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Grass Dance: transmission

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  • Grass Dance: transmission

    Fom "The Ojibwa Dance Drum; Its History and Construction" by Thomas Vennum Jr. - read with a grain of salt, as you always should when academics present ANY culture.

    "The Precursory Role of the Grass Dance
    There is general agreement among students of Indian history that the movement engendered by Tailfeather Woman's vision and disseminated to the Ojibwa and eventually nearly all other central Algonquian tribes had its origins in the so-called Grass Dance of the Plains. The unique contributions rendered to the Grass Dance by the Woodlands people were their acceptance of the role of Tailfeather Woman as a prophetess and—from the dictates of her vision—their particular attention and even devotion to the large ceremonial Dance Drum.

    The Grass Dance and its diffusion have been carefully covered in anthropological literature. One of its most