The History and Cultural Significance of Native American Rain Dances Dancing to Bring the Rain
While traditions and dances vary between Native American tribes, many of them feature rain dances. Because water is essential to life, and because many tribes lived in agrarian societies, these dances were important rituals, pleas for the survival of the tribe for another season. These dances have existed for hundreds of years, and many tribes still perform them today. Rain dances are notably common in the Southwestern U.S., where the dry climate means water is scarce and every bit of rainfall is essential for survival. Generally, rain dances are performed to ask the spirits or gods to send rain for the crops. Tribes such as the Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, and Mojave perform rain dances often. An old Cherokee legend says that the rain is filled with the spirits of past chiefs, and the rain is an indication of their battle with evil spirits beyond the natural world. One interesting fact about rain dances is that both men and women — not just men — participate in the ceremony.
Dancers wear special regalia, sometimes including headdresses, masks, body paints, and jewelry. What is worn varies from tribe to tribe, but turquoise is very important in rain dances for many tribes and is often incorporated into the jewelry. The rain dance regalia is not worn at any other point or for any other purpose during the year, and participants dance in a zigzag pattern, unlike all other dances, which feature a circular motion. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the U.S. government was relocating Native Americans all over the country, they banned the practice of many ceremonial dances on reservations, sometimes including rain dances. However, rain dances continued undercover: Native Americans simply performed the ritual as a different, unbanned ceremony. The dances and the traditions continued, and today many tribes still perform rain dances, even if only in reverence for their heritage.
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