Lakota Men’s Northern Traditional Dance
  • Tlingit dance
  • Lakota dance
  • Seminole dance

Like other aspects of today’s powwows, the dance style known as Men’s Northern Traditional is deeply rooted in the practices of warrior societies, which historically were common among Plains Indian groups. Gatherings similar to powwows existed in most Native North American communities. Most often, they were associated with religious ceremonies, or they were sponsored by the warrior societies or extended family groups. One major difference between pre-Contact dances and the modern powwow is that powwows are intertribal, celebratory, and inclusive—they are open to all who wish to attend. Pre-Contact events were more exclusive, with only tribal members and some allied groups allowed on the dance grounds.

The songs and dances at today’s powwows are drawn primarily from those practiced by the warrior societies of the northern and southern Plains. The Heluska (Man Dance) Warrior Society songs of the Omaha and Ponca peoples—which feature an energetic drum beat and cyclic form—have been the most influential. After the reservation period began in approximately 1880, Native dancers and singers started traveling with shows such as William F. Cody’s Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. After Cody instructed the performers to “fancy it up,” an element of showmanship was added to many dances. During this same era, many warrior societies ceased to hold their dances due to the Office of Indian Affairs’ repressive policies, which gradually eased after World War I. The return of Native veterans from that war brought about the revival of Homecoming Dances. Communities began to invite members of neighboring tribes to their dance celebrations, and to add activities such as rodeos and carnivals to the mix. After World War II, dance categories developed hand in hand with dance competitions. Dance and singing styles were codified into “traditional” (descended from pre- and early reservation-era practices) and “fancy” (post–World War I show dances created for intertribal and non-Indian audiences). During this period, Men’s Northern Traditional Dance regalia coalesced into a collection of specific core elements and accessories, all of which contribute to the sense of flow and motion that a carefully assembled outfit displays.

In the context of the powwow, the singing and the dancing are a single action, with the motion of the regalia visually expressing the beat of the drum. Each dancer tells a story through footwork and gesture, with some dancers imitating the motions of animals—who many tribes believe gave the gift of dance to humans—while other participants act out a story, perhaps of stealing horses or counting coup (touching an opponent in battle without injuring him). The dancers move their bodies in a way that emphasizes the accented beats on the drum. Known as Honor Beats, the four to five grouped strikes sonically recognize warriors of the past and present who have sacrificed for their people.

The regalia seen here, which belonged to Robert Tiger, Jr. (Hunkpapa Lakota), is a characteristic group of items that follow the Northern Men’s Traditional style, yet it also highlights the tribal affiliation of the wearer and the superb artistry of the regalia’s creator. At the center of the outfit is a stunning beaded vest. Its primary design elements are taken from Plains hide painting and ledger-art motifs, and they are depicted in the representational style traditionally practiced by men until after World War II. Standing chiefs in full ceremonial regalia carrying pipes and staffs decorate the front panels, while horsemen galloping across the back of the vest hold rifles, bows, war clubs, a coup stick, and a United States flag. This last item makes clear the patriotism of the wearer. (American flag motifs became increasingly common in beadwork after World War I, the first war in which great numbers of Indians served in the armed forces.) The beadwork is of extraordinary quality. An appliqué technique is used for the human figures, and a white lazy-stitch background is highlighted by a few geometric patterns. Commonly used by women in their hide- and beadwork, these geometric designs are also seen here on the moccasins, cuffs, tie, knee bands, and in the horse hoof-print motif that runs along the outer edges of the vest.

Other elements of the regalia include a bone breastplate, descended from those that served as a form of armor in the times before firearms were common; a breechclout made of green wool, selvedge-edge trade cloth; an old-style shirt made of calico cloth; angora sheepskin ankle bands; moccasins beaded in a geometric design coordinated with the design on the arm bands, beaded tie, and drop; a belt with copper conchos; and ankle bells. Directly inherited from the regalia of the old warrior societies are the eagle feather fan, the feather back bustle, and the porcupine roach, a crest worn on the head. The roach is made of stiff porcupine guard hair, with a layer of dyed deer hair in the center. The entire outfit is color-coordinated in dark green, which symbolizes the Earth and what grows upon it.

—Tara Browner

Tara Browner (Choctaw), a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, is the author of Heartbeat of the People: Music and Dance of the Northern Pow-Wow (2002), the editor of Music of the First Nations: Tradition and Innovation in Native North American Music  (2009), and the editor of Songs from “A New Circle of Voices”: The 16th Annual Pow-Wow at UCLA (2008). She has also published in several journals. In addition to her scholarly activities, she has been on the Native American music screening committee for the Grammy Awards and is a powwow dancer in the Women's Southern Cloth tradition. Her current research focus is on powwow culture in Northern Europe.

This Northern Traditional Dance regalia was made and worn by Robert Tiger Jr. (Hunkpapa Lakota). Warriors in full ceremonial regalia, carrying pipes and staffs, decorate the front panels of the magnificent vest, while horsemen gallop across the back, holding rifles, bows, war clubs, a coup stick, and a United States flag. The figures are Tiger’s ancestors, four brothers who fought in the Battle of the Little Big Horn: Chief Mad Bear, Low Thunder, Elk, and Walks with the Wind.

Other elements of the regalia include a bone breastplate, descended from those that served as a form of armor in the times before firearms were common. Directly inherited from the regalia of the old warrior societies is the head roach, a crest made of stiff porcupine guard hair with a layer of dyed deer hair in the center.

2008. Standing Rock Reservation, South Dakota. Porcupine guard hair, deer tail hair, wool yarn, dye, hide, glass beads, sequins, brass beads, canvas, cotton, ribbon, nylon thread, bone hairpipes, quill. 26/7485. Mandan Fan, 1906. Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota. Eagle feather, hide. Photograph by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI. 1/3799

  • Northern traditional dancer

    Northern traditional dancer Terry Fiddler (Cheyenne River Sioux), National Museum of the American Indian National Powwow, 2007. Photograph by Katherine Fogden, (Mohawk) NMAI.

  • Northern traditional dancer

    Northern traditional dancer, Gathering of Nations Powwow, Albuquerque, New Mexico, April 27, 2012. Photograph by Christine E. McCall, Seminole Tribe of Florida, courtesy of Gathering of Nations

prev next