The Animal Spirit Dance: American Indian Ceremonial Revival and “New Traditions”




Dorn, Kathleen Leanna

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Since the 1980’s American Indian ceremonies have appeared that seem to draw on past forms of ritual while incorporating new forms of cultural practice. These ceremonies include prayer circles, seasonal ceremonies, and animal dances reminiscent of earlier forms practiced in the 1800’s and before. Some of these ceremonies are promoted for the purpose of unifying tribes and nations while bringing back a form of culture and practice that existed prior to colonial contact. However, to some degree, the cultural practices deviate from what reservation-born Indians view as valid traditional forms. The ceremonies also reach out to non-Indians and individuals with distant Indian heritage without direct reservation ties, thus requiring event locations outside of reservation boundaries. The ceremonies have generated controversy from both sides of the reservation boundaries. Promoters and supporters champion the ceremonies as a constructive promotion of Indian culture, legitimized by a common Indian core value of sharing, as well as fulfillment of various native prophecies that foretell a time of unity among nations and a return to traditional values. However, others, especially reservation-born Indians with direct reservation and cultural ties, have developed concerns, which can lead to exclusionary tactics that impact the culture of sharing and agendas of unity. Some concerns are related to the sharing of culturally sensitive ceremonial practice with individuals who lack proper understanding of Indian ceremony. They believe that improper usage of sacred objects, or the performance of sacred ceremonies without proper knowledge, may subject attendees to spiritual and health related dangers. However, the greater concern about sharing ceremonial knowledge focuses on “sharing versus wearing,” or when those with distant Indian heritage attempt to use ceremonial knowledge and practice as a qualification while building an “Indian cultural résumé” to justify wearing the title “Indian.” Enrolled Indians, especially those with direct ties to reservations, fear further dilution of tribal roles and government benefits by “Wannabee1” groups seeking enrollment and tribal recognition. As a result, these new ceremonies exacerbate a racially and politically motivated conflict affecting the perceptions of the people who attend as well as the legitimacy of cultural practice. This thesis focuses on one new form of ceremony named the “Animal Spirit Dance”, and seeks to understand reasons for the formation of these ceremonies, the types of people attracted to them, and the perceptions and practice of ceremony by those who attend and participate as well as members of the Indian community who stand at a distance. The research group includes three major categories of people: 1) Individuals with no traceable or provable Indian heritage. 2) Individuals with traceable but distant or diluted Indian heritage whose blood quantum, tribal affiliation or politics disallows them a formal tribal enrollment. 3) Indians enrolled in state or federally recognized tribes. The results of this study illustrate that the formation and acceptance of new forms of ceremony are not immediate. Rather, they constitute processes of change that occur over time in response to the perceptions and needs of the people within the community. Acceptance and validation are defined by those who practice the ceremony and not necessarily negated by critiques from those who do not. However, certain practices and protocols are critical to the process of validation. Both historical and contemporary cultural clashes with non-Indians affect perceptions of both the dance and those who attend when those perceptions become projected into the validation process. Perceptions can be affected by types of people and actions of those who attend as much as the protocols of the ceremony, due to differences in the definition of “Indian”. This adds pressure to the identity that Indians are attempting to create for themselves.



Native American ceremony, Animal Spirit Dance, Tribal Enrollment, Wannabee, New Traditions, Native American dance