Native American ("First Nation," or "First People") dance is a very special art. Many dances are performed for family events, such as weddings and birthdays. Some dances are performed for fun, others to help the harvest, and some for religious ceremonies.... [more]
Native American ("First Nation," or "First People") dance is a very special art. Many dances are performed for family events, such as weddings and birthdays. Some dances are performed for fun, others to help the harvest, and some for religious ceremonies. Here are some examples of the dances in various regions of North America.
The Arctic peoples (Alaska and Canada) have many dance songs included in their ceremonies. The best known dance song for western Arctic peoples is drum dancing. It is usually performed at a festival honoring deceased relatives. People from neighboring towns are invited. Dancers wear costumes and masks, and the hosts give gifts to the guests. When it is time to dance, many drummers stand or sit in a half circle and sing and play their drums. Men and women dance in a half circle in front of them to the music, using their arms and upper bodies to show their feelings.
The Native Americans in western Washington and British Columbia (Canada) have another occasion for dancing, which is the potlach. A potlatch is a community gathering to honor the host or to celebrate family events, such as births and marriages. A dance called Spirit Dancing is performed at potlatch festivals every year. Young men or women "catch" a guardian spirit, sometimes as if in a dream. The young people create their own song and dance to show the spirits of their guardians. New dancers choose costumes and paint their faces before they perform. Other young people who performed their dances in earlier years perform their dance again. Any close relative who remembers the dances from the year before also joins in the dance. Sometimes dancers will take on an animal spirit for a dance with the help of elaborate costumes that help them appear like a raven, a bear, or another animal of their choice. Gifts are given to visitors to thank them for coming and to ask them to remember the new dances for next year.
The Great Basin people (from a region including Nevada and parts of Utah, Oregon, and California), including the Utes, Shoshones, and Paiutes enjoy a dance called the Bear Dance. The Bear Dance is performed to ask for enough food for everyone. Another Great Basin dance is the Sun Dance, which focuses on the importance of the sun.
The Pueblo of the Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah and California) have rituals and dances that have to do with farming and the need for water—two things necessary for their survival. One type of Pueblo dance is the blue corn dance. In this dance, the dancers act out the planting, growing, and harvesting of corn. The Hopi perform a snake dance, which lasts for four days. Snakes are caught and held while the people sing and dance. At the end of the festival, the snakes are let go—to take the prayers of the people out into the world and to their spirit friends.
The Native Americans of the Plains (from Wyoming to Minnesota and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan to Texas), including the Blackfoot, Lakota, and Crow, are well known for their powwow dances. Powwows were first danced in the 1800s, and are still done today. Powwow dances can be held for fun. They can also serve as family or tribal reunions. The dances are usually performed in a certain order. They start with a Grand Entry. Then there is a Flag Song, which is similar to singing the United States national anthem before a baseball game. There can be as many as eight more dances. Sometimes non-Native Americans are invited to join in a powwow dance. There are very special rules that must be followed if you are invited to join a powwow dance.
The Social Dance songs of the Iroquois in the Northeast are performed in between sacred rituals. They are often funny. There are nineteen different dances in the Social Dance set. Many of the dances are short and fast and are done by a group.
The Southeast Native American groups (North Carolina to Florida and west to Texas), such as the Creek and the Choctaw, also have special dances. The Creek Stomp Dance is performed for the Green Corn ceremony. The dance is very exciting. A solo singer starts to sing while the dancers and shell shaker players, who are all men, get in line. The song leader and the dancers sing back and forth to each other. Then the dancers and shell shaker players dance and sing faster and faster while each song gets longer and longer.
The Choctaw Social Dance songs were performed for an event called the Ballgame ceremonies. ("Ballgame" is the forerunner of lacrosse.) After the ballgame, the players would sing songs and everyone would dance into the night. There are as many as fourteen different dances and ninety songs! Some of the dances are done in a line, some in a circle, and some are danced by couples. Changing the song means changing the dance the people are performing. These dances and ceremonies were sacred but now they are performed in secular settings, such as educational demonstrations.