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Article Sioux Song and Dance

Oglala Lakota dancers
Oglala Lakota dancers at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, perform for visiting President Coolidge, ca. 1927. Prints and Photographs Division.

The people generally identified as Sioux are actually a large group of linguistically-related Plains tribes. At the time of contact with European Americans, they inhabited what is now southern North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Minnesota, Iowa, northern Nebraska, and Wisconsin. Current reservations are in South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska as well as Canada, but there are communities of Sioux people in many other states. They are divided into three major groups, Teton, Yankton-Yanktonai, and Santee. These large divisions are each made up of several tribes. There are dialect differences between the languages (and some people will identify themselves by the Lakota and Dakota dialects they speak, for example), but these are mutually intelligible, and the ability to communicate among these tribes has historically been an advantage in keeping them united. [1]

Songs are integral to American Indian life and religious expression. Songs are often said to have been given in dreams or visions. In former times, for example, young men coming of age might go out into the wilderness alone, fasting, in order to gain wisdom, a helping spirit, and a first song. The song then belonged to him, though he could pass it on to someone else to sing. Many Sioux songs have been passed down in families in this way.

Songs are most commonly accompanied by drums. Hand held drums may be single or double headed and are often used by single singers or in settings of small groups or families. Large drums are used for powwows, social dances, and ceremonies. Whistles and various types of rattles are also common instruments. The Plains Indian flute is an end-blown flute played like a recorder. Its use declined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but was revitalized in the 1960s.

Perhaps the most famous of the Plains ceremonial dances is the Sun Dance, practiced by many Sioux communities as well as other Native American tribes. Early European Americans visitors and settlers were shocked by offerings of flesh and the ritual piercing of the skin practiced by some participants at these ceremonies. There were subsequently various attempts to suppress the Sun Dance as part of an effort to Christianize and assimilate Plains tribes. As a result, the ceremony was sometimes performed in secret while it completely disappeared in some tribes. With the issuance of the "Indian Religious Freedom and Indian Culture" circular in 1934, however, the right to practice native religions and to observe cultural traditions was guaranteed. In fact, on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, for example, private, semipublic, and public Sun Dances were held regularly throughout the twentieth century. Today non-Indians may not be permitted to attend in some cases, due to concerns about the ritual being appropriated and performed by people who do not understand it.

Some of the Sioux songs that are used in display dancing at powwows and other events reflect contacts with other Plains tribes – song genres that are shared. For example, the Sioux Omaha Dance songs were sung in honor of war heroes. In this presentation Dallas Chief Eagle of the Rosebud Lakota tribe and Jasmine Pickner of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe explain and perform hoop dances in a video made of their performance at the Library of Congress in 2007. Hoop dances are performed among many American Indian peoples and are performed competitively. Once exclusively a male display dance, today women are also performing hoop dances. As Dallas Chief Eagle explains in the webcast, the hoop symbolizes the circle of life, the circle of the year, and the horizon that joins the earth and sky. They explain that including women in hoop dancing helps to restore balance between men and women.


  1. "Sioux" is a problematic name for the Lakota and Dakota speaking peoples, as it is derived from a name given to them by their Ojibwe speaking neighbors, and may be considered pejorative. However there is no other term for talking about this large group of related peoples as a whole, and so it continues to be used in that context. It is also part of the United States Government's names for many of these related tribes. [back to article]


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