Dance played an important part in the Native American cultures of the past. While native dance traditions are still preserved, performed and celebrated today, in the past dance could mean the difference between life and death --- it was used to evoke protection, encourage successful hunts and bring rain that sustained humans, animals and crops.
One use of dance in Native American cultures was to ensure a successful hunt. Some tribes wore masks representing the spirits of their prey; others imitated their prey during ritual dances. The Apache tribe sang and danced in honor of the buffalo before hunting them, using their hands to mimic the buffalo's horns.
Celebration and Protection
Although the Sun Dance varied slightly from tribe to tribe, overall it was a celebration of the earth's renewal that was held at the beginning of each summer by the the plains and northeastern tribes. Among the Sioux, the dance was performed over a four-day period by young braves who pierced their skin with wooden skewers fastened to a central wooden pole. They danced around it for hours or even days days while staring up into the sun. It was accompanied by communal games, healing sessions and either banquets or fasting. Participants implored the Great Spirit to protect them and their families.
The Ghost Dance was a religion in and of itself --- born out of increased conquest and oppression of the native people of the Great Plains and the Great Basin --- founded and led by Wovoka, a Paiute messiah. Wovoka had a vision in which the Great Spirit told him that if the people devoted themselves to constant dancing, the spirits, or ghosts, of their ancestors would return to begin an era of renewal, peace and plenty. It was also believed that all Europeans, along with all of their creations, would be washed from the land, which would be restored to its original state (before European encroachment). The Ghost Dance began as a peaceful movement, but turned violent when it spread to the more warlike peoples in neighboring regions of the Plains. Devotees wore Ghost Dance shirts, garments believed to possess magical powers and even deflect bullets.
Some native tribes, such as the Pueblo people of the Southwest, danced in celebration of the changing of seasons. They celebrated the coming of life-giving rain in a midwinter ceremony called the powamu or "bean dance." This event focused on the growth of their staple crops --- beans and corn --- and was also used to initiate children into the kachina cult. They believed that the kachina brought the rain by descending from the clouds in winter to spend six months in the Pueblo villages. The dances were led by men dressed as the kachina spirits.
- "Native American Myth and Mankind: Mother Earth, Father Sky"; Tom Lowenstein and Piers Vitebsky; 1997
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