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Lakota powwow songs and dances: observations from Rosebud fair.


It has been a long, hot drive through Nebraska corn in August. You turn North at Valentine on to US 83, then right on US 16 and then make your way South to Rosebud. The ice water at the Museum of the Fur Trade at Chadron seems two life times ago. Some ways outside of town you find the Fair grounds. You and your friends quickly set up camp and make your way toward the dance arbor. Your noses are assaulted by myriad smells: horses, dust, people, dry grass, cotton candy and the resinous sweet pine boughs that cover the arbor.

As you near the dance arbor, a megawatt P.A. system crackles to life and the e'yapaha (MC) asks, first in Lakota and then in English, all to rise and remove their hats. Four men, some with flags and some with feathered staffs are waiting at the eastern entrance. Two hundred dancers are in disorderly lines snaking behind them. The men on the right side of the entrance to the arbor, the women on the left. You see late comers breaking into the lines. Why are they so impolite? Why don't they just join at the end of the line?

The MC is standing in a walled, covered and raised booth at the west end of the dance circle. He calls for the host drum, Drum Number 1, to sing the Grand Entry. The drum is sitting under the shade to the MC's left. Their womenfolk are sitting behind them at the outer rim of the arbor, protecting them from any bad spirits outside the arbor. Sixteen other drums are sitting in numbered places around the arbor. Drum Number 1 fidgets a bit. You hear the clearing of dry, dusty throats. They turn on their own PA, pitifully small compared to the MC's. A slow beat starts, then a single voice in a high clear falsetto, rises over the seeming chaos. Soon, the rest of the handful of singers start in too.

The MC's PA systems crackles to life, temporarily drowning out the song. He calls for the Color Guard to carry in the colors. The four men enter the arbor to the MC's left and turn to their left. They dance slowly clockwise around the arbor, their legs lifting and falling to the beat of the song--for tall men, they sure move slowly--It must be those small steps they are taking. Suddenly it hits you. They are entering from the west! What is this? You been to a number of "Southern" dances and wonder to yourself, "Why are these guys entering from the west and not from the east?" As the song continues and the colors near the speaker's stand, the MC's voice again rises above the song and calls for the Veterans to enter the arbor. Like the Color Guard, the men turn to the left and follow around. He then calls for the Traditional Dancers and in turn the rest of the dance styles. The rest of the dancers follow, filling the arbor with color. The MC's voice punctuates the song calling out different dance styles and ages. What seemed chaotic outside the dance circle suddenly becomes clear, the dancers were lined up by dance style! How did this happen? Nobody seemed to be giving orders. Could it be that all these dancers knew what they were supposed to do without being told? The simple answer to this question is, "Yes".

In this article, we will go through the powwow program from the 2003 Rosebud fair. We'll give you some "directions" and a bit about the traditions being followed. From this we hope that you may be able to better understand how you should dance at a Lakota powwow. In preparing this article, we have drawn primarily upon our own observations made over the past 30 years at dances all over the Northern Plains. What we will say in these pages should not be taken as gospel, nor should it be construed as a rule book for "Northern" powwows. Things we saw 25 years ago may no longer be the way things are done today. (Or, depending on the local traditions, they may never have been done that way.) However, if you view these words as a general guidance and keep your eyes and ears open, you should not commit too bad an error. We have found that true traditional people are surprisingly tolerant of outsiders and "other Indians". We hope that this article will enhance your enjoyment of Northern powwows, your appreciation for Lakota traditions and your appreciation for the culture we have the privilege to share.

Grand Entry

Although now part of most dances, Grand Entry is a relatively recent tradition. One story goes that at a big dance in the 1920s the usual MC was sick and a rodeo MC was asked to fill in. Rather than follow the customary powwow program, he followed a rodeo program which included a Grand Entry. And thus, a tradition was born. More traditionally, the MC (speaker or e'yapaha) and head drum would go from camp to camp collecting the dancers who would dance to the arbor.

The Songs: Grand Entry songs usually talk about the male and female dancers (waci wicas 'a kin' and waci winyan 'kin', respectively) or the people (oyate kin') he says (heya) something about the dance (wacipi). They describe assembling (omniciya) or coming to the center (cokata) at a particular place (heciya) i.e., the dance arena. Liking (was'te walaka) Lakota customs (Lakol wicohan' kin') i.e., "the Indian way" or their being difficult to follow (otehika) are common themes. They also talk about things being good (was'te) or pleasant (oiyokipi) and may tell the dancers to be lively (bliheca) or to have a good heart (can'te was'te) i.e., to be happy.

