Sioux Grass Dance

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What is a “Grass Dance”? To me, the phrase conjures up visions of Hawaiian hula dancers, but this was not really the case. Grass dances began with the Sioux nation, which was located in and around what is today the state of South Dakota. The Sioux used grass dances as part of their war ceremony, so essentially at grass dances originated as war dances. Although this was a music associated with war, it spread to from the Omaha, to their neighbors, through the plains, and across North America. Tara Browner in “An Acoustic Geography of Intertribal War Songs, pointed out that these grass dances had in fact “grafted” on to indigenous warrior society. When the U.S. government formed Bureau of Indian Affairs, one of the bureau’s functions was to limit communication between the groups of native people. The reason was to prevent these nations from organizing greater resistance and attacks, but an indirect result was preventing “cross fertilization” of music between these nations. This means that the grass dance style spread across North America, but then began to evolve with tribes and nations in isolation. This resulted in different styles of grass dances, one of the main differences being the Northern and Southern styles, which were first, observed in the 1920s (Browner). Although grass dances began as war music, in modern times they are more functional as an important part to pow-wows (Gay). Now that we have a grasp of the history of grass dances, what did they sound like? Again, the image of hula dances comes to mind, but truly the musical style of Sioux grass dances are a far fling from the familiar soft strumming of the ukulele. The example that we listed to in Musicology 115 started out with the male vocalists singing in falsetto. Their sound gets lower, and then the women join in. There was not really any harmony and not many words. Instead of words, these singers used a great deal of vocables. The range of this song didn’t follow the musical scale that we of...
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