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Songs, Dances & Ceremonies

"We are the Song People, we sing for birth, when the child is in the womb to when the baby breathes their first breath and on through each phase of life.

We Sing before the sun rises over the horizon to greet us and when he goes down for the night. We sing to the plants, the water, the sky, the stars, the wind, the earth, the different Seasons, the animals. every trail had a song, as well as each mountain, we sing for all elements of life.

When a life ends we will sing all night, helping those who are on their spiritual journey through the Cry Ceremony. There is always a first, a middle and an ending in the circle of life and remembered and sung through song."

Shanandoah Anderson




Florence Kanosh gives the following information about the Circle Dance as it was practiced long ago, as she heard it from Woots Parashont (Waok) of Cedar City, Utah:


Years ago, the Paiutes used to dance the Circle Dance for rain. When they danced, a lot of dust would ascend to God. God would then send them rain and snow which would cause all the plants to grow that they used for food. The Circle Dance is a prayer to God for food and the dust carries their request to him.

The Circle Dance Kwenok' Oowee'kai, is a dance common to many tribes throughout North America. Many tribes call it a Round Dance. In the Paiute version the dancers all hold hands and dance in a clockwise circle to the beat of a drum and a song. The Paiutes had only one person beating the drum who danced in the circle with the rest of the dancers. Everyone sang. The Circle Dance was strictly a social dance in recent times, where either male or female could cut into the line and dance with anyone they wanted.

During the 1940s and 1950s when the Paiutes would migrate and follow field work, they would hold a Circle Dance almost every weekend that would often last all night. Cedar City was a favorite place for this. The younger generation didn't drink much in those days so the dances were orderly. It was drinking and the cessation of migratory Paiute camps that caused the demise of the Circle Dance as a social gathering.


The Southern Paiutes have their own Circle Dance songs and have learned many from the Shoshones, Goshute’s, Hualapai’s, and Havasupai’s. Likewise, these tribes have learned many Paiute songs as they have visited each other's dances over the years and shared songs. There are virtually hundreds of songs.

Most Circle Dance songs consist of short phrases that are repeated over and over. The origins of some of these songs have been lost. Some probably came from songs sung in the ancient legends. Many Circle Dance songs are contemporary songs composed with either English or Indian words.


Edrick Bushhead tells of a Circle Dance song contest held in Moapa in the 1940s. He sang the song for recording by Martineau in the 1960's that won first place.


Following are some of the phrases to be found in a few Paiute Circle Dance songs:


  • Big Eagle's son is going to cry at the edge of the earth (coast)

  • The mirage is playing

  • Brown Eagle, snow in Arizona

  • Pocatello, Idaho

  • Tony, what are you doing?

  • Pinyon Jays making noise over the earth

  • American bouncing along by Snow Mountain

  • Green rock sitting

  • The mountain is shaking

  • Snow is in the sky

  • North wind blowing




No one knows for sure who started the Bear Dance or how old it is. There are some ancient rock writings depicting the Bear Dance that gives it some antiquity. The Colorado Utes claim that they learned it from the Uintah Utes. The Southern Paiutes have been doing it for a long time. During the early part of the 1900's the Bear Dances were being held at Kaibab, Shivwits, Elsinore, and other places. Bear Dances were strong annual events at Shivwits until the early 1950s. Since then, they have only been put on when someone has had the inclination. Bear Dances have been held recently at Richfield, Cedar City, and Kaibab.

The Paiute origin story of the Bear Dance (Mah'kon):


One time two Indian youths were out in the woods and came to a bear's den. One of the youths told the other "I am going in and won’t come back out until spring, so go home and don't be worried about me or tell anyone what happened to me. I will return in the spring." The youth went in the cave and the other one returned home. During the winter hibernation the bear taught the youth the Bear Dance Songs and how to do the Bear Dance. When winter ended and the bears came out of hibernation, after the first spring thunder, the youth who spent the winter in the bear's den returned home. He then taught the dance and songs to the Indians and this is how the Bear Dance originated.