The Dance: We have described in the introduction how the Grand Entry is danced at Rosebud Fair. Entering from the west and dancing clockwise. This is a bit of a departure from what we've seen at many other dances where all will enter from the east. The dance step for Grand Entry, as for most all other dances we'll talk about, is the basic Plains

step. It is done to four beats of the drum. Standing with feet together and knees bent slightly, put all your weight on your left foot. Step forward with your right foot, tap it on beat one, and shift all your weight to it on beat two. Then step forward with your left, tap it on beat three then stand on it on beat four. And so on and so on....

Flag Song

After the Grand Entry came the Flag Song. Showing honor and respect is at the essence of Lakota tradition. Honoring the flag and the courage and sacrifice it symbolizes is an important part of this. Both the American flag and traditional flags (6 foot tall feathered banners) are honored.

The Songs: Flag Songs talk about the flag of the United States (Grand Father's banner--Tun 'kas' ilayapi tawapaha), the people (oyate), the earth (maka), and honoring (idiomatically as "do this"--lecamon') and some of the same words used in Grand Entries.

The Dance: You don't dance to Lakota Flag Songs. At evening sessions, they will usually lower the flag during the Flag Song. After it's complete the veteran's honor guard will post the colors to the MC's stand.


The invocation is an essential part of a powwow. The invocation is the only overtly religious part of a big dance like Rosebud Fair. Most everything else, including most honoring activities is in large part secular. For example, a good part of the time of a big dance is now spent on dance contests. Contesting for big cash prizes is an invention made since the 1950s and has little to do with sacred things or traditional ways. Not so the invocation. Calling on the help of the spirit world and specifically Tun 'kas' ila (literally grandfather, but in this context The Creator) is at the heart of Lakota religious tradition.

The Songs: Invocations are spoken not sung

The Dance: There is no dance.

Veteran's Dance

Just as honoring the flag is important, honoring those who have served to defend it is an important part of Lakota tradition. Decorated veterans who have shown bravery in battle hold a position of especially high esteem in the community. In the recent past, Veteran's Dance was danced only by veterans. Not their family, not their friends, not scouts. Just the "real" veterans. Recently, this has changed and family members also dance, often in honor of someone on active service.

The Songs: Veteran's Songs typically talk about Indian soldiers (Lakota hoks 'ila-"Sioux boys" or akicita--"soldier or warrior"), friends (kola or kola pila), charging (natan' hin 'apelo-lit. "making an attack"), carrying the pipe (can 'un'pa yuha) or a fallen comrade, causing the enemy (toka kici yapi) to cry (ceya), bravery (ohitika--lit. "furious"), shooting (ku'te), the enemy (e.g. Germans-Eyas'ica--lit. "bad speak", Palan'i-Rees) and the place ("Korea-ta"--Korea, "Vietna-am"--Vietnam) of the war (okicize).

The Dance: Veteran's Dance, like all honoring dances is danced clockwise at Rosebud. The dance step is the basic Plains step.

Sneak-Up Dance

Originally, Sneak-Up Songs were a type of veteran's honoring song and a remnant of a society dance. Today, although sometimes still used in the traditional way, Sneak-Up Songs are also used as contest songs for Men's Traditional contests. In 2003, on Saturday at Rosebud Fair, a Sneak Up was used to close the opening ceremonies of the powwow.

The Songs: Older Sneak-Up Songs talk about carrying a wounded comrade back from the thick of battle (Eca Lakota hoks'ila was'os'eape, heyuha manipe, heyuha manipe). Some of the newer Sneak-Up Songs are written in this traditional vein but others, especially those used for contests, can be meaningless. Regardless of the type, Sneak-Up songs are sung in nine repeat stanzas.

