The Role Of Traditional Dances In Native American Religions

In Native American Culture, there are many traditional dances that take place for religious ceremonies. Native American dances take a vital position in family gatherings including marriages, the birth of a child, death, harvest time and more. There is little in Native American culture that doesn’t involve some form of dance as a way of celebration, solemnity, and respect. 

Native American dances aren’t just reserved for religious ceremonies, they are also a valued part of everyday life as well. Native American’s dance when they are happy, sad, and everything in between.

Since there are so many different tribes there are many different dances. Even the same tribe will have variances in the dances due to regional differences or simply family traditions.

Most of these dances are done to a drum beat that is done by specific “drummers” in the tribe. Some are also accompanied by a wooden flute type musical instrument that is played along with the drumming.

Adding to the festive mood is the fact that many of the Native American’s wear disguises during the dance festivities. Often called Regalia, their dress may include many beads and feathers as well as unique headdresses (used mostly by the men although some women will have a few feathers in their hair and beads or beading).

The regalia includes deerskin dresses and leggings, beading, bugle beads, feathers, a guide on lasting longer and moccasins. If you’ve never been to an American Indian Pow Wow, you’ver really missed out on a cultural activity that showcases the dance and the dress of Native American’s. 

Dance has always been a part of Native American culture. It’s part duty, part ritual and it plays a vital role in all of their religious ceremonies. 

Movement in Native American dance is frequently done around a fire pit or at least in a circle. It involves a lot of hand and upper body movement and tends to tell a story through motion.

They dance to give thanks to Mother Earth for a bountiful harvest. They give a blessing for good crops and to show respect for a person or someone who has passed on.

In the early 1920s through the late 1930s, many of their dances were done “underground” as the American Government outlawed them in hopes of “domesticating” the American Indians.

They did this to help preserve their culture and traditions. One of the common dances is called the “Ghost Dance” which was done to give them hope during a time of great upheaval to many of the nations. 

It told a story of the Messiah come to earth to save them and their culture. It involved the men dressing in full regalia and using hand motions and upper body movement with the sweeping and swaying of arms and the torso to the beat of a drum “telling” the story of how it came to be. 

Another frequently done dance is called the Fancy Dance. The men (and a few of the women) dress up in highly colorful regalia which includes bright colored feather bustles, headwear full of feathers, beading, beaded bodices and leggings, shawls as well as moccasins. The clothing is heavily decorated with fringe, beading, and feathers and sometimes ribbons.

It’s not unusual to see earrings, bracelets as well as huge eagle plumes (which resemble a male turkey or peacock fanning their fathers). Each person makes their own with help from friends and family. They use feathers and beads that are special to them personally.

This is probably the most often seen dance at pow wows and public demonstrations. They will leap about and come down with their knees slightly bent. Focusing on upper body movement with the swaying or spreading of arms and leaning this way and that with the torso. 

Today, the Fancy Dance is also considered a competitive sport and during Pow Wows there are often many competitions from the very young (just learning to walk) to the elders in their 70s and older. Each age bracket will have its own competition.