Native American Heritage Month: American Indian Dances

Nothing symbolizes the richness and vitality of American Indian culture as much as its dances. Dancers perform at powwows, at social functions, in special ceremonies, and on theater stages.

One of the most electric performances is given by the Fancy dancer, usually a young man. Augmenting his regalia’s stately black-and-white eager feathers with brilliantly colored chicken feathers and elements such as ribbon and foil, this dancer does countless twists, acrobatics, and splits.

The Butterfly Dance is regularly performed in southwestern Pueblo Indian villages, where the butterfly is a symbol of peace, fertility, femininity, and agricultural abundance. In some villages, the dance is performed only after a formal request from the women, though Butterfly dancers usually appear in male/female pairs.

One of the oldest powwow dances performed in the Plains area is the Traditional Dance, said to have evolved out of an Omaha Indian tradition. Dancers wear the feathers of a golden eagle, a sacred and respected bird who delivers messages from the people below to The One Above.

Only experts can perform the difficult Hoop Dance, which involves creating designs with the hoops that represent elements of nature such as birds, turtles, and the earth. While keeping time with the music, the dancers move the hoops into a succession of changing patterns. It is widely believed that the hoop symbolizes the world or the universe.

In the cosmology and myth of the Tlingit people of southeastern Alaska, the Raven is a playful “trickster” figure, full of intelligence and curiosity. Credited with human and superhuman qualities, the Raven can transform itself into a person or any of various other manifestations. There are many dances featuring the Raven, which is portrayed by a masked dancer who makes appropriate calling sounds while flapping his or her “wings.”

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