The Dance: Sneak-Up is for generally men only. A few older women, usually in traditional dress, may dance but will bob in place at the edge of the dance circle. During the nine repeat stanzas, the drum is beat very rapidly and the dancers dance in place, "ruffling" or making mock war motions, e.g., shooting, scouting, etc. During the "wordy" part of the song, the drum changes to a "straight" beat and the dancers progress around the arbor clockwise using the basic Plains step. The drum stops at the end of the song. This is repeated four times. After the fourth time, the drum does not stop but continues. The lead singer takes the song up again to a straight beat one or more times. The song ends and a tail is sung. Everybody who danced the main dance dances the tail using the basic Plains step.

Victory Dance

Victory Dance is another of the recently recovered traditions for Rosebud Fair. Victory Dance is a old tradition for the Lakota. In the past, it must have been done very often because in his account of the battle of the Little Big Horn given to Frank Zahn in 1931 (55 years after the battle) Tas'na Mani (Moving Robe) remarked that the Lakota did not do a Victory Dance the night after the battle. In the 1970s Victory Dance was not part of the dance program at Rosebud Fair. This tradition was recovered in the 1980s and in 2003. On Sunday at Rosebud Fair, a Victory Dance was used to close the opening ceremonies of the powwow.

The Songs: The drum often goes to the center of the dance circle to sing these songs. There are four parade and four round dance songs sung for Victory Dance. Currently, the songs used date from WW I and talk about German soldiers (eya s'ica--bad mouths) and other things typical of Veteran's Songs (see above).

The Dance: The dance starts off as a slow parade going clockwise using the basic Plains step. In 2003, the dance was led by veterans, the local Chiefs and dignitaries. Everybody joins in the dance including women. While dancing, some men may fire guns off and give war whoops and mock war motions, shooting, tracking, striking a blow, etc. The women trill (ululate) and taunt the "enemy", symbolized by a flag or other war trophy. After the fourth song, the drum stops and switches over from a slow straight beat to a soft-loud beat and the dancers side-step, i.e., "round dance", clockwise. Side-step is done toward the left with a simple side-close step. Nothing fancy. War trophies, such as a Japanese flag captured in the Pacific or a modern German flag, may be brought into the dance circle, thrown on the ground and first "charged" and then counted coup on, i.e., stamp on it or strike it with a dance wand or cane. The women may spit on the flag and also count coup on it. There is no tail.

Intertribal Dance

The Intertribal or War Dance is the essence of the powwow. It is also the "safest" dance for the new comer to dance as there is probably no right or wrong way to dance an intertribal. The roots of the intertribal are from the Omaha Grass Dance who passed it to many Nations by the early 20th century[1]. Although originally associated with the Hethu'shka Society, by 1918 Densmore [2] wrote that it had lost it's societal significance and had become a social dance.

The Songs: Most Intertribal songs don't have any words, being composed solely of vocables. Over the past 20 years or so, a resurgence of all things "traditional" has led to the recovery and composition of many songs with words that are used for intertribals or war dances. There are two main types used as Traditional Dance Songs; those where the words actually say something and those where the words say little or nothing and are seemingly picked at random. The first type of Traditional Dance Songs talk about coming together, having a good time, dancing, being lively and are similar to Grand Entry Songs. The second type may simply repeat the words "Wacipo" or waci pelo (Dance!) over and over. We have heard this type of song referred to as "Rock and Roll Songs" or "Nonsense Songs".

The Dance: At Rosebud, male traditional dancers dance counter-clockwise and females dance clockwise or just bob in place in time to the song. What's this? The women are dancing in the opposite direction to the men? The men are dancing counter-clockwise? Well to quote from an old song by Gershwin, "It ain't necessarily so". Each community can have it's own traditions. Keep your eyes open, see what the others are doing an follow suit. Fancy and Grass dancers tend to dance in place or move in short bursts around the arbor. The sexes follow the direction set by the Traditional dancers. The step is the basic Plains step.

A recently recovered tradition at Rosebud is to have Whistle Men. One to four respected men, usually decorated veterans, will be designated as Whistle Men. They are the only ones to blow their whistles during the dance. If they like a particular song, as it nears it's end they will blow their whistle. This is a signal to the drum to "take it up" i.e., start the song, 4 more times. The Whistle Man will whistle toward then end of each song. After the fourth time through, unless a second Whistle Man also "whistles up the song", the song ends.

