Ceremonial Traditions

In many ceremonies, the songs to be performed and their order are specifically prescribed. In others they are not; in the Peyote ceremonies of Plains tribes, each singer must sing four songs at a time, but they may be any songs from the Peyote repertory, and only at four points in the ceremony must particular songs be sung.

Older Ceremonial Traditions

The “Night Chant” (Yeibechai) of the Navajo - a curing ceremony, requires nine days and nights, and includes 

hundreds of songs and their poetic texts. The Hako, a Pawnee ceremony of general religious significance, required several days and included about one hundred songs.

The medicine-bundle ceremonies of the Northern Plains peoples might consist of several parts: narration of the myth explaining the origin of the bundle; opening the bundle and performing with each of the objects in it; a required activity (dancing, smoking, eating, praying); and the singing of one or several songs (usually by the celebrant, sometimes by him and others present) for each object.

The Blackfoot Sun Dance, the largest and most central of the older tribal ceremonies of this culture, required four preparatory days followed by four days of dancing.

The Peyote ceremony, which became a major religious ritual in many tribes of the United States in the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, consists of a night of singing. Each participant - there may be from ten to thirty sitting in a circle - sings four songs at a time, playing the rattle while his neighbor accompanies him on a special drum.

Modern Ceremonies

In recent times, several intertribal styles have developed. Some, such as the Peyote style, mix elements from a several different areas to create a new, distinctive genre. Others, such as the intertribal powwow style, have adopted one particular style (Plains) for use in a new context.

Ghost Dance songs - The Ghost Dance was a messianic cult that began in the Great Basin and was adopted by  Plains tribes. The song style, derived from the Great Basin style used in Utah and Nevada, is characterized by a small range and a typical paired-phrase form (AA BB CC, etc.).

Peyote songs - Used in many tribes to accompany Peyote cult ceremonies. Ordinarily sung solo, the vocal style is relaxed (Navajo), the rhythmic structure uses two note values (Apache), and the typical form is “incomplete repetition,” with descending contours (Plains). There is a special set of vocables combined in “words” such as heyowanene, heyowitsinayo, kayatinayo. All songs end with four long notes and the syllables he ne yo we (possibly southern Plains). A water drum and a special rattle (possibly southeastern) provide accompaniment.

Powwow - Based on Plains style, the modern successor of midsummer religious ceremonies symbolizes broad Indian identity to both Indian and White audiences.