Circle 'Round the Fire: The Inspiration of Native American Dance

Have you gone camping lately? It’s funny how time moves differently when you’re camping. When it’s dark at camp, what do you do? If you’re like most people, you make a campfire, sit around and tell stories or jokes while making some sort of campfire treat (s’mores, anyone?), and then turn in early. Our biological clocks make it easier to sleep earlier when all the artificial lighting is absent. Maybe, if you’re camping with a group, some people have a skit or a dance to show off at the campfire. Possibly you have a favorite book that you read out loud to your family. These things you do while camping have a connection to how people spent their evenings for thousands of years. Isn’t it amazing how modern conveniences such as electric lights and television have changed the way humans interact and exist so quickly in recent history? For most of human history, people have gathered around the fire in the evenings to connect.

Some people have found these gatherings “prime time” to connect with their Creator as well. From Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord all night, to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Bible is full of examples of people who used the precious nighttime to work things out with God. It wasn’t that long ago when families would read the Bible together, trying to focus their eyes on the words through the flickering fire or lantern light, before going to bed. At night the world used to stop and everyone, young and old, used to be included in some way in the evening’s final gathering.

I’m not suggesting that we go back to a world before 24-hour pharmacies (and any parent who has been awakened by a child at 2 a.m. with a hacking cough would probably agree with me). Part of the fun of camping is the idea that you are “roughing it” temporarily. If we all lived that way all the time, it would cease to be a fun vacation activity. But, with that said, there are things we can learn from the campfire and how it connects us to the world. Below is a video of an Operation Mobilization group in South Africa worshipping God around the campfire.

And below is another video of Christian youth in India worshipping God by singing and dancing around the campfire.

While this may be fun and interesting as an occasional experience for us, many cultures have worshipped around the fire for hundreds of years. Chief among these in our own backyard are the Native American cultures, who have danced, sung, drummed and worshiped around the campfire since time immemorial. Many of their songs and dances are not Christian and do not worship our God, but dance is dance, whether a Christian invented a particular step or set of moves or not. Of course, eliminating overtly sexual or lewd moves from the public repertoire is good (I don’t care what you do in the privacy of your bedroom, but cut it out in public). But eliminating a whole dance form because someone at one time used it to worship a pagan god would basically confine us to our chairs all day (and even that’s not safe, because some Native tribes in Alaska danced while sitting in chairs). Movement is movement, and God created our bodies to move. Learning some of the expressiveness from other cultures can enhance our own worship of the Living God if we choose to use it that way. Remember that David and Asaph not only set the Psalms to popular songs of their day, but even borrowed instruments and music from their enemies, the Philistines and Hittites. If we can truly adapt another culture's creations for God's glory, why not use them as a fresh, creative and inspiring form of Christian expression?

Some of the Native American dances, such as the Bear Dance of the Great Basin people (including Nevada and parts of California, Oregon, and Utah), served to ask for enough food for everyone in the community. Nations in the Great Basin include the Utes, Paiutes, and Shoshones. Below, the Paiutes and Shoshones in Bishop, CA perform a dance and sing.

The circle dances of Native Americans in the Great Basin led to one of the United State’s worst military debacles: The Massacre at Wounded Knee. Natives were under increased threat from Whites who encroached upon their lands. They looked for and hoped for deliverance. A shaman named Wovoka told his tribe and neighboring tribes that if they sang and danced, the white men would be expelled from the land. Native American nations from far and wide sent ambassadors to learn Wovoka’s dance, which was in the form of a circle dance. The Sioux learned the “Ghost Dance”, and one time when they gathered to dance, the army massacred them. Learn more about it in this video:

Pueblo Indians (Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of California and Utah) did the blue corn dance, where the dancers acted out planting and harvesting corn. The dances of the Pueblos tended to be about water and farming, two necessities of survival in their arid land.

More locally, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians used gourd and palm seed rattles instead of drums. They sang for food and before a hunt. Below is tribal elder Pauline Murillo, a direct descendant of tribe founder Santos Manuel, singing a traditional song her mother taught her.

Cahuilla Indians have traditional bird songs, where the people move like migrating birds. Here is an example of Cahuilla bird songs.

Closer to San Diego, the Kumeyaay people believed their songs and dances instructed people in how to live moral lives in a spirit of brotherhood. Below is a video of a village elder teaching children how to dance around a campfire.

What can we, as Creative Christians, take from these examples of Native American song and dance? First, any artist who is serving the Creator should take pains to learn his or her craft well. Usually, when people speak of learning their craft, they are talking about taking classes in the Western European traditions of music, ballet, and so on. Those are important elements in learning, but they aren’t the only traditions that the well-rounded artist should be able to draw from. Second, for most of these dances, everyone is involved, from grandma to the newborn baby. The elders teach the younger generations, and dancing isn’t reserved only for those who are fit and educated. Your particular congregation might not be the type where ladies bring their tambourines to hit and shake during the service, but it wouldn’t hurt to train up some younger musicians, and even get some non-musicians involved in some of the worship team’s activities (how much skill does it really take to hit a wood block?) Third, many of these dances the Native Americans did were reserved for special days and special celebrations, but many were not. I’m sure that when the coolness of the night breeze came past the campfire after a hot summer day of work, many of these dances and songs were performed as an important element of daily life.

If your worship of God is reserved for the first half hour of every Sunday morning’s church service, it’s time to broaden your horizons and find ways to worship God daily, find ways to teach your family to worship God, and find ways to make it a natural outpouring of your existence, rather than a once-a-week ritual.

What are some other things we can learn from these Native American examples? Leave your ideas and comments below.


Anonymous said...

we can learn how to treat nature and the earth. God said to tend to the earth, and we haven't done a very good job at it.

Anonymous said...

I never really thought about some of these points before. But, people in my church don't like to do a lot of hand motions to songs, and I also think they are unwelcoming to the visitors when everyone else knows the hand motions but they don't.