 Photo sketch of petroglyph panel in Ute Country

 Curtesy of Carol Patterson


Bear Dances are always held in the spring except at Blanding, Utah, where they put one on in September. A Bear Dance corral is built out of upright juniper trees with an opening towards the east. It is made big enough to hold the anticipated crowd. The musical instrument for the Bear Dance today is a notched axe handle and a bone or another stick used to rub up and down the notches to make a rasping sound in rhythm to the songs. The end of the axe handle is placed on top of a large piece of tin that is situated on top of a long rectangular wooden box. The sound that the rasp makes sounds much like a growling bear. In the old days a piece of wood was used in place of the axe handle, and rawhide was used in place of the tin.


A Bear Dance is put on by a Bear Dance Chief. It is always a woman's choice in choosing a dancing partner at a Bear Dance. When the singers start a song, the women go and choose their male partners by flicking their shawl at the man of their choice. Two women may choose the same man and he must dance with them both. The women then go and stand in a line and wait for the song to end. When the song ends the men go and line up facing the women. When the singing starts again, they start dancing.

The men will place their right arms at the women's waist and the women their right arms on the men's left shoulder or waist. They dance towards the entrance in sort of a running step in rhythm with the music. When they get close to the corral fence, they reverse the direction they are dancing without either person turning around. The couples do not have to dance in a line. Everyone dances at their own pace and the dancers have to watch out to avoid colliding with dancers coming at them in a head-on direction. They continue to dance back and forth until the song has ended and then they return to the place they were sitting.


The Utes start their dances off a little different. After the women have chosen their partners, they go and stand in a line and wait for the song to end. When the song ends the men go and line up facing the women. The line of men all hold hands with each other and so do the women. When the singing starts the line of women approach the men for about three steps, then as they retreat about three steps, the line of men dances towards them the same distance the women retreat. The two facing lines continue dancing back and forth, approximately the same number of steps, facing each other for the duration of the song.

The Utes have a "Cat Man" called Moosuts in Ute, who carries a long willow to whip the dancers into keeping the line straight and to separate the dancers into partners when he chooses to. When he separates them, they separate from the line and dance in couples, or trios, as described above for the Paiutes. The Cat Man also uses his whip to get after the male dancers who don't want to dance because they don't care for the women who chose them.


There is no knowing for sure how long the Paiutes have been separating into partners at the beginning of the dance, but it was noted as early as 1950. This could have come about because the younger generation wants to be able to hold their partners whereas the older generation was always a little more reserved. Both the Utes and Paiutes used to only dance during the day, but now the Paiutes have both day and night dances.

The Bear Dance generally lasts for three days. The last song on the last day is a very long song that is aimed at tiring out the dancing couples until someone falls from exhaustion or trips. Those not dancing may cut in to relieve a friend. When a couple falls, they must remain on the ground until the Bear Dance Chief comes and prays over them. They then arise and the dance is over. A feast is always held during a bear dance.





There is very little information remaining about the Paiute War Dance. Florence Timmican knew one of the old War Dance songs which I recorded, and Minnie Jake gave me the following information:


I saw a War Dance when I was young. The men killed an enemy and cut his head off. The head was stuck on top of a long pole which was held in the air by a dancer. Others also danced around it. This was the War Dance. We had a Scalp Dance too but I never saw one.




Jim Chili, a Chemehuevi from around Banning, California, gives the only information I've been able to obtain on the Scalp Dance. Remember that the Chemehuevi’s are basically Paiutes with the same culture and language with only minor variations:


One time there was a scalp dance held near Las Vegas, Nevada. There was a pole in the middle of the dancers. Sometimes a dancer would take the enemy scalp and do all kinds of vulgar things with it like pulling it through the crotch of his legs to mock the dead enemy.




The following information about a Sun Dance (Tawhoo' Wuhnee; Thirsty Standing) held at Fish Lake, Utah comes from Douglas Timmican, Koosharem.


