Supernatural Discourse in Lakota. Norman, Okla., 1986. Contains descriptions and illustrations of various animal impersonators among the Lakota.

Reichard, Gladys A. Navaho Religion. New York, 1950. Perhaps the best work ever done on Navajo symbolism.

Roediger, Virginia More. Ceremonial Costumes of the Pueblo Indians. Berkeley, 1941. An excellent illustrated book of ceremonial costumes, including those described for the Hopi and Zuni.

Tyler, Hamilton A. Pueblo Gods and Myths. Norman, Okla., 1964. A good historical background to the Pueblo with an emphasis on cosmology and worldview.

Underhill, Ruth M. Red Man's Religion. Chicago, 1965. Although stylistically dated and somewhat patronizing, there are excellent descriptions of ritual drama from most parts of native North America.

William K. Powers (1987)

More From Encyclopedia.com

You Might Also Like