native American songs and chants in the wild

Discover the Captivating Traditions of Native American Songs and Chants

Native American songs and chants form a rich tapestry of Indigenous music across North America. Music plays a profound role in Native American life, serving as a bridge between ancestors and future generations. Through rhythmic beats, soulful melodies, and poetic lyrics, tribal songs weave tales of history, ceremony, kinship, and the natural world. Join us as we explore the timeless tradition of Native American music and its deep roots in America’s cultural heritage.

Example Native American Songs and Chants

Buffalo Dance Song

  • Performed during: Mandan Buffalo Dance
  • Vocables mimic buffalo sounds
  • Lyrics give thanks for the buffalo’s gift of sustenance

The buffalo dance song exemplifies music’s role in Native American rituals. Tribes like the Mandan performed this ceremonial dance before hunting buffalo, thanking the animals for offering nourishment. Through vocables mimicking buffalo sounds and lyrics expressing gratitude, this chant honors the interconnection between man and nature.

Pueblo Rain Chant

  • Chanted during: Puebloan rituals summoning rain
  • Rhythmic vocables represent falling rain
  • Lyrics petition cloud spirits to deliver rain

This traditional Pueblo chant imitates the sound of rain to summon precipitation during dry times. The use of vocables and lyrics symbolically reenacts desired conditions, reflecting the Puebloan worldview of metaphysical interconnectedness. Rain chants unite human and elemental realms through music’s mystical power.

Raven Steals the Sun

  • Song tells: Tlingit legend of Raven bringing light
  • Vocables mimic bird sounds
  • Lyrics depict Raven releasing the sun from a box

“Raven Steals the Sun” retells a Tlingit oral tradition about Raven transforming the world from darkness to light. The song uses sounds replicating Raven’s cry alongside lyrics narrating Raven’s theft of the sun from its captor. Music thus preserves ancestral stories, transmitting traditional knowledge across generations.

Pawnee Hako Ceremonial Song

  • Performed during: Pawnee Hako adoption ceremony
  • Vocables symbolize earth, sky, animals
  • Lyrics request blessings on adopted child

This ceremonial song from the Pawnee Hako rite combines vocables representing elements like earth and sky with lyrics petitioning nature’s blessings. The integrated sounds and words reflect Native American reverence for the natural world’s spiritual essence. Music channels this holistic worldview through creative vocalization.

Ojibwe Healing Song

  • Medicine man sings over ill patient
  • Vocables mimic plant and animal medicines
  • Lyrics call healing spirits to cure sickness

Ojibwe healing songs invoke plant, animal, and spirit medicines to mend the infirm. Through imitative vocables and petitioning lyrics, the medicine man summons mystical aid from natural realms. The interweaving of sounds makes the song a potent ritualistic tool for spiritual healing.

Navajo Night Chant

  • Performed in nine-night healing ceremony
  • Flute and percussion provide backdrop
  • Lyrics depict journey to restored health

This traditional Navajo chant is integral to the nine-night Nightway healing ritual. Accompanied by flute and percussion, the soloist sings lyrics guiding the patient from sickness to health. The Night Chant’s music and poetry elicit metaphysical and physical restoration.

Cherokee Stomp Dance Song

  • Performed during sacred stomp dances
  • Group chanting with call and response
  • Lyrics give thanks, honor ancestry

This lively Cherokee chant is sung by a group during ceremonial stomp dances. Following a call and response format, singers thank the Creator and honor their ancestors through upbeat rhythms and vocals. Cherokee stomp dance songs fuse music, movement, and community.

Inuit Throat Singing

  • Performed by two Inuit women facing each other
  • Mimics animal cries and nature sounds
  • Playful competition to outlast the other singer

This uniquely Inuit art form involves vocalizing imitative sounds in a friendly contest. Two Inuit women stand face to face, exchanging various throat sounds mimicking animals and nature. Each tries to outlast her partner in this musical endurance test.

Hopi Soyála Ceremonial Chant

  • Performed during 16-day winter solstice ritual
  • Flute accompaniment
  • Lyrics describe mythic beginnings, honor ancestors

The Soyála chant is integral to Hopi winter solstice ceremonies. A soloist sings lyrics chronicling ancestral myths of creation while a flute player accompanies. The chant bridges human and spirit realms, invoking the blessings of forebears through descriptive lyrics and melodies.

Characteristics of Native American Music

Now let’s dive deeper into the elements characterizing the rich musical forms expressed by Indigenous peoples across America. We’ll explore common instruments, vocal styles, and rhythmic patterns that comprise their traditional repertoire.

Singing Styles

Solo song and group choral chanting represent two predominant Native American vocal styles. Solos feature in ceremonies and storytelling songs, where a single vocalist sings or chants narrative lyrics. Choral groups appear in cultural dances and social songs, with the community jointly singing rhythmic wordless vocables or repetitive lyrics. Both styles employ tense, nasal tones and pulsating rhythms that intimately connect music to rites and traditions.

