Soaring Eagle Sentinel

Women Dance Styles

By Roy Cook

When government and religious officials suppressed traditional dance ceremonies, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many tribes turned to the emerging intertribal Wachipi or powwow to express their Native heritage through song and dance. Powwow singing styles are differentiated as being "Northern," originating in the central and northern Great Plains, Canada, and the Great Lakes regions and characterized by a high pitch and hard drum beat, and "Southern," synonymous with Oklahoma and characterized by a lower pitch and less strident drum beat. There is tremendous diversity in American Indian dance in Oklahoma due to the influx of tribes in the 1800s from various parts of the United States into what was then called "Indian Territory."

Competitive powwow dance styles associated with Northern drum groups are the men's northern traditional, grass dance, and northern fancy dance, and the women's northern buckskin, jingle dress, and fancy shawl. Southern drums are used for the women's southern cloth and southern buckskin. Social dances at powwows include the intertribal, round dance, and two-step.

Northern and Southern Women ways of dancing

Women's Traditional Northern style is danced by remaining in one spot, lightly bouncing in rhythm with the drum. Southern style has the women slowly and gracefully walking around the Circle in time with the drum, gently stepping toe-heel, toe-heel with the feet appearing to "walk on clouds". Both styles carry a fringed shawl folded over their bent left arm, a purse in their left hand, and a feather fan, usually eagle or hawk, in their right hand.

The women hold themselves tall and proud, their bodies straight. The fringe on the shawl is to sway naturally with the movements of the women's feet, not from upper body bending or swinging. The fan is raised in salute when the women hear the drum giving honor beats.

Some ladies will also bend at the waist at this time, remaining in one spot or taking a certain number of steps inward toward the middle of the Circle. At all times, the dancers are to stay in time with the drum and stop precisely when the drumming ends. The ladies wear knee-length beaded moccasins, leggings, and either a buckskin or cloth dress that has long, open sleeves. There are two styles of buckskin dress; once again, Northern and Southern. The Northern style is to completely bead the shoulder or cape part of the dress, whereas, the Southern style uses beadwork mainly as an accent. Also, in buckskin regalia, the moccasins are either fully beaded (Northern) or accent-beaded (Southern).

Both cloth and buckskin dancers wear a leather belt with metal discs from which they hang an awl. Knife in its case and a tobacco pouch situated at the sides or back of the waist. Each style also wears a breastplate made from bone hair pipe and glass beads that can drape to the waist (Southern) or all the way to the ankles (Northern). However, cloth dancers typically wear their breastplates over the front and back, unlike the buckskin dancers who wear just a front-sided style. At the neck, the ladies wear either a scarf or a choker. Other jewelry is optional and usually is in designs and colors that are personal, tribal, or family significance. The hair can be worn pretty much however the woman desires from loose and flowing to braided.

Some dancers will weave ribbons in their braids or wear beaded barrettes and pieces of fur attached to their hair as well. Also, although most dancers wear a single feather (usually eagle, macaw or hawk) in their hair, some have been seen wearing several feathers.