Songs, Dances, Drums



According to oral history of the Ĩyãħé Nakoda, strong beautiful songs of various virtues often were composed while sitting on the crest of a hill, or while riding a horse across hilltops.

Songs were sung from a falsetto to bass range, and might be considered as chanting. There was also outright singing. Some songs originated from the pit of the stomach and lower back, emitting from the upper body.

Songs always had a rhythm, whether slow or with an increase in tempo. Women and men composed songs that were sung by both genders.

Male and female songs were sung to young children to lull them to sleep. Gender-neutral songs were also sung to the very young. Some songs were sung to older children to embarrass them to go to sleep, especially if there were visitors. This was because shame, used in a proper context, was a powerful method of child-rearing.

Songs were sung of joy, sorrow, melancholy, celebration, and as teaching methods.

Ancestral songs were carefully protected to ensure their integrity. They were passed down from each succeeding generation to remain within a respective clan.

To use a particular song, individuals from another clan paid to borrow the use of the song for a specified period. Songs were also bought outright for exclusive use, and some were given with the requirement of payment. Payment for use or purchase of a song would include a horse, gift of a name, or other personal items.

Individuals known for their ability to compose strong beautiful songs were commissioned to compose songs for various reasons, including celebrations of birth dates, which were called “winter counts”.

Many songs existed within the realms of religion, spirituality, supernatural contexts, those of the Shaman, and within realms that forever remain a mystery.

It is important to be aware that some songs were not, and are not, sung in public.


According to oral history of the Ĩyãħé Nakoda, dance is a manifestation of the songs. Certain dances were passed down through the generations. Men and women, children and youth, would be dressed in regalia and other finery for these occasions.

Dancing occasions included but were not limited to: preparation for war, preparation for the war path, and victory celebrations after winning a hard-fought battle with an enemy tribe.

In battle dances, individuals incorporated rhythmic movements to illustrate their cunning, bravery, killing, counting coup (giving the life back to an exceptionally cunning individual enemy), horse raids, capturing women from other tribes, escaping, hiding, and attacking.

Warriors, Shaman, those referred to as “contraries”, and sacred clowns would dance to interpret intervention from animal, environmental, celestial, and other supernatural spirit realms.

Mourning dances were also held. If a warrior was killed, the parents and close family members cut their hair and made flesh offerings. They put ashes from a fire on their heads to symbolically fight a battle against the death, or to lend speed to the journey to the afterlife. If a death was from natural causes, this observance was not necessarily followed.

A variety of courting dances were held. One example: Young girls of age 12 or 13, that were making their formal debut into the social structure of the group, were encouraged to participate in social dances. During the dance, a young girl would be accompanied by a wise aunt who instructed her to go to a particular young man, with virtues of a good husband, that was from a desirable extended family.

The girl was instructed to gently nudge his toe with her toe. The young man would then get up and, with the young girl, would join the large circle of men and women dancing. The young man had also been taught about courting, and understood this girl’s hand was being offered in marriage. The girl was told by her wise aunt that she would later marry that young man. The wise aunt had carefully chosen that young man to become the husband of her niece.

Another example of a courting dance: A man would stand in the middle of a wide circle of couples that were ready to dance. He served as the "caller". The men and women were side by side, with the arms of a man across the shoulders of a woman, holding hands. When the "caller" gave a verbal signal, they would dance in the direction of the movement of the sun. When the "caller" gave another verbal cue, the men would stop and dance on the spot. The women continued dancing inside the circle. The caller gave another cue. Whichever woman was stopped at a man’s side, gave a slight tug at the man’s arm. The side-by-side dance then continued with the new couples.

Young men that were courting, or wanted to court, certain young women would pre-pay the "caller" with a token gift of tobacco or other small items. Before the dancing started, a young man would secretly tell the "caller" that, when a particular girl approached him from inside the circle, to give the cue to stop. That way, the young man could dance and freely converse with the particular young woman!

There were different variations of the these courting dances. For example, the directions could be reversed. At times, the arms of a man placed around the shoulder of a woman were considered too familiar. In this case, the couple criss-crossed their hands in front as they danced. This was a supervised way of openly courting and socializing.

Other courting dances existed that created a very romantic air. Different songs were remembered by older couples as those that had been sung when they were young and courting to a certain dance.

Naming dances were also among many varieties of dancing. Other dances were also held, where individuals danced in their regalia. There were no interpretative parameters and these were more of a freestyle movement.

Certain individuals were chosen to perform certain dances, usually in groups of four. These include Feather Belt Dancers, Knife Dancers, Whip Dancers, “Keepers of the Lance” Dancers, and “Keepers of the Fork” Dancers.

It is important to be aware that some dances were not, and are not, performed in public.


According to oral history of the Ĩyãħé Nakoda, the gamubi (drum) had special qualities that, when hit once, instantly stimulated an intrinsic personal connection. It was like a heartbeat of the soul.

Certain men were chosen to be a "Drum Chief". They had earned the title of “Keeper of the Drum”.

A drum was made from rawhide stretched over a round, hollow frame from the wood of a cottonwood tree. It could measure up to four feet across. Narrow sticks were used to strike the drum surface in rhythm. The end of the stick that struck the drum was covered in soft hide, wrapped oblong. Approximately eight to ten men sat around the drum, each with a single drum stick. These drummers sang the songs.

Hand drums of various sizes were also made with rawhide stretched over a small wood frame. The underside was webbed to hold the cover tight. A person held this drum by the webbing in one hand. A drum stick, similar to that of the large drum, was held in the other hand to strike the drum surface in a rhythmic motion.

Hand drums were used in sweat lodges, ceremonial dances, round dances, as well as for self-enjoyment and family entertainment. They were also used when delving into the unknown supernatural world.

Hand drums were used for young children to practise songs prior to larger gatherings of the Iyahe Nakoda groups.


All words in the Ĩyãħé Nakoda language that are written on this page are included in the Language menu segment for you to hear how they are correctly pronounced.