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Indigenous Dance Traditions in the US: Native American vs. Native Hawaiian


Indigenous Dance Traditions in the US: Native American vs. Native Hawaiian

In April 1921, the BIA issued Circular 1665 which reinforced the ban on Indian dancing. In 1923, the BIA issued this "Message to All Indians" to once again remind them of the ban.

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It's safe to say that throughout human history, all cultures evolved dance as a way to convey their unique expressions of themselves. Directly or indirectly, dance reflects the values and worldviews of a culture, and this is especially true in indigenous cultures. In American Indian and Native Hawaiian societies dance was (and is) central to who they are and how they perceive themselves in the world. Indigenous peoples all over the world share important commonalities that distinguish them from non-indigenous societies; however, a comparison of dance traditions in the native cultures of Hawaii and the continent reveals not only similarities (despite the vast diversity among American Indian tribes), but distinct and telling differences.

Spiritual Elements

One of the hallmarks of indigenous cultures worldwide is their relationship of respect with the natural world. Living within the limits of nature translates not only to a sense of harmony and balance, but a view that all things in nature are living relatives and are thus sacred. This reverence is expressed across the board in Native American and Hawaiian dance and virtually all dance traditions incorporate, to one degree or another, spiritual meaning. This is not to say that dance is always for spiritual or religious purposes (it's not), but that in general dance blends the sacred with the secular.

In most tribes, dance is a way to gather a community together in a celebration of shared identity and, by extension, spiritual belief. They may enact their relationship with the spiritual entities they acknowledge (for example, in the kachina dances of the Pueblo peoples, the crown dances of the Apache, or the Yei Bi Chei dances of the Navajo), but there can be a distinction among them as some are performed as social dances, not ceremonial dances. Even powwows which are social (not religious) dances are infused with spiritual elements that are common among all tribes, such as the reverence for eagle feathers. On the other hand, some dances are performed strictly for religious purposes, such as the Sundance of Plains cultures.

In Hawaii, hula grew out of the roots of a deep reverence for the natural world and allegiance to a pantheon of deities and ancestors. Although hula was not restricted to the realm of religion exclusively, before colonization the tradition was perpetuated with strict spiritual protocols which made it not just a part of life, but a way of life for its practitioners.


One of the possible distinctions (at least historically) between most Native American dance and hula is the mode of participation. In most Native American traditions the decision to dance was largely a matter of individual choice. If a child showed a special interest in dancing it was nurtured by adults, but sometimes a person wouldn't be moved to dance until adulthood. In many social dance traditions, such as powwows or stomp dances of the Cherokee, Creek and other Southeast tribes, dancing tends to be more participatory with no special training required because dance styles are more free form rather than choreographed. Some dances that are strictly ceremonial (such as the Sundance), however, a person must receive a special calling from the spiritual realm which could take the form of a vision or a dream. Among California tribes, most dances are not participatory and while some are performed for strictly ceremonial reasons (an example is the bear dance of southern and northern California tribes), dancing is reserved for those with the calling.

In Hawaii, hula (which consists of chants that accompanied dance) was always highly choreographed as the dance form enacted elaborate stories that could range from recounting the accomplishments of important chiefs or gods to telling a story of the love between two people (or gods). It required intense training which was conducted in special monarchy-supported schools from which a student must graduate in order to be considered a serious hula dancer. The result was that dancing was often handed down in families. Hula styles varied from island to island and could be traced in genealogies from one generation of kumu (teachers) to another. A similar dynamic is present in the Pueblos of the Southwest. While there are no special dance schools, dances such as the buffalo and butterfly dances are choreographed and tend to involve family groups, with variances between the Pueblos.


The arrival of Europeans and later the establishment of the United States had profound effects on the dance traditions among Native Americans and Hawaiians, due largely to the influence of Christianity. Missionaries invariably considered the native dances hedonistic, a waste of time, or downright evil. The Sundance and the Ghost Dance were outlawed in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the Ghost Dance became the flashpoint that caused the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. In 1921 Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner Charles H. Burke issued a document called Circular 1665 in which he stated:

"The Sundance and all other similar dances and so-called religious ceremonies are considered 'Indian offenses' under existing regulations and corrective penalties are provided. I regard such restrictions as applicable to any (religious) dance which involves…the reckless giving away of property… frequent and prolonged periods of celebration… in fact, any disorderly or plainly excessive performance that promote superstitions, cruelty, licentiousness, idleness, danger of health, and shiftless indifference of family welfare. In all such instance, the regulations should be enforced."The Sundance disappeared for a time and was not revived until the 1970's.

While Native American dance traditions suffered under American colonization, hula was perhaps the most dramatically affected. By the mid-1800's missionaries had so successfully suppressed the dance that it would not be performed publicly for over 50 years until King Kalakaua would officially resurrect it at the coronation ball for he and his sister, Queen Kapiolani, in 1883. Although it never disappeared completely, having been kept alive in rural and family-based schools, many dances and entire forms of hula were permanently lost. Hula's public reappearance was accompanied by the later influence of the Hollywood film industry around the turn of the century, resulting in an entirely new form of hula known as hula auana, or modern hula, which incorporated western instruments and music styles. Once the domain of royal courts, hula became open to the general public. The Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the 1970's coupled with renewed efforts at Hawaiian language restoration rejuvenated the interest and perpetuation of traditional (also called "kahiko") hula in recognition of Native Hawaiians cultural roots.

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