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Arts and Lifeways - Music and Dance


Chanting voices, pounding drums, swirling colorful fabrics, and stomping feet: these are the sights and sounds that comprise First Nations ceremonies with dancing and singing. For participants and spectators alike, such ceremonies are multi-sensory experiences that entice the eyes and excite the ears. For Native cultures, dance and music are sacred activities with spiritual connotations, and such activities reflect the complex Native cultural affinity to the natural environment.

One of the most sacred traditional Plains First Nations dances is the Sun Dance. During the summer months, tribes would emerge from the forests and congregate in the plains with the other tribes. During these short warm months tribes would participate in the ceremonial Sun Dance. This religious ceremony commenced at sunset and concluded four to eight days later at sunset. The Sun Dance reflected the continuity between life and death and the overarching theme was regeneration of life and of Mother Earth. By practicing this sacred tribal ceremony, bonds between people would be reinforced and each member’s relationship to his or her tribe was consolidated. These dances went “underground,” or were practiced in secret, during the late 1890s until the early 1950s. The Federal government restricted these dances and other ceremonial practices in an effort to assimilate the Natives; however, in 1951 the Indian Act legislation was changed by parliament and the Sun Dance was made legal.

The Sun Dance is just one of many different kinds of Native dances. Pow-wows were and continue to be a symbolic dance for the First Nations’ culture. There are many kinds of dances that fit under the category of Pow-wow such as the Women’s Jingle Dance. In this form of dance young women wear satin dresses adorned with jingles. It is believed that the chiming sounds made by the movement of the dancer have the power to heal the sick and suffering. Legend explains that the idea for this kind of dance came to a young woman during a vision.

Another form of Pow-wow dance is the Chicken Dance. Men wear traditional costume that consists of a porcupine hair roach and some feather bustles. The dance resembles the swift and dexterous movement of prairie chickens. Men crouch and rise quickly, making rapid movements with their bodies. By contrast, in the Grass Dance, men dance as a means to trample the grass before setting up camp. This form of dance originated in the eastern regions where plains grass grows tall.

Music also plays a significant role in Native culture and it is very unique in sound and form. Ninixkiátsis, a Blackfoot term derived from the English word for song, is a kind of music that includes a lot of vocal sounds and percussion instruments such as drums (istokimatsis) and rattles (auaná). The word for musician translates into singer or drummer, these words are used interchangeably, and men usually sang the songs. It was inappropriate for women to sing alone or loudly.

It is believed that there are heroic elements to songs because songs are sometimes discovered in visions – which can involve self-torture – they are learned quickly, they are sung with energy, and often demonstrate a challenging vocal style.

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