Native American Chants & Dances

Dances, songs and chants have played a major role in the culture of Native Americans. Stories and histories have been passed from generation to generation by voice as well as movement, rather than by written word. Dances are performed for a variety of reasons and usually are danced by either women or men only. Chants have special meanings and can last for hours or days. At the center of dance and song is the drum, which traditionally connects Native Americans to their Creator.

  1. Significance of Dance

    • Younger Native Americans have embraced dance.
      Younger Native Americans have embraced dance.

      Throughout history, Native Americans have kept their culture vibrant and meaningful through the power of dance. Different dances have different purposes, from telling a story to honoring an animal to performing a sacred ceremony. Today, social dances serve as a way to make dancing relevant to younger Native dancers.

    Types of Dancing

    • Native women have special dances.
      Native women have special dances.

      Most dances are performed in a circle, as the circle symbolizes a long and continuous life without end. Some dances are named for animals, such as the Bear Dance performed by the Utes, Shoshones and Paiutes. The Hopi Snake Dance is performed as part of a ceremony designed to bring rain. Most dances are performed either by only men, or only women. The Fancy Shawl Dance is performed by women and symbolizes the beauty of new life by mimicking the graceful movements of a butterfly.

    Origins of Chanting

    • The traditions, histories and songs of ancient Native Americans have been passed down by spoken word as opposed to the written page. Songs and chants have told this history, whether by Native American men singing of battle victories or hunting, or by Native American women singing songs to their children, singing while preparing a meal or hoping to bring magic to their blankets.

    Occasions for Chanting

    • Some songs are sacred.
      Some songs are sacred.

      Singing and chanting can carry different messages for different occasions, such as social gatherings, thanksgiving, love songs, lullabies, honor or memorials. Many songs are reserved for private occasions or for certain settings. For instance, a healing song is not intended to be sung on a public stage, and there are certain tribal songs that are not appropriate for the general public. Social songs are performed in public for thanksgiving, honor, memorials, and social gatherings.

    What You Hear

    • Chants can last for days.
      Chants can last for days.

      A traditional Native American chant or song can last for hours or days, and can be sung both with words and vocables. Vocables are syllables that have as much meaning as words to the singer. Singing styles vary with region and are influenced by factors such as tribal traditions, the environment, other groups, personal experiences and messages from the Creator.

    The Role of the Drum

    • The drum is central to Native American pow wows.
      The drum is central to Native American pow wows.

      The drum is instrumental to the culture of the Native American and a centerpiece of a pow wow. The drum helps everyone attending the pow wow to achieve balance and feel the heartbeat of the Earth Mother. By way of the drum, people can connect with the Spirit, whether dancing, singing or just listening. Singers who sit around the drum must focus on the meaning of the songs and keep the beat steady. Traditionally, women do not sit at the drum nor do they beat it, though they can sit in behind the male singers.

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  • Photo Credit native american powwow image by windzepher from indian dancer girls image by kastock from Dancing image by michael langley from Indian Headress image by Stormy Ward from indian tepees image by Jeff from little drum from wood image by Dev from

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