When the song ends, this could be after 10 minutes or so or as few as 4-6 times through the song, everybody stops and stands in place waiting for the next drum to start up. The MC calls the next drum in order and away you go. If it's time for something special such as a contest or a major Give Away, everybody not involved leaves the arbor or takes a seat in front of the drums. Typically, there are no tails on Intertribal songs. If there are, everybody dances.


Although they have come to occupy the greatest amount of time, contests are the most modern and least traditional part of the powwow. Contests as we know them today started in the 1950s. Prior to that time, good dancers would be honored individually with small gifts. Even as contests became formalized, big cash prizes were unknown; simple gifts being given. Today, things have certainly changed and it is possible to earn a living as a "professional" contestant. If you spend a summer traveling from big dance to big dance around the Northern Plains, you'll quickly notice that you see some of the same dancers at every dance. These are the folks on the "powwow circuit", the best of which will be famous and have fans in the crowd.

The Songs: Each dance style has its own contest and songs.

The Dance: Each contest has its own dance style, gender and age bracket. You are expected to dance in the contest where you "belong" so pay attention to when your group is called and don't dance with any other group. Also, you must be registered with the judges if you want to dance in the contest.

Honoring Songs

As we have mentioned previously, showing respect for traditions and individuals, especially those who serve the community is an essential part of Lakota culture. In addition to the programmed events such as Veteran's Dance, it is also important to honor specific individuals and their achievements. The Songs: Honoring songs have been written for every imaginable occasion. Many are written for a particular individual and for a particular occasion. This type often mentions the person by name which is usually inserted at the start of the repeat chorus of the song. Some songs, which at one time were for specific people, have entered more generalized use and a different name (i.e., that of the person being presently honored) will be substituted. Writing in 1918, Densmore [2] described the "custom of replacing in a war song the name of a half-forgotten hero with that of a new favorite". When a group is being honored, or the one being honored does not have an Indian name, the following can be substituted: Lakota hoks'ila or Lakota wicas'a (Sioux boys or dancers); wicas'a kin' or winyan' kin' (The dancer or the woman); heyuska kin' (Any member of the Grass Dance Society); opeya okolakiciye (society member); oyate kin' (the people) or even tuwe seca (whoever, i.e., an unspecified person).

Like Grand Entry Songs, Honoring songs often talk about Indian ways being good or difficult. They may mention a noteworthy occasion such as a graduation, birthday, winning a dance contest and noteworthy position such as soldier, powwow official, chief, cook. These songs may speak using first person and tell the listener to behold me (wanmayan 'ka yo). Words that often appear are omawaniyan' (traveling around, lit. to take a walk), tokiyatan 'han' (where ever) and makasitomni (the whole world) and blihimici (take courage). The same honoring song can be used for quite different occasions. Densmore [2] describes a song which honors a specific person that was used for begging for food at his lodge as well as at victory dances and society meetings.

The Dance: For some of honoring songs, everybody dances as if it were an intertribal. No fuss is made over the honoree(s). We've seen this form used for birthdays, grammar school graduations, winning princess contests and other "minor" events. The MC will have announced that this is an honoring song and who paid for it, what they paid and who is being honored.

For more major events such as high school or college graduations, returning home from service, a more formal honoring song and dance will be done. Here the honoree and the sponsor(s) will lead off the song and have the arbor to themselves for the first time through the song. They dance clockwise. The sponsors might include the honoree's close blood relatives and closest friends. After the first time through the song everybody dances, not as a parade, but as if it were any other intertribal. If there is a tail, everybody dances.

The Give-Away

Generosity is one of the most admired personal characteristics among traditional Lakota. It is also used to establish and maintain one's place in the community. Typically the amount of money being paid is also announced. This may seem funny to non-Indians, but the public display and giving of gifts plays an important role in Lakota culture, establishing a person and forging obligations that bind the community together. A gift to the poor who have little likelihood of being able to repay the gift is a particularly strong statement. Purchasing honoring songs and giving away are common ways of demonstrating generosity.

Distribution of food is often part of a Give Away. This is where we've seen some non-Indians really put their foot in it. Traditional foods aren't like McDonalds. But whether you like it or not, accept some that is offered, tell those distributing it you have enough and otherwise keep your mouth shut.

The Songs: Give-Away songs are identical to other Honoring Songs. Songs to honor giving away may talk about eating (wota) or food (wo), horses (s'unka wakan'), or the poor (ohun'ke s'ni). They may also refer to having a difficult task (iyotiye wakiye) or having difficulties (tamun'ka s'ni).

