Monday, May 12, 2014

Native American's Dance for the Dead

Native American's Dance for the Dead



Gymnastic exercises, dignified with this name, upon the occasion of a death or funeral, were common to many tribes. It is thus described by Morgan:
    An occasional and very singular figure was called the “dance for the dead.” It was known as the O-hé-wä. It was danced by the women alone. The music was entirely vocal, a select band of singers being stationed in the center of the room. To the songs for the dead which they sang the dancers joined in chorus. It was plaintive and mournful music. This dance was usually separate from all councils and the only dance of the occasion. It was commenced at dusk or soon after and continued until towards morning, when the shades of the dead who were believed to be present and participate in the dance were supposed to disappear. The dance was had whenever a family which had lost a member called for it, which was usually a year after the event. In the spring and fall it was often given for all the dead indiscriminately, who were believed then to revisit the earth and join in the dance.


The interesting account which now follows is by Stephen Powers and relates to the Yo-kaí-a of California, containing other matters of importance pertaining to burial:
I paid a visit to their camp four miles below Ukiah, and finding there a unique kind of assembly-house, desired to enter and examine it, but was not allowed to do so until I had gained the confidence of the old sexton by a few friendly words and the tender of a silver half dollar. The pit of it was about 50 feet in diameter and 4 or 5 feet deep, and it was so heavily roofed with earth that the interior was damp and somber as a tomb. It looked like a low tumulus, and was provided with a tunnel-like entrance about 10 feet long and 4 feet high, and leading down to a level with the floor of the pit. The mouth of the tunnel was closed with brush, and the venerable sexton would not remove it until he had slowly and devoutly paced several times to and fro before the entrance.
Passing in I found the massive roof supported by a number of peeled poles painted white and ringed with black and ornamented with rude devices. The floor was covered thick and green with sprouting wheat, which had been scattered to feed the spirit of the captain of the tribe, lately deceased. Not long afterwards a deputation of the Senèl come up to condole with the Yo-kaí-a on the loss of their chief, and a dance or series of dances was held which lasted three days. During this time of course the Senèl were the guests of the Yo-kaí-a, and the latter were subjected to a 

considerable expense. I was prevented by other engagements from being present, and shall be obliged to depend on the description of an eye-witness, Mr. John Tenney, whose account is here given with a few changes:
There are four officials connected with the building, who are probably chosen to preserve order and to allow no intruders. They are the assistants of the chief. The invitation to attend was from one of them, and admission was given by the same. These four wore black vests trimmed with red flannel and shell ornaments. The chief made no special display on the occasion. In addition to these four, who were officers of the assembly-chamber, there were an old man and a young woman, who seemed to be priest and priestess. The young woman was dressed differently from any other, the rest dressing in plain calico dresses. Her dress was white covered with spots of red flannel, cut in neat figure, ornamented with shells. It looked gorgeous and denoted some office, the name of which I could not ascertain. Before the visitors were ready to enter, the older men of the tribe were reclining around the fire smoking and chatting. As the ceremonies were about to commence, the old man and young woman were summoned, and, standing at the end opposite the entrance, they inaugurated the exercises by a brief service, which seemed to be a dedication of the house to the exercises about to commence. Each of them spoke a few words, joined in a brief chant, and the house was thrown open for their visitors. They staid at their post until the visitors entered and were seated on one side of the room. After the visitors then others were seated, making about 200 in all, though there was plenty of room in the center for the dancing.
Before the dance commented the chief of the visiting tribe made a brief speech in which he no doubt referred to the death of the chief of the Yo-kaí-a, and offered the sympathy of his tribe in this loss. As he spoke, some of the women scarcely refrained from crying out, and with difficulty they suppressed their sobs. I presume that he proposed a few moments of mourning, for when he stopped the whole assemblage burst forth into a bitter wailing, some screaming as if in agony. The whole thing created such a din that I was compelled to stop my ears. The air was rent and pierced with their cries. This wailing and shedding of tears lasted about three or five minutes, though it seemed to last a half hour. At a given signal they ceased, wiped their eyes, and quieted down.
Then preparations were made for the dance. One end of the room was set aside for the dressing-room. The chief actors wens five men, who were muscular and agile. They were profusely decorated with paint and feathers, while white and dark stripes covered their bodies. They were girt about the middle with cloth of bright colors, sometimes with variegated shawls. A feather mantle hung from the shoulder, reaching below the knee; strings of shells ornamented the neck, while their heads were covered with a crown of eagle feathers. They had whistles in their months as they danced, swaying their heads, bending and whirling their bodies; every muscle seemed to be exercised, and the feather ornaments quivered with light. They were agile and graceful as they bounded about in the sinuous course of the dance.
The five men were assisted by a semicircle of twenty women, who only marked time by stepping up and down with short step. They always took their places first and disappeared first, the men making their exit gracefully one by one. The dresses of the women were suitable for the occasion. They were white dresses, trimmed heavily with black velvet. The stripes were about three inches wide, some plain and others edged like saw teeth. This was an indication of their mourning for the dead chief, in whose honor they had prepared that style of dancing. Strings of haliotis and pachydesma shell beads encircled their necks, and around their waists were belts heavily loaded with the same material. Their head-dresses were more showy than those of the men. The head was encircled with a bandeau of otters’ or beavers’ fur, to which were attached short wires standing out in all directions, with glass or shell beads strung on them, and at the tips little feather flags and quail plumes. Surmounting all was a pyramidal plume of feathers, black, gray, and scarlet, the top generally 

being a bright scarlet bunch, waving and tossing very beautifully. All these combined gave their heads a very brilliant and spangled appearance.
The first day the dance was slow and funereal, in honor of the Yo-kaí-a chief who died a short time before. The music was mournful and simple, being a monotonous chant in which only two tones were used, accompanied with a rattling of split sticks and stamping on a hollow slab. The second day the dance was more lively on the part of the men, the music was better, employing airs which had a greater range of tune, and the women generally joined in the chorus. The dress of the women was not so beautiful, as they appeared in ordinary calico. The third day, if observed in accordance with Indian custom, the dancing was still more lively and the proceedings more gay, just as the coming home from a Christian funeral is apt to be much more jolly than the going out.


A Yo-kaí-a widow’s style of mourning is peculiar. In addition to the usual evidences of grief, she mingles the ashes of her dead husband with pitch, making a white tar or unguent, with which she smears a band about two inches wide all around the edge of the hair (which is previously cut off close to the head), so that at a little distance she appears to be wearing a white chaplet.


It is their custom to “feed the spirits of the dead” for the space of one year by going daily to places which they were accustomed to frequent while living, where they sprinkle pinole upon the ground. A Yo-kaí-a mother who has lost her babe goes every day for a year to some place where her little one played when alive, or to the spot where the body was burned, and milks her breasts into the air. This is accompanied by plaintive mourning and weeping and piteous calling upon her little one to return, and sometimes she sings a hoarse and melancholy chant, and dances with a wild static swaying of the body.