Native American Rain Dance: History & Ceremony

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores the rain dance ceremonies of native peoples from the Southwestern region of North America. We will look at the history of these dances, the ceremonial elements, and examples from Navajo and Hopi tribes.

Water Is a Resource and a Blessing

Because water is essential to human life, people around the world have revered and worshiped water since the beginning of time. Water, along with the other elements of air, earth, and fire, hold a central place in religions, myths, and ceremonies across many cultures. Cultures pray to the gods to shower them with rain during periods of drought. Cultures celebrate the bounty of water when it rains, because it signifies plenty and bountiful life and makes it possible for plants and crops to grow.

Rain represents an emotional as well as a spiritual event. As if the sky is crying out, rain comes along with cacophonous thunder and dramatic lightning, giving nature herself a distinct personality. It should come as no surprise that the cultural belief in rainmaking, or the human ability to bring forth a rainstorm, dates back millennia.

Native Americans have long danced in honor of the rain to receive blessings. This lesson explores the rain dance ceremonies of native North American peoples. We will look at examples from Navajo and Hopi tribes. Then, we will learn about the steps, costumes, and significance of these ceremonies.

Navajo Rain Dance
Navajo Rain Dance

History

Rain dance ceremonies are traditionally performed in the spring after planting, in the fall before harvesting, and in the late summer if droughts threaten the crop. Pueblos, Navajo, Hopi, and Mojave tribes of the Southwest region perform this ceremony most often, because this part of the country is known to experience the most severe droughts.

Traditional beliefs hold that the rain dance is a spiritual activity. Dancers summon the attention of spirits, good and bad. They dance to cleanse the earth of evil spirits and to welcome the blessings of the spirit world.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was established in 1824 as a part of the Department of the Interior and is responsible for the administration and management of Native American reservations. In the 1920s and 1930s, the BIA placed restrictions on Native American religious dances in an effort to control life on reservations and to keep the tribespeople in line. The rain dance, along with other ceremonial dances like the sun dance and the ghost dance, were outlawed.

However, as with so many other forms of political and cultural resistance, the dancers found ways to get around the restrictive laws. The tribes continued dancing. If anybody asked, the dances were for entertainment. They would simply say that they were dancing with joy, not for prayer.

Elements of the Rain Dance

While the dance varies between tribes, there are consistent elements across the country. Movement and costume are both important parts of these ceremonies. Men and women form separate lines and dance in zigzag patterns. Men and women face each other as the lines move close together and then apart again. The dance is accompanied by singing. Rhythm is kept by the sound of the feet hitting the ground, since drums are usually not used in this dance.

This complicated series of dance steps differs from other ceremonial dances performed in a circle. The rain dance is also significant in that both men and women participate. Other ceremonial dances, like the gourd, buffalo, grass, and straight (war) dance, traditionally involve only men.

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