Common Instruments

Drums, rattles, flutes, and bells are frequently employed instruments in Native American music. Drums come in many designs like hand drums, water drums, and large communal drums pounded with mallets. Rattles made of gourds, turtle shells, or deer hooves add percussive shake. Flutes crafted from wood, bone, or bamboo provide signature wind sounds. Bells made of rawhide or dewclaws chime alongside chants. These instruments unite to create captivating, organic rhythms.

Musical Qualities

Cyclical progressions and percussive drive characterize Native American music. Songs slowly build momentum through a cycle of verse-chorus-verse, establishing hypnotic tension. Rhythmic propulsion escalates through intensifying vocables and drumbeats. Sudden dynamic drops punctuate phrases before resuming the pulsing beat. These musical qualities reflect Indigenous cyclical worldviews and the animating energy perceived in all things.

Role in Ceremonies

Music plays a vital role in Native American sacred ceremonies, functioning as a conduit for spiritual forces. Tribal rituals integrating chant, prayer, dance, and offerings depend on songs’ mystic powers. Vocables summon animal spirits, while lyrics petition elemental energies to achieve metaphysical ends. Consequently, Indigenous ceremonies are incomplete without accompanying songs and chants guiding mystical processes.

Scales and Tuning

Native American scales utilize fewer intervals than European music, lending an open, modal sound. Songs traverse pentatonic and tetratonic scales with microtonal inflections alien to Western ears. Tuning derives not from absolute pitch standards but unique expressions of the singer’s voice and instrument. This tuning fluidity complements ceremonial flexibility, adapting sounds to each ritual’s spiritual needs.

Lyrics and Subjects

Songs’ poetic lyrics give voice to history, myths, wisdom, and values. Ceremonial chant lyrics describe mystical processes and invoke spiritual aid. Storytelling songs recount legends that instruct and amuse. Social dance songs celebrate community, belonging, gratitude, and healing. Lyrics also honor relatives, friends, animals, plants, places, seasons, and the cosmos through joyful noise. This lyrical breadth reflects Native American’s holistic worldview.

Preserving History and Culture

Beyond their tangible musical qualities, Native American songs embody and sustain communal culture. Their melodies, vocables, and lyrics transmit ancestral knowledge across generations. Traditional songs provide a record of history absent written records. Chanting, drumming, and dancing bond community as tribal members jointly make music. Consequently, Indigenous music safeguards cultural memory and tribal identity through times of rapid change.

Gender Roles

Native American musical traditions often exhibit distinct gender orientations. Among many tribes, ceremonial and healing songs are performed by men, who invoke mystical forces to achieve desired ends. Women frequently sing social, dance, and game songs celebrating community and lighter themes. However, some genres like storytelling songs and throat singing include both genders. Individual tribe’s norms determine which realms of creative expression are open to men and women. Nevertheless, music-making crosses gender boundaries to collectively sustain Indigenous cultural heritage.

Modern Developments

Native American songs and chants integrate modern instruments like guitars, synthesizers, and saxophones with traditional ones to forge new genres. Popular pan-Indian styles like pow wow, Native American Church, and intertribal music fuse regional differences into unified modern forms. Rap, hip hop, folk, rock, jazz, metal, electronica join Indigenous lyric themes and languages. Despite centuries of upheaval, Native American peoples adapt their musical forms to each new generation, ensuring ancient musical roots persist in modern branches sending forth new leaves as times change.


Native American musical traditions form a timeless heritage spanning generations and connecting past to future through resonant songs. Tribal music instructs, heals, empowers, and bonds communities through diverse creative expression. Songs speak without words, channel mystical forces, and safeguard ancestral wisdom to share enduring cultural values. The universal language of music unites ancient traditions with contemporary lives. Native American songs and chants continue teaching essential lessons of history, spirituality, and humanity to enrich American culture.


What is the significance of music in Native American culture?

Music plays a vital role in Native American life, serving as a bridge between ancestors and future generations through the transmission of history, rituals, and cultural values.

How has Native American music evolved over time?

Native American music has evolved from solely traditional forms played on natural instruments to encompass modern genres that integrate guitars, synthesizers, hip-hop, and other contemporary styles.

What are the different genres?

Native American songs and chants have several major genres including traditional ceremonial and social songs, storytelling songs, intertribal pow-wow music, Native American Church peyote songs, and contemporary fusions of traditional sounds with rock, folk, rap, metal, and more.

How does music help in preserving the cultural identity of Native American tribes?

Through melodies, lyrics, dances, and communal music-making, Native American songs pass down ancestral knowledge, customs, and history to future generations, helping tribes preserve cultural identity.

How is the history of a tribe narrated through its music?

Tribal songs serve as oral records recounting myths, legends, migrations, and other historical narratives that get transmitted through generations via creative lyricism.

What role does music play in Native American education?

Music provides a memorable medium for educating young tribal members about history, values, and wisdom through the creative engagement of storytelling songs and ceremonial chanting traditions.