Dance, Indian

views updated Jun 27 2018


DANCE, INDIAN. North American Indian Dance is not a single entity—the several hundred indigenous nations of the United States and Canada each have their own distinct traditions. The Apache Crown Dance, Tewa Buffalo Dance, Kiowa Black Leg Society dances, and Yupik Bladder Feast are as different from each other as classical ballet is from hip-hop. Some dances are strictly ceremonial and an essential part of spiritual practices, while others are more social, but all honor the sacredness of the dance circle.

People organize and participate in seasonal dances; feast days and fiestas; life-cycle, agricultural, healing, and honoring ceremonies; family and clan events; special tribal religious ceremonies; and medicine rites. These occasions ensure the continuation of ancient lifeways, honor deities and members of the community, celebrate family and friends, and affirm Indian identities. Dances, along with music, oratory, poetry, drama, and visual arts, are symbolic manifestations of spiritual power—reaffirmations of relatedness. The dances of American Indian peoples are embodiments of indigenous values: a vital means of cultural survival in response to difficult historical circumstances. They are powerful expressions of survival.

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During the colonization of indigenous North America, Christian missionaries, government agents, and Western educational systems tried to suppress American Indian practices, notably performances of music and dancing. For colonizers, the dancing Indian body signified the antithesis of all things "civilized." Indigenous ceremonies were viewed as time-consuming pagan practices that ran counter to the Christian work ethic and undermined the "civilizing" goals of assimilation. Native dancing inter-twined with spiritual practices became a punishable of-fence, subject to a series of prohibitions by the late nineteenth-century federal government. Many Native American communities hid their ceremonies, holding their dances in conjunction with Anglo celebrations such as the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. In 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act signaled the end of forced assimilation, the U.S. government lifted its ban, and dance activities resumed in the context of changing reservation life. Despite considerable losses of ceremonial knowledge in many communities, indigenous music and dance performance were subsequently embraced openly, publicly celebrated, and accompanied by substantial revitalization.

Traditional practices are not static. They incorporate a historical continuum subject to innovation over time. Some events grow out of older practices and spread to new contexts, for example, the annual summer sun dances of the Plains tribes are ceremonial and social complexes of sacrifice, thanksgiving, and renewal that were widely disseminated across the Plains region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with marked variations in form. During a period of revitalization in the 1980s, communities whose sun dance ceremonies had ceased turned to neighboring tribes, as well as anthropological records, for assistance with re-creation.

The most public ceremonial and social dance complex is the powwow. The word derives from a Narraganset (Algonquian) term for curing ceremonies and was used by European settlers to refer to any Indian gathering. The contemporary powwow originated in the warrior societies of the Omaha, Kansa, Ponca, and Pawnee tribes of the Plains. The "Omaha dance" (also known as the Crow Belt Dance, Hot Dance, Grass Dance, and War Dance) spread through intertribal contact. As warrior societies declined at the end of the nineteenth century, events became more social, allowing women and children to take active parts. Since World War II the specific styles of competitive powwow dancing, singing, and regalia have diffused throughout rural and urban Indian communities. Modern powwows are intertribal celebrations of family, community, nation, and Native identity. In addition to competitive dancing for cash prizes, powwows incorporate occasions for honoring relatives and other individuals through naming ceremonies and giveaways of blankets, star quilts, and other household goods. Northern Plains powwows differ slightly from those on the southern plains, each tribe adding its own traditions, styles of dress, and dancing.

Tribal dances have been transferred to Western stages for nonnative audiences. The American Indian Dance Theater, formed in 1987 by Barbara Schwei and Hanay Geiogamah (Kiowa), collected outstanding dancers nationwide to present abridged, staged versions of powwow and other tribal dances. Recording artists such as Robert Mirabel have incorporated powwow dances in elaborate multimedia stage and TV productions.

Some American Indian dancers have performed in Western idioms: Two of America's famous ballerinas were Maria and Marjorie Tallchief. Of Osage descent, both became remarkable technicians and interpreters of classical roles in the Paris Opera Ballet and the New York City Ballet in the 1940s and 1950s. Later, innovative performing artists such as Juan Valenzuela (Yaqui), Belinda James (San Juan Pueblo), Rene Highway (Canadian Cree), and Rosalie Jones (Blackfeet/Pembina Chippewa) blended American modern dance with Indian dances and dramatic themes. These pioneers of new generations of performing artists represent new senses of "native" and "modern" selves in creative dance works that strive to connect both worlds.


Archambault, Jo Allyn. "Sundance." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 2, The Plains. Edited by Raymond J. DeMallie. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2001.

Frisbie, Charlotte. Southwest Indian Ritual Drama. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980.

Herndon, Marcia. "Native American Dance and Drama." In Theatrical Movement: A Bibliographic Anthropology. Edited by Bob Fleshman. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1986.

Heth, Charlotte, ed. Native American Dance: Ceremonies and Social Traditions. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 1992.

Holm, Bill. "Kwakiutl Winter Ceremonies." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 7, Northwest. Edited by Wayne Suttles. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1990.

Young, Gloria A. "Intertribal and Religious Movements." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 13, The Plains. Edited by Wayne Suttles. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1990.

Young, Gloria A., and Erik D. Gooding. "Celebrations and Giveaways." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 13, The Plains. Edited by Wayne Suttles. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1990.


See alsoIndian Religious Life ; Music, Indian ; andvol. 9:Land of the Spotted Eagle ; A Letter from Wovoka .

Indian Dance

views updated May 14 2018


INDIAN DANCE. SeeDance, Indian .