The Paiutes used to have a Sun Dance at Fish Lake, Utah, in the Bowery Creek Campground just northwest of the old sawmill that used to be there. Tom Amnisky (Tom Mix) put it on and invited a Ute medicine man down to run it. It was in the 1930s. There were about 7 dancers: 

Walter George and Georgey George of Shivwits, Toby John and Joe Pikyavit of Kanosh, Toohood' a Goshute, a Ute, and one other dancer. Dan and Fred Bullets were there from Kaibab and many others. Fred Bullets lost a member of his family and they had to bury her at Koosharem. Deer Kanosh helped sing, and a few white people were there to watch the dance.


Johnny Jake from Indian Peak, tells the following about the last Sun Dance held at Panguitch Lake, Utah:


The last Sun Dance held by the Paiutes was at Panguitch Lake, Utah. The walls of the Sun Dance lodge were only of sagebrush. At this last dance the singers ran out of songs (or claimed to). This is what my father Carl Jake told me. The photographs of a Paiute Sun Dance at Cedar City were of a dance only put on for tourists and it was not the real thing like at Panguitch Lake. 



This dance imitates the Wild TurkeyPrairie Chicken, young men would wear feather bustle on the back of their rear, their arms, legs and head.  This dance was for the young men to dress up to impress the ladies such as the wild turkey and Prairie Chicken does when they are in mating season and they dance around for the female birds. This was also done when they went out to hunt the wild turkey.

Later on it became a social dance for any male to dance freely and enjoy with the "War Dance Songs" from all tribes who came to sing during their social dances. 


The Ghost dance was introduced to the Southern Paiutes by the Northern Paiutes. There were two distinct times this dance surged, one in 1870 and the other in 1890. It is not clear what years were more dominant for each area in the four states or bands. The St. George and Moapa Paiutes introduced this dance to the Hualapai's in 1889 by a Southern Paiute leader who influenced this dance to spread south his name was Panama'ita or Pananmo'ita.

Having gone through so much death and hardships when the European came to Nuwu lands, this new dance was welcomed, praying it would bring back all those killed over the many years of massacres, sickness removal from their homelands. It is believed a powerful being would come to this earth in the form of an Indian, named No-Ta Win-nup, he would be the savior coming to save the Indians. With all those relatives rising from the dead, there would be an army to fight the Europeans and give them death and destruction just as had happened to them.


This dance was to last five days with the arbor set up similar to a Sun Dance, with a center pole in the middle with eagle feathers on the top. The young men and women (older ones did not participate but watched on the sideline) wore all white when they danced this, women in white dresses and men in their white breechcloths. Their bodies painted white, the face was painted with red ochre, (some used white paint designs on the face as well). The dancing was similar to the circle dance but it was lined up as male/female in the circle, holding hands and dancing to the left. The rasp was used (like with the bear dance) with some Paiutes and a drum with others. Songs were sung by the older men, given to them through dreams.

This dance ended at midnight but on the last night it went all night. The young ones dance into exhaustion, this was believed to bring on the spiritual visions by dancing until they had to be carried off. 

More information can be found in: The Ghost Dance of 1889, Among the Pai Indians of the Northwestern Arizona. By Henry F. Dobyns and Robert C. Euler.






The Salt Songs are a series of songs that correspond to places in the physical territories of the Numic people. These songs are sung as part of The Cry, a ritual which is performed when a person dies and their spirit moves from this earthly existence into the afterlife.

(Kelly and Fowler 1986:383). 

The Salt Songs start when the sun went down and ending just before the sunrise. The songs are always sung using a gourd and sung in the same order, telling of a migration. Wendell John, from Shivwits, says:

"There used to be 140 Salt Songs. The singing lasts two to three nights for an important person and one night for a child. The last four songs are also sung at the grave site.

One year after a person has died a "Cry" (Ya-hup) or memorial is held where both Bird and Salt Songs are sung all night long just as in the ceremony held when the person died. Many gifts are brought to give to the deceased. These gifts consist of cloth, blankets, and other things of value. They are displayed on ropes in an arbor and when the ceremony is over at sunrise on the last day they are all burned so they can be sent to the dead."

Salt Songs are sung all night at the same time the Bird Dance is going on. Both groups are often singing at the same time. 


Stewart Snow, a proficient singer of the Salt Songs, says:

 "The Paiutes got their Salt Songs from the Cahuilla Indians of California."  

