About Native American Dances And Ceremonials
The dances of Indians are sometimes, like our own, simply social and for pleasure. They are more frequently religious or for some important purpose.
They are always accompanied by music. Indian music is in perfect swing or time. Most Indian musical instruments are simply time beaters. The commonest is the rattle. This varies with place and tribe. Among Northwest Coast tribes it is of wood, elaborately carved, both in form and decoration. A common rattle in that district is cut into the form of a bird—the raven. Some of the old rattles, made and used by Shamans a hundred years ago, are still in existence: they were probably carved with knives and chisels of stone, but they are better done than most of the modern ones, which have been cut out with metal tools. Some of the Plains tribes had leather rattles,—balls of dried skin fastened over the end of a little wooden handle. Many tribes used gourds for rattles. Some of these are round, about the size of an apple; such were pierced and a wooden handle thrust through. Others are flask or bottle shaped; such need no handle beyond the one supplied by nature.
Drums and tambourines of various kinds are used in time beating. The beaters usually take no other part in the dance, but sit by themselves at one side. Frequently each dancer has a rattle. Sometimes a stick notched across with deep notches is used. Across these notches a thin bone, usually a shoulder-blade, is rubbed with a good deal of force. Such rubbed sticks are very good time beaters. They are used by Apaches, Pueblos, and Tonkaways. Among the old Aztecs, they had a similar instrument, but made of a long bone instead of from a stick.
Indians prepare for dances with much care. The hair is combed and arranged. The face and body are painted. A special dance dress is frequently worn. This dress is often of ancient form and decoration. Sometimes all this preparation is just to make the dancers look pretty; more frequently, however, the dress and decoration have some meaning, and often they mimic some creature or copy the dress worn by some great person of their legends. Thus in the buffalo and the bear dances, skins of buffalo, with the head, skin, and horns attached, or the skins of bears, were put on, to make the dancers look like these animals.
The meaning and uses of dances differ greatly. The war dance, in which the men are painted as if for war and have about them everything that can make them think of war, is intended to influence them for battle. The music, songs, movements, prayers, and offerings all relate to the coming conflict. The scalp dance is in celebration of victory. The buffalo dance is magical and is to compel the coming of herds of that animal. At some dances the story told by the tribe in regard to the creation of the world and how man learned things is all acted out; the dancers are dressed to represent the spirits, or beings who made, helped, or taught the tribe, and the dance is a real drama. Among the Pueblos and some other southwestern tribes, many dances are prayers for rain; the songs sung and the movements made all have reference to the rain so much desired.
In one of these dances the drummers make curious, beckoning gestures to bring up the rain clouds. In some the dancers carry sticks curiously jointed together so as to open and shut in zigzag movements, which are meant to look like lightning and are believed to bring it; other dancers imitate the thunder. Sometimes the dancers and others are drenched with water thrown upon them, in order that the town and its fields may be drenched with rain.
Many dances are only a part of some great religious ceremonial. Thus the sun dance follows several days of fasting and prayer, and the snake dance is but a small part of a nine days' ceremonial. Indian religion abounds in such long ceremonials with a vast number of minute details. The songs, prayers, and significant actions used in some of them must number many hundreds.
In order that the desired result of ceremonials should be secured, it was necessary that the persons performing it should be pure. There were many ways to purify or cleanse oneself. Sometimes a sweat bath was taken, after which the body was rubbed with sweet-smelling plants. The person might sit in smoke that came from burning some sacred herb or wood. He might fast for several days. He might refuse to touch or come into contact with his friends, or with the objects he was in the habit of using. Many times it was thought necessary that the objects which he was to use in the ceremony must be new, or must be purified by being held in sacred smoke.
In ceremonies, much attention is paid to sacred numbers. The number most often sacred is four. Four men are often concerned in one act; four drums may be used; the men may fast four days; an action may be repeated four times. If a thing is done sixteen times, four times four, it might be still better. In the snake-dance ceremonial there are sixteen sacred songs, which are sung at one sitting.
Seven is a sacred number among the Cherokees; it is less important than four, but the two may be combined, and twenty-eight often occurs. Thus the scratcher used upon the ball-players has seven teeth and is drawn four times, making twenty-eight scratches.
Connected with the sacred number four, the Indians give much importance to the cardinal points—north, west, south, and east. They always pay attention to these when they dance and pray. Some tribes recognize more than four world's points, adding the up and the down, or the above and the below, making six in all. A few think of the place where they themselves are, and speak of seven points; so the Zuñi have the north, west, south, east, above, below, and the center. When they prepared their medicine lodge for the sun dance, the Mandans put one of their curious, turtle-shaped, skin water-drums at each of the four world quarters. Usually in ceremonials, Indians pray to each of these quarters, and make an offering toward it.
One of the commonest offerings made in ceremonials is the smoke of tobacco. Gods and spirits are believed to be fond of it. In smoking to their honor, a puff is blown in turn to each of the four points, and then perhaps up, and possibly down. In the Pueblos, every religious act is accompanied by the scattering of sacred meal. This sacred meal is a mixture of corn meal and pounded sea-shells. It is sprinkled everywhere to secure kindly spirit influence. A pinch of it is thrown to the north, west, south, east, up and down. Frank Cushing once took a party of Zuñi Indians to the Atlantic Ocean to get sea-water for certain ceremonials. On the way, the Indians saw many novel and strange things which they did not understand. When they saw such, they sprinkled sacred meal to render them harmless and kindly.
Prayer sticks are much used among the Pueblos. They are bits of stick to which feathers are attached. They are set up wherever it is desired to have the good will of spirit powers. For several days before the Moki snake dance, messengers are sent out with prayer sticks to be set up near springs and sacred places. Such prayer sticks are put up near fields where corn is planted, or buried in the earth in corrals where ponies or burros are kept. Other offerings are made at especially sacred spots. In mountain caves there are often masses of prayer sticks, miniature bows and arrows, and other tiny things meant as gifts to the gods.
Each of the cardinal points may have a color that is proper to it. The use of sacred colors for the cardinal points is found among the Pueblos, Navajo, many Siouan tribes, the Pani, and others. It was the custom also among the old Aztecs in Mexico. A curious example of the use of these colors is found in the sand altars of the Pueblos and Navajo. They are made in many ceremonials. They are made of different colored sands produced by pounding up rocks. The sand altars are rectangular in form, and are made on the floor. A layer of one color of sand may be spread out for a foundation; upon it may be put a sheet of sand of a different color and of smaller size, so that the margin of the first serves as a border of the second; additional layers may be added, each bordering the one that follows it. Finally, upon the topmost layer, curious and interesting designs may be made. One sand altar in the Moki snake dance had an outer broad border of brownish yellow sand; then followed broad borders of white and black; upon this black border were four snakes in red, green, yellow, and blue, one on each side of the square; then came narrower borders of white, red, green, yellow, one within the other; within these was a central square of green, upon which was a yellow mountain lion.
You see that Indian ceremonials are often very complex, with many dances, decorations, purifyings, prayers, gifts, and altars.