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Native American Dance

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Hopi Kachina, Codex Hopiensis, 1899-1900.


American dances cover many territories and include social traditions, ceremonial traditions, contemporary stage dance practices, and other newly developed forms that become traditional over time. Traditional Native American dances reflect cultural beliefs: they define value in life, in the environment, and in relationships. They enforce group belief systems, and unify groups through shared experience and participation.

Native American demographics have changed markedly throughout American history. These changes, which include separation from home communities and from land bases, have depleted some traditional dance forms: for example, access to traditional dance teachers and sacred ceremonial sites has sometimes curtailed their continuing practice, as commercial growth and federal and state restrictions have limited Native peoples' access to materials-feathers, skins, and plants-used by traditional Native dancers.

However, against this backdrop of change, many forms of Native American social and ceremonial dance survive, and many are now in a period of reawakening, as Native people strengthen their identities both on recognized Native lands, and from distant environs. Supporting this survival are popular social dance forms and activities such as powwows, which reinforce common understanding and values across diverse Native group cultures. Newer exhibition powwow dance forms, such as the Fancy War Dance and the Hoop Dance have, for example, become traditional dances, strengthened by the values and meanings that are added by ongoing generations of practitioners.

In the kiva, in the longhouse, and in the sun dance lodge, Native people retain their life ways through ceremonial dances intended for community members. Similarly, dances that are open to the public and to community outsiders provide occasion for Native people to learn and teach Native dance in a changing socio-political world. As Native people practice the songs, prepare the foods, make musical instruments and clothes, and participate in dances and ceremonies, they retain unique ways of life within a culturally diverse American society.

In recognizing Native American traditional ceremonial and social dances as among America's irreplaceable dances, the importance of language, land, and belief systems, which are imperative to the continuity and understanding of dance in Native communities, must also be acknowledged. The types of traditional dances that reflect Native American life are as distinct and numerous as the hundreds of groups that they represent, including the Comanche Scalp Dance, the Hopi Snake Dance, the Shoshone Choke Cherry Dance, the Cherokee Stomp Dance, the Iroquois Bread Dance or Women's Dance, the Tewa Buffalo Dance, the Hopi Snake Dance, the Apache Crown Dance, the Kiowa Gourd Dance, and the Yaqui Deer Dance, to name only a few. As these practices are honored and respected, and as tribal groups' self-determination is recognized and supported, these dances will continue to strengthen Native peoples and communities.

Pictured rightHopi Kachina, Codex Hopiensis, 1899-1900. Kachinas depict masked and costumed participants in Native-American social and ceremonial dance traditions. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, NAA INV 08547220.

Rosebud Sioux, Photo courtesy of Heard Museum

Pictured leftSeth Chief Eagle (Rosebud Sioux), age 5, competes at the 1997 Heard Museum's World Championship Hoop Dance Contest, Phoenix. The Hoop Dance, with its virtuosic manipulation of hoops to evoke images from the natural world, is an exhibition dance performed by a solo dancer that has become a widespread icon of Native American culture. (Photograph from the Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona.)

FURTHER RESEARCH: Essay by Jacqueline Shea Murphy -- Selected Resources

See more images of Native American Dance:
Historical Depictions of Native American Dance Contemporary Native American Dance


Cahuilla Women Bird Dancers, photo by Frances Williams Pictured right: Cahuilla Women Bird Dancers at a powwow at UC Riverside in 2011. Left to right: Frances Holmes, Starla Madrigal, Menyil Madrigal, unidentified woman, Monica Madrigal, Nessun Madrigal. Men and women perform distinct and complementary forms dancing in this tradition; the women's dancing demonstrates strength, control, and subtle shifts in movement patterns. (Photograph by Frances Williams.)



Cahuilla Bird Singing and Dancing, photo by Frances WilliamsPictured left: William Madrigal (Mountain Cahuilla) and Jesus Cardenas (Tarahumara) performing Cahuilla Bird Singing and Dancing at a powwow at the University of California at Riverside in 2011. This is a dance practice of the Indigenous people of southern California and parts of Arizona, which recounts stories of creation, migration, and people's relationships with their environment. (Photograph by Frances Williams.)