Dancing has held a significant place in American Indian culture as both an amusement and as a solemn ritual. Historically, they’ve played an important role in the practice of their religions, and have been held to obtain the success of harvests and hunts, to show gratitude, and as part of other celebrations. Today, dance continues to be an important part of their culture, and dances are often a reflection of tribal identity. Here are four examples of Native American dances, and the historical meanings attached to them.
The Sun Dance was practiced by several different tribes, and was considered by the Plains Indians to be among the most important ceremonial dances they held. It symbolized the continuity of life throughout eternity, and also our dependency on and connection to nature. They were held yearly at the time of the summer solstice, and would last for up to eight days, continuing from sunrise until sunset.
The Stomp Dance is a traditional Chickasaw tribal dance to obtain special favors from the gods. This is a very familiar dance to many of us, as it has often been depicted in movies. The leader would begin with a song, then head toward the ceremonial fire with a rattle or shell shaker in hand, followed by the others wearing ankle rattles. The leader would call out to the Creator, and the men would respond as if speaking for the Creator. It is believed that whatever was requested would be granted within four days.
The Ghost Dance symbolized the rebirth of Earth, and the spiritual gift of an exalted state of bliss for Earth’s caregivers. It gives closure and courage to those that have lost loved ones. There was very little structure to the dance, which makes this dance unusual. All that was required was for participants to dance in a way of their choosing, that could awaken their ancestors so they could communicate with them. This is dance is associated with tragic history, as it was the dance that was being done when American soldiers attacked them during the Battle of Wounded Knee.
The Grass Dance is one of the oldest Native American dances that is known today. The dance symbolized the tribe’s victory over their enemies. It was also often used to flatten grass in an area in order to prepare the location for a tribal ceremony. Participants would be adorned with headdresses, ribbons, and fringes in order to emphasize the natural movement of grass as it’s blown in the wind, which they sought to imitate.
Native Americans continue the tradition of using these and other dances to connect with each other and to honor the beloved traditions of their people. Dance continues to be an important aspect of their society, and it serves as a vehicle for preserving their fascinating and diverse cultures. It is a mechanism for keeping their history alive, in a nation that is far removed from where they came from.