Rules for singing Ceremonial Songs

Important Details about Ceremonial songs

“Rules for singing Ceremonial Songs”

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  When singing this style of song, be sure to pay close attention to the drumbeat.  It is usually either a fast steady beat, Like a ruffle, or a slow thunder beat or like a heartbeat. In general there are these two types of drum beat with many different styles and variations, fast and slow. Some of these songs are hard to play without the right beat. Slow songs work best with a fast beat while fast songs seem to fit a slow beat  When singing along and not drumming it is helpful to tap along with the drummers. this will help to learn the correct rhythm.

The easiest mistake in the act of singing Lakota songs is singing to the beat of the drum. We are taught in school to clap to time with a song. In most drumming systems of Indigenous cultures and even our modern culture, we use an off beat. While clapping, most of us use an on beat rather than an off beat. An on beat is the opposite of an off beat.

Usually, when clapping one would start a song with the clap and the clapping would happen at each syllable, that’s the on beat. What you want is the drum beat between each syllable, starting the song after the clap and the syllables of the lyrics occurring between the beats. Lets use an example, the song “Mary had a little lamb”, what you want is to hear the drum beat * between the syllables. Ma*ry* had* a *li*ttle* lamb*. Like that.

A good way to get it right is to practice drumming with a heart beat (thunder beat), that’s a two beat. One two, one two, one two, the “one” being the loud beat and the “two” being the more quiet of the heart beat. Practice starting the song on the “two”. If you were clapping you would start the song when your hands are furthest apart and each syllable would occur when your hands are apart (the off beat).

 Another point of consideration is distinguishing between vocables and lyrics. Vocables are sounds and are not written among the lyrics.  Usually the syllables and melody of the vocables match the lyrical part of the song. Vocables can be compared to the European equivalent: Fa La La La La, La La La La (deck the halls).  Usually songs containing vocables, begin with vocables. Very rarely are the vocables after the lyrics or between the words.

When singing alone or without accompaniment you would sing the songs the way they are written.  When singing with others you would use a call and response.  That is when the song leader calls out the first line of the song; the group would then repeat that line. Ladies would join in on the third line, unless of course there are only two singers, a man and a woman. Some of these recordings have a call and response although they are written without it. As a rule of thumb with the call and response the group joins in just before the leader sings the vocable sound He.  This sound is found at the end of some of the sentences, He.

Other things to consider in singing these songs

Some of these songs are specific to particular lineages. In that case only one or two words may be different from one Tiospaye (family lineage)  to another. Most of these songs are general and are sung by many groups and at different ceremonies. An animal calling song is for calling in the power of specific animals. A stone song is for calling in the spirits of stones. Be sure you are not calling things unnecessarily.


These songs are very powerful and not to be idly whistled or sung in the shower. Put down a pinch of tobacco as an offering first. This can be placed in a special spot, it can be rubbed or sprinkled upon the drum. A little water is good for the spirit of the drum, but before singing songs always put down tobacco. It is important not to “cry wolf” with the spirits. If these songs are sung idly too much the Spirits may stop responding.

By learning songs from a C.D. or computer they may only attract lesser nearby spirits. They may not have the same impact until they are sung along within a genuine tradition. The more powerful spirits follow an oral line of association that is lost without actual contact with lineage holders. By singing and learning these songs here the spirits may eventually draw you into the ceremonies and traditions that use them.

Kid's songs

Thunder Being songs are for addressing the Thunder Beings who are the law enforcement branch of the Creator.They sung to invoke the healing power of the thunders. Do not sing any thunder being songs at night out of context. Thunder being songs call thunder beings during the day and ghosts at night. Honestly, one should never really sing any kind of song carelessly outside at night. In the event of attracting ghosts sing the sending the spirits home Closing Song and the Ending Song. It is good to know these songs to send spirits back home, especially when it is helpful to them.

Thunder being songs include any Heyoka or “kettle songs”.  Heyoka people, or sacred fools, may sing these songs at other occasions. If you are not initiated as a Heyoka, meaning that if you have not performed a kettle dance successfully, you should avoid singing these songs out of context. Any one can sing most of the Thunder Being songs in the sweat lodge and yuwipi ceremonies provided that they are followed by the proper closing and ending songs.

When Heyoka people sing, since they are contrary to the proper way, they will use an “on beat” with the drum rather than an “off beat”. The dog song should only be sung at the Kettle Dance (Heyoka Initiation). Heyoka people may sing this song out of turn, don’t do this, it is asking for the spirits to “take” a dog as an offering.

Healing songs are for doctoring people. The songs themselves are a healing medicine. They can be sung in sweat lodge, Yuwipi, or on their own as a treatment. Canupa songs (pipe songs) should generally be sung when the pipe is present. If you carry a canupa it is okay to sing those songs whenever but always give a tobacco offering to the drum, especially when rehearsing. Pipe filling songs should only be sung while loading the pipe facing west. Again it is alright in the process of learning to sing the pipe filling songs, having offered tobacco to the drum and ending your lessons with the “Sending the Spirits Home” closing song.

There are various different closing songs when reaching near the end of a ceremony. For instance, in the fourth round of the sweat lodge one might sing a closing offering song. Be sure to check with your leaders about this as they vary from tradition to tradition. Some of our closing songs may not be used by other lineages to close. It all depends on what the spirit helpers of a tradition are used to. When visiting a sweat lodge you know little about it would be safest to not lead any closing songs at all.


There are a handful of songs not available here that are too specific. These are the opening Yuwipi/Lowanpi songs for calling in the directional spirits. They vary from ceremony to ceremony and from one medicine man to another. To get these songs you will have to learn them in ceremony. That is the only time those songs are ever sung.

Always remember the origins of these songs, some of them are 12 thousand years old, some of them are relatively new. The important part is that they came to people through dreams and visions and were not composed in a mundane fashion. A song, then, connects to a spirit, a group of spirits and a person.

In essence it is not essential to know the meaning of a song for it to be effective. It is really good to know the meaning, but the songs are for the spirits. There should not be any element of performance in singing these songs. All these songs are for the sake of the spirits, not for entertainment purposes. Some domestic scholars are under the impression that the drum is used to lull the people into a “trance like state”. The drum is to call the spirits, any “trance like states” should be attributed to the presents of the spirits.

By learning all of these songs on our site we will become a Lowan Wicasa (song man) or a Lowan Winyan (song woman). Although not a prerequisite to being a medicine man or woman in the Lakota tradition you would have to be crazy to even attempt to embark on that path without most of these songs. Singers are integral to these ways, anyone knowing all of these songs are needed and honored regardless of race, creed, or color. If you put yourself out there you could at least get well fed!