The Chemehuevi’s got them from the Cahuilla and then in turn shared them with the Mojave and Hualapai. The Salt Songs are not in the Paiute language but in the Cahuilla language which should confirm this. The Cahuilla no longer sing these songs but remember having them.

James Marble, a Mojave Bird Singer, said:

"The Mojave’s got their Salt Songs from the Chemehuevi."


The Hualapai’s say they also got their Salt Songs from the Chemehuevi when they were in confinement at Halapasa across the river from Parker. "Serum and Walapai Charlie got the songs," (McKennan 1964, p. 195).


James Marble gives the following information about the Salt Songs:


"Frank Snow, Stewart Snow's father from Shivwits, was the first one to learn the Salt Songs which he started among the Paiutes. Sam Mike from Banning, California, was also a good Salt Song singer. They used to explain the Salt Song meanings at funerals."


Seth Bushhead of Shivwits has the following to say about the origin of the Salt Songs:


The Cry was not originally held among the Paiutes. It came from the south among the Mojave’s and from Southern California. The Moapa Indians first learned this ceremony from their southern neighbors and one of the Moapa Indians brought this ceremony up to the Shivwits Reservation.



"The Bird dance is danced all night long at funeral ceremonies. The male singers sing with a gourd. They sit on chairs in a row facing the women who sit opposite them about ten feet away. All the dancers participate in the singing. The songs are to be sung in order since each song tells a portion of a long migration story. It takes all night until sunrise to sing all the songs."

As told by Wendell John, a Shivwits singer of Bird Songs, he said there are 167 Bird Songs.


The Bird Dance was generally danced two to three nights in a row for an important person and only one night for children as well as others, depending on the families request. Salt Songs are generally sung at the same time by a different group of singers in the same room, or outside in the same area. Although there are two different types of singing going on at the same time the wake is essentially just one ceremony. The Goshute’s occasionally have these ceremonies also.


James Marble, a Mojave Bird Singer married to a Shivwits lady and living at Shivwits at least half of his life, gives the following information about the origin of the Bird Dance:


These Bird Songs and dance came from the Cahuilla Indians near Palm Springs, California. The Mojave Indians learned them from the Cahuilla and changed the songs some. They all fall in order and tell a story. The old-timers used to tell the meaning of each song between songs. The Salt Songs came from the Chemehuevi tribe and the Coyote Songs come from the Mojave tribe. These songs are similar to the Salt Songs; they are also sung in order and tell a story. There are also some Mountain Sheep Songs similar to the above two but I don't know where they came from.


The Bird Songs used to be sung only at good times and not funerals. Sometime in the 1920s, when a famous Mojave singer died, the Bird Songs were sung at his funeral and have been sung at funerals ever since. They used to be sung just to help people stay awake. The Mojave songs tell of a migration of people crossing the Colorado River and going south. Their chief was old and was carried along. Down near Needles, California, someplace he died. The people told him to "Get up! Get up!" but he wouldn't. He died and turned to stone there someplace. Those are the words of the last Bird Song,

Paiutes haven't been singing Bird Songs very long, they have sung Salt Songs much longer. Frank Mustache, a Paiute, was captured by the Hualapai’s or Havasupai’s when he was a young boy. He grew up with them and learned their Bird Songs. He later married Minnie from Kaibab and lived there and was the one who brought the Bird Songs to the Paiutes.

The following legend about the origin of the Bird Dance was explained about 1950, either by James Yellowjacket of Shivwits, or James Marble:


"Many years before the Indians came to be, the chief of the birds died. All the birds of every kind then came together to mourn for him. As they mourned, each bird sang his own song one after another, until they had all sung their songs. Along about morning the sub-chief pulled out all his feathers and cast them into the fire just as the sun came up. Then this sub-chief also went into the fire."


Archie Rogers of Shivwits gives the Paiute version about the Bird Songs as they tie into the Paiute Legend "The Sack of all Tribes":


"The Indians who got out of the sack below Las Vegas have the Bird Songs that tell about that part of the migration. The Moapa Bird Songs tell of coming across the ocean and coming up this way. Jim Chili used to explain parts of the Bird Song migration story when he sang them.


