Kiowa Eagle Dance

Original Text


“KIOWA EAGLE DANCE. The eagle dance is performed with slight variations, by several tribes. Dressed to resemble the eagle and imitating the soaring bird in majestic flight, the dancers tell the story of its hunting habits. The dance is a high tribute to the sacred bird and an expression of man’s desire for its keen hunting senses. The Kiowas, typical nomadic people of the southern plains, are one of the eagle dancing tribes. They are now known for the high quality of their color drawing and have had an important part in the modern revival of Indian art. Castle Rock, shown in the distance, was left as a result of erosion of the surrounding plain. Its stately chalk spires must have been impressive to the tribesmen who frequented the locality. Castle Rock is on Hackberry Creek in Gove County, Kansas.”

“CEREMONIAL DANCING. Like many primitive races, the American Indian developed the dance to an elaborate perfection. Sometimes the object was to arouse frenzy for a coming battle, but more often the dance was for a social or ceremonial purpose. Dressed in colorful and symbolic costume and accompanied by throbbing tom-toms, the Indians adeptly executed many intricate steps and gestures. Invocations for the well-being of growing crops, entreaties for the success of a hunting expedition, or thanksgiving for favors of the Gods were expressed by the rhythmic movement of dancing bodies and the chanting prayers of the chorus. The white American has derived themes for some of his finest music from the songs of his primitive countrymen and his poets honor the nameless immortals who have given us Indian poetry.”

A Modern View

The Kiowa migrated to the Black Hills from western Montana in the mid-seventeenth century. After the Cheyenne and Lakota pressed into the region, the Kiowa moved further south. By the early nineteenth century, they had established a new homeland in southeastern Colorado, western Kansas, and Oklahoma, where they embraced an equestrian lifestyle, lived in hide lodges, and followed the bison migrations.

Ritualized singing and dancing were an important part of Plains Indian culture, as discussed in the original text. The Kiowa developed a complex ceremonial life that included numerous annual dances. Spiritually important, these dances also served a social purpose—they brought the various bands of the tribe together to renew kinship bonds, find marriage partners, and discuss tribal business. Tribes also borrowed dancing traditions from one another. The Eagle Dance depicted in the diorama, for example, was not originally an aspect of Kiowa culture; rather, they adopted the dance from the Pueblo and made it their own.

As suggested in the original text, White Americans came to appreciate the artistry of Indigenous dances by the 1930s; however, this was not always the case. During the allotment era, the federal government engaged in a sustained campaign to suppress these supposedly “savage” practices. The Kiowa experienced these cultural attacks after the government relocated them to a reservation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) beginning in the late 1860s. White educators endeavored to persuade the Kiowa to abandon their customs and to embrace “modern” life.

To further the assimilation process, the United States also sent some Kiowa warriors to Fort Marion in Florida in the mid-1870s, where they remained imprisoned for several years. Some of the prisoners drew scenes of their life on the Plains on ledger paper, which they sold to tourists. Following their release, the Kiowa brought this new artistic tradition home. As discussed in the original text, the Kiowa’s colorful drawings contributed to a revival of Indigenous art in the twentieth century.

The Kiowa reestablished a tribal government in 1968. Today, the Kiowa Indian Tribe of Oklahoma includes around 12,500 tribal citizens. The tribe earns income from various ventures, including their participation in the Oklahoma Indian Arts and Crafts Cooperative.