Native American Dance Guidelines (2004)





Some ‘Protocols’ for Learning

  1.   Songs are considered cultural and intellectual property, in the sense that some songs belong to individuals, or to clans or tribes.  Therefore, songs cannot be learned without permission. Once permission is granted, that permission usually includes  when and how song can be performed.  
  2.   What is considered true for songs, should be considered true for dances.  
  3.   Some dances have specific songs to be sung for that dance. The song and the dance go together; the dance cannot be danced without the song.  
  4. In my teaching practice, I teach that there are regional “styles” which can be identified. That means, there is a plains “style”, a pueblo “style", and a Northwest “style” of song and dance.  This is a way to begin to understand that out of hundreds of samples, songs and dances that look and sound similar, they belong to a particular “style”.  
  5.   Style reflects the landscape from which the song comes. The culture of native peoples always reflects the geography of their homeland; it pays homage to the animals, plants, cosmos of that region.  
  6. Songs and dances are also considered literature and history. Often, a song and dance will commemorate a specific event in the history of a people; it therefore becomes a way of remembering that event.  
  7. All native nations have “social” songs and dances. They are just that: a way to congregate, share a meal, interact socially and stay healthy.  
  8. Traditional dance is taught by imitation; you see the community dance, watch the best dancers, and imitate the best steps and movements. Then you begin to create your own movement sequences within the appropriate “style”.  
  9. Ceremonial dance and song is restricted from general use. Do not ask to learn ceremonial songs and dances; they are for the people only, often only for those initiated in a particular society or lodge,  for  their own spiritual life.  



Working with a Practitioner

  1.   Get to know native people as individuals, as families, as a community. This is the best way to learn about native culture. In time, you may be honored with an invitation to attend a special dance event.  
  2.   Seek out native people to demonstrate and/or teach Native American song and dance or storytelling.  Investigate the local Indian community, the Native American Studies Departments of universities, or contact state agencies to locate a song and dance leader.  
  3.   Let the native practitioner tell you what he/she can do for the students or in dance or music class.  Most work informally, with a small hand drum, a singer and one or two dancers. Others have dance groups, which may well be family or extended family members. Some work professionally, and will ask for a professional fee.  
  4.   Always offer to pay a fee to the native singers and dancers.  They will tell you if the pay is sufficient; if not, ask what fee they want.  
  5.   Try to pay the head (or lead) singer/dancer immediately after the presentation is over often, they will need gas money to get home and for their immediate needs. Many don’t have checking accounts.  
  6.   Group participation is usual in teaching presentations. Provide sufficient space to allow everyone to dance.  
  7.   If a particular practitioner declines to work with you, continue to search for someone else.  It is likely you will locate someone willing to work with you.  
  8.   No one person will know all dances. Respect and appreciate the particular knowledge of the person working with you.  

Some traditional practitioners believe that particular songs and dances can be learned, but not performed, and definitely not taught by the students learning the dances, or even by the teacher supervising the session.  The rationale here is that the learning itself is the reason for singing and dancing; performing is not the end purpose. If this or other restrictions are expressed, they must be respected.

  If you are determined to pursue such work, it must be approached with intellectual and cultural respect. Such exploration is particularly valuable for educational purposes. Always engage elders or native cultural consultants to work with you in this regard. They can advise you about whether you can use a cultural story or idea for choreography and whether it is appropriate to proceed. They may have suggestions as to songs, instrumentation, costuming and set design. The consultant should be involved throughout the process, up to and including the performance venue.  





  1.   Attend a powwow or public Indian event.  Go as often as you can.  
  2.   Read current native authors, books, magazines, newspapers. Indian-owned  newspapers report news about native people that is never disseminated by the U.S. media.  
  3.   Extensive information can be obtained through national organizations, such as The Smithsonian, the National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, DC),  National Congress of American Indians, and the National Indian Education Association.  



Native American Dance: Ceremony and Social Traditions. Charlotte Heth, Editor. National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution with Starwood Publishers, Inc.  1992.


Keepers of the Morning Star: An Anthology of Native Women's Theater Jay T. Darby and Stephanie Fitzgerald, Editors. UCLA American Indian Publications.  2003.  (contemporary playwriting)


Through Indian Eyes. Beverly Slapin, Doris Seale, Editors. UCLA American Indian Studies publications. 1998. (literature for children about Native Americans)


Standing in the Light: A Lakota Way of Seeing. Severt Young Bear &
R. D. Theisz. University of Nebraska Press. 1994. (traditional song and dance practice)


Indian Country Today (newspaper). Four Directions Media, Inc., 3049 Seneca Turnpike, Canastota, NY. 13032. 1-800-327-1013.


Native Peoples Arts and Lifeways (magazine) Media Group, Inc., 5333 N. 7th St., Suite224, Phoenix, AZ 85014.  1-888-262-8483. www.







Protection for Products of Indian Art and Craftsmanship. Proposed by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. Federal Register, Vol. 50, No. 187. October 13, 1994


Intellectual Property Rights for Indigenous Peoples: A Sourcebook. Tom Greaves, Editor. Society for Applied Anthropology, Oklahoma City. 1994.




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