Roadrunner was taken down south from Las Vegas, down towards Parker, Arizona, and that's where those Bird Songs started. A man came up from there, or California someplace, singing and bringing the Bird Songs up this way where they landed in that cave on Sunrise Mountain just east of Las Vegas, Nevada. That's where the Bird Songs are and that's what they mean, coming out and walking up this way. They also tell of crossing the ocean.


This cave is where the Indians used to go when they wanted to learn the songs. They would go there and pray. You weren't supposed to be afraid when that man (spirit) came around to you during the night. I heard that that cave has now been destroyed by the white man. A man from Moapa used to sing all the songs and stop a few minutes and tell what each song meant."



Spring and summer were always a favorite time for celebrations or "Big Times" as the Paiutes called them. Some of the favorite places to hold these Big Times were near Indian Peak, Panguitch Lake, Fish Lake, Rush Lake, and several other places. At Panguitch and Fish lakes, Paiutes would come by wagon and spend the entire summer camping, hunting, fishing, gambling, horse racing, foot racing, dancing, archery contests, and numerous other things. Since there was an abundance of food in the mountains these gatherings were like a Fourth of July that lasted all summer.


Clifford Jake from Indian Peak, says that George Swallow held such a gathering in the 1920's in the flats where you turn off to Indian Peak:

When I was in the cradle, and I’m now 68 years old, Swallow George held a big powwow at Indian Peaks in the flats where you turn off to Indian Peaks. Four or five months ahead, he sent horsemen to Ibapah, Kanosh, Cedar City, Shivwits, etc. to tell them when the event was planned. Everyone came by wagon and horse to the event. A lot of deer were killed and pine nuts and such were harvested, to feed all the visitors. Each family was made welcome as they arrived and shown where to camp. They were also given help in setting up their sagebrush or cedar windbreaks, they were also given food.

When the celebration started, Swallow George got up and talked and updated everyone on all that had happened since they last met. Each of the visiting chiefs all done the same thing. Many would shed tears as they talked and told of what had happened in their own areas and to themselves. Then the event took place; horse racing, gambling, bird dance and more.



The Shivwits had several dances that other Paiute bands lacked. They had the Mountain Sheep Dance, Quail Dance, Wild Turkey and Coyote Dance. The Smithsonian Institute recorded the songs to these dances, Martineau also recorded these songs in the early 1960s. These Shivwits dances are described below. These dances were to honor the animals for their sacrifice so our people could survive. 



















This dance was in honor of the Nagah. The Shivwits belonged to the Mountain Sheep and Deer Songs which were territorial songs associated with the landscape. If you belonged to these songs scapes then you could sing the songs and hunt those territories. You had to ask permission to hunt in these terrains even if you belonged to the songs. Old Man Sawup, born around 1840, was the last known individual who everyone went to asking permission to hunt. He was also a healer, able to cure the sick and injured. These territorial songs were throughout the Shivwits Plateau, along the Colorado River all the way to the confluence of the Muddy River (Lake Meade), and as far as Gold butte. Tassi Springs, AZ area was once filled with the Shivwits people before the springs was taken over by European settlers.  

Legend says at one time when the Nuwu were hungry and dying, the Nagah stepped up and said they would sacrifice their life so the Nuwu could live. It is through this nourishment that the Nuwu stay strong and powerful. This powerful being also gave the Nuwu, their songs, their power to heal the sick and call in the rain. This power is not something to play with and only those strong enough to seek this power had to go into a certain cave to fast and seek the spirit of the Nagah. The Nuwu are no longer allowed to hunt the Mountain Sheep since this has become a high dollar sports hunt, the Moapa Paiutes have asked numerous times to be given back those hunting rights but to no avail. 

Many members of the Shivwits band used to go to Gallup, New Mexico, in the 1940s to perform their dances at the commercial ceremonies held there each summer. They won quite a reputation at these places with their Mountain Sheep Dance which placed first in the competition for several years. The Shivwits called this dance the "Joe Lewis Dance" because it never lost. Pictures of the dancers even appeared on post cards. At Gallup the Shivwits were advertised as one of America's least known tribes.