The Dance: For very informal Give-Aways, unless you are listening carefully to the MC you might not even notice them. There is no special dance and no stopping of the powwow. Just an announcement of the gift, the giver and the recipient. For a formal Give-Away, the honoring song is sung in the form of a "Penny Song", where the drum leads in the person giving-away around the arbor clockwise followed by a parade of his or her relatives and close friends who carry the gifts. Close friends of the honoree(s) will come out, shake hands and join the parade at the rear. Except at a small dance, you would not expect to see all the dancers join the parade. If any money is given to the honoree, it is their obligation to give this away as well. The song starts as a slow half-time beat for the parade. The dancers use the basic Plains step. After circling the dance circle, the drum drops out of the parade and moves to the center. The beat then changes over to a double beat to which the paraders side-step around the area clockwise for the remainder of the song. The gifts are then distributed. Give Aways are sometimes ended with a Wopila (thank you) Song where everybody who got a give will join in. There is a parade and round dance. There is also a tail. For the tail, the dancers change direction and go counter-clockwise.

Dropped Feather

The Dropped Feather Dance was originally used only when an eagle tail feather, was dropped. This is because these feathers were major war trophies and their falling symbolized a fallen comrade. Four distinguished veterans are chosen as an honor guard and one of these is named to pick up the feather. Here, distinguished generally means decorated combat veterans who may be called on to tell their "war story" about how they were wounded or otherwise received their decoration. This is an important way of honoring these men and all who have served in battle. It is not for any feather or fluff that might drop during the dance.

The Songs: There are three songs used for this dance; two "Charging Songs" and a "Pick Up Song. The first Charging Song is from World War I and is sung four times through:
 Natan 'hin'ape (8 times)
 (They are) charging
 Eyas 'ica ceya pe
 The bad mouths (Germans) are crying

The Pick Up Song is also a Veteran's Song. We have heard several different songs used for this. It is also sung four times through.

The Dance: Only the four designated veterans dance. They dance around the dropped feather and feint charging it four times. At the end of the Charging Songs the designated veteran picks up the feather. The third song starts and the four veterans carry the feather to the person who dropped it. Usually an elder will talk to the person who dropped the feather about how he should respect the feather more and take better care of his regalia. The owner is expected to give away to the veterans and the drum to atone for his "sin".


We hope that we've been able to share some of the things we've learned about Lakota traditions. We've tried to limit what we've said to things we know well and although we've tried to be as accurate as possible, we've probably made some errors. We humbly apologize to all Lakota traditional people for any errors we've made.

As we've said earlier, we do not, nor should the reader consider this any kind of definitive work on Lakota culture. (It is most certainly not definitive for any other Native American culture.) Consider it merely as a primer on Lakota powwows. A primer that will give you the basics and should keep you out of too much trouble if you go to a Lakota dance. What we've talked about is to the best of our knowledge true about Rosebud Fair in 2003. It is not necessarily true for any other time or place. Native American culture is a living thing and changes constantly. For example, although Victory Dance is a old tradition, dating from before the Custer battle, the currently used songs date only from 1918. A generation from now, it may be Gulf War songs that are used. If you really want to know Lakota culture, the only sure way is to go out to the Dakotas and attend some dances. Attend large and small dances. You may be surprised on the differences from dance to dance, community to community.

We also call on all old timers like us to share what they know with the newer generations. We challenge you to stick your necks out and write something. If your not up to this, at least don't just sit on the side lines and grouse about, "The kids don't know anything ...". Get involved. You owe it to those who were willing to teach you to teach the next generation.


We would like to thank all those traditional people who have befriended us over the years. Without your help and tolerance of us we wouldn't know anything about living Lakota culture. We dedicate this paper to you. Wopila!


1) Powers W.K. War Dance: Plains Indian Musical Performance. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990.

2) Densmore F. Teton Sioux Music and Culture. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. Originally, Teton Sioux Music, Bulletin 61, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institute, 1918

Illustrated by Terry Robinson
COPYRIGHT 2004 Whispering Wind
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Bugelski, Peter J.; Oblinger, Dennis; Andrews, Frank
Publication:Whispering Wind
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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