Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Music lies at the heart of Indian culture. From birth to death, all occasions, sacred and secular, personal and tribal, in the life of the Plains Indian are inextricably intertwined with musical performances.

Music serves numerous functions in traditional Indian culture, including religious ceremonies, healing ceremonies, work songs, game songs, courtship, storytelling, songs to bring success in hunting, agriculture, and war, and social songs and dances. As traditional culture has been influenced through contact with non-Indian cultures, the purposes and functions of music have been adapted so that music retains its meaningful role in cultural identity.

The music of the Plains is the most familiar Native American music to non-Indian peoples, due in large part to its use in television and motion pictures (including the Academy Award–winning Dances with Wolves, which featured performances by the Porcupine Singers, a well-known Lakota musical group). The high, tense vocal style, the descending melodic pattern, the vocables (meaningful syllables without a direct English translation), and the rhythmic drumming of the Plains are immediately identifiable as "Indian music" throughout the world. Because of its familiarity, it is often erroneously used in entertainment venues to represent the musical practices of all Indians, regardless of tribal or cultural identity. A recent renaissance of interest in Native cultures has, in large part, corrected this misconception.

The defining characteristics of Plains style music include a tense, tight, and rather strained vocal style; among Northern Plains tribes a high vocal range, among the tribes of the Southern Plains a medium range; "collapsible" melodic contour-melodies that begin high, drop drastically lower over the course of a song, and frequently end with repetitions of the tonic pitch; ululations produced by rapidly fluttering the tongue against the roof of the mouth; singing mostly in unison; and, normally, one large drum played by several musicians to accompany songs. Lyrics may be sung entirely in a tribal language, entirely in vocables, in English, or in any combination.

Drums, the best-known type of Indian instrument, are made in many sizes and shapes and from diverse materials. Both small hand drums–twelve to eighteen inches in circumference and covered on one or both sides with a rawhide head and played by one person– and larger "powwow" drums–sometimes the size of a marching band bass drum and played simultaneously by several musicians–are commonly used among Plains tribes. In contemporary practice, the word "drum" refers not only as a noun to the instrument itself but also as a verb to the performers who play it and sing. Many tribes consider the drum to represent the heartbeat of Mother Earth and to offer a means of communication with the supernatural. Because of this significance, tribes often establish strict protocols for playing the drum.

Rattles are the most ubiquitous type of instrument and display great inventiveness with natural materials. Modern Plains Indians have incorporated virtually every type of material imaginable into the construction of rattles: gourds, turtle shells, carved wood, deer hooves, animal horns, animal hide, and tree bark. Other percussive instruments include large dance bells attached to the arms or legs of dancers to provide an ambient accompaniment to dancing, rasps, and wooden sticks.

Flutes and whistles are the primary melodic instruments among Plains Indians. Members of Coronado's sixteenth-century expedition into the Southern Plains provided the first documentation of flute music by non-Indian sources, while Lewis and Clark noted the use of flutes among Northern Plains peoples in the early nineteenth century. In pre-twentieth-century traditional practices, the flute was used primarily to perform courting songs, though some tribes used flutes and whistles in healing ceremonies. Flute performance among Plains tribes, however, had virtually disappeared by the early twentieth century. Kiowa musician Doc Tate Nevaquaya is credited with reviving the tradition of flute making and playing in the late 1940s and 1950s. Contemporary musicians, including Kevin Locke (Lakota), Joseph Fire Crow (Cheyenne), Tom Mauchahty Ware (Comanche-Kiowa), and Robert Tree Cody (Dakota-Maricopa), have expanded the role of the Indian flute far beyond its traditional role in courtship and healing to embrace social songs, dances, and popular songs. The sound of the Indian flute is now heard in motion picture scores and jazz and rock bands in addition to more traditional venues.

Native American music continues to thrive and evolve. Contemporary musicians are exploring combinations of traditional and non- Indian musics to create new styles and genres that retain a distinctively Native American identity. Non-Indian popular music genres such as rock, country, and jazz have been successfully adapted into the modern Indian repertoire by artists such as Tom Bee (Lakota) performing with XIT, the first commercially successful all-Indian rock band, and Keith Secola (Anishinaabe) and the Wild Band of Indians. Indian musicians such as Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree) and R. Carlos Nakai (Ute- Navajo) contribute to motion picture and television scores, and the orchestral and choral compositions of Oklahoma-born composerconductor Louis Ballard (Quapaw-Cherokee) mark the beginnings of Indian symphonic and chamber music. Pianist Paul La Roche (Lakota) combines traditional and New Age elements in his unique works for keyboard.

Powwows and tribal fairs held throughout the Great Plains provide opportunities to experience all musical styles and genres of today's Plains Indians, including generationsold traditional songs and dances as well as contemporary popular music. Modern powwows and tribal fairs are celebrations of Native American culture and include displays of tribal arts and crafts, meals of traditional Native foods, and discussions of social and political issues in addition to the music and dance. They are as much community social events as dance performances. Music and dance include ceremonial performances restricted to initiated members of the tribe; competitive dancing featuring world-class performers of grass dances, fancy dances, jingle dress, and specialty dances; and the after-hours social dances referred to as "forty-nine" dances, the popular music and dance of younger tribal members. Among the larger Plains powwows and tribal fairs held annually are Red Earth Powwow, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Gathering of Nations, Albuquerque, New Mexico; Crow Fair, Crow Agency, Montana; and United Tribes Powwow, Bismarck, North Dakota. However, smaller local gatherings offer insights into Indian song and dance in a more intimate setting that allows more interaction among performers and audience members.


J. Bryan Burton West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Burton, J. Bryan. Moving within the Circle: Contemporary Native American Music and Dance. Danbury CT: World Music Press, 1993.

Heth, Charlotte, ed. Native American Dance: Ceremonies and Social Traditions. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Laubin, Reginald, and Gladys Laubin. Indian Dances of North America– Their Importance to Indian Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

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