Charley Greyman, Kenneth Charles, and Bessie Tillahash of Shivwits taught the Richfield Indian dance group where LaVan Martineau was a part of this dance group and documented how to do this dance in about 1960:

In the Mountain Sheep Dance one dancer represents the sheep and wears a headdress of sheep horns, a sheep robe, and a long stick in each hand to act as the front legs of the sheep. He dances around in a stooped over position, in sort of a walking step, moving his head about looking for the hunters. The hunters all wear skirts made out of the bark of cliffrose, carry quivers on their backs, and a bow in their hands. There could be any number of hunters dancing. They dance along with bows at their sides in step with each other as they follow their leader looking for the sheep.


When the sheep is spotted, they all look happy and each hunter pulls an arrow from their quivers and places the knocks on their bow strings. Then they all point their arrows at the sheep and draw them back and forth, drawing and easing them many times, in rhythm to the music. The hunters dance side by side in one place facing the sheep as they do this. Meanwhile the sheep continues to dance around while the hunters keep their arrows pointing in its direction as they draw the stings back and forth. Finally, the hunters act as though they have released their arrows and the sheep then staggers, as if mortally wounded, and falls to the ground. The hunters all whoop in glee and circle the fallen sheep. This ends the dance.


Following are the phrases from one of the Mountain Sheep songs:


Maveng wavenggaip

Chuhkee kai kom pum

Ooweepaw odoyovun


Aiming at the animals

As they come bouncing down the mountain

Gathering around the water


In many Paiute songs some words are shortened to where they are often difficult to recognize.


The following translation helps identify some of these words:

Maveng wavenggaip (from waw vuhnekai, aiming).

Chuhkee kai kom pum (from yuhnchuh'kawhai, bouncing along and kaiv, mountain).

Ooweepaw odoyovun (from ooweep canyon, and soo'pawdoai gathering).


The following is a phrase from another song:

Totsee avaw'dunai favorite place sitting in the shade (plural).

Little Jim Smokes Mountain Sheep Song has the following words in it;

I didn't get a translation: Tuhmputsee cho onumay'.




In the Shivwits Quail Dance each dancer wears a decorated skull cap with small feathers attached to a curved stick, or wire, and placed in front of the cap to resemble the feather top knot of a quail. In this dance all the men imitate the mating struts of a quail. A tail bustle of feathers may also be worn. Archie Rogers says that the Quail Dance tells of how a man turned into a quail. 

The more modern quail dance shows the papa quail being followed by all his children (similar to a snake dance.)


Following are some phrases in the Quail Dance song:


Awkawduh nuntsee ukaip oouv

Tuhmpee oatchu yahvai oong


Quail who used to be

Went to get a rock water jug




The following information about the Coyote Dance comes from Charley Greyman, Edrick Bushhead, Wendell John, and Bessie Tillahash:


This dance was performed by women who stood in a line as in the Bear Dance. They bent forward a little and let their arms hang down limp, full length, swaying them back and forth to the left and right in rhythm to the music. They would also dance back and fourth, as in the Bird Dance.


Burden baskets might be placed on their backs or on the ground. This dance was a prayer for an abundance of food.


The following is the explanation Archie Rogers gives about the origin of the Coyote Dance:


"One time, long ago, all the animals were human. One man used to go around pawing at the ground and acting like a Coyote now acts. As a result of this he turned into a Coyote. The Coyote dance is put on to tell how this happened. The dancers go forward and then turn around. We got this dance from down south."


James Marble (Mojave) gives the following information about the Coyote Dance:


"The Paiutes got the Coyote Dance from the Mojave’s where it was sung at funerals. The dancers would go back and forth as in the Bird Dance and sometimes stoop over and hang their arms down full length and then raise and lower them by lifting the shoulders (arms still hanging) in rhythm to the music. The Paiutes turned this dance into a social dance when they got it. Their song for it is one of our songs telling of "Looking for water on the other side of a mountain." A long time ago James Yellowjacket used to sing and the Shivwits women would dance the Coyote Dance very well."


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