Rain Dance, Correcting the Myth
As a Lakota, I always found it stereotypical when asked about the rain dance. In all my life, I had never heard of any rain dance taught in Lakota culture. Why? Because, we don’t practice it. The assumption of the practice still persists, however, and it’s worth investigating where this idea originated.
It was only recently, for instance, that I learned the rain dance is actually a fairly common practice among southern tribes. These tribes typically reside in dry climates, where water is essential to life, making it something of a cornerstone in those cultures. Rain, specifically water, is important to sustaining life for all communities, but for some this precious resource is scarce.
One of the tribes that practices the rain dance still today is the Ohlone, located in a small town in the southern central part of California. And in a small town, it is said, “when you call a rain dance, word gets around.” In Ohlone culture, the dance is greatly respected, with pure intent and high significance. After a three-year drought, they attributed the returning rain to their dances.
To the Lakota, the Wakinyans or thunder-beings, were considered messengers of the coming spring, and were thought to bring the rain from the West. But to the Lakota, rain can mean a few things. The Wakinyans can bring rain and renew the land, or bring strong storms and destroy the land. In either scenario, the Lakota viewed rain as a signal of new growth to follow, meaning the time to start planting was near.
Still, weather was never the best signal of a new season on the plains. More than rain, the Lakota relied on a lunar calendar based on the moon cycle, with 12 distinct moons throughout the year. Typically, the first rains came close to the Moon of Fattening, around the month of April. The next was the Moon of Planting, in May, where planting and farming began for the summer. Lakota plants, consisting mostly of berries, corn and some fruits, were harvested a few months later in August.
In contrast to the Ohlone, who practiced the dance fairly often, I don’t recall stories of bad drought in which a rain dance was ever used by the Lakota. Sometimes, it’s too easy to view all native communities as sharing a single culture, with the same beliefs and traditions. This just isn’t the case.
Hopefully, we can continue to inform and correct these generalizations and stereotypes so all native cultures can be respected and distinguished. The rain dance is hardly the only misconception that exists about Indian peoples. By pausing to consider where ideas like this originate, one can begin to appreciate and understand the myriad cultural traditions and histories of the many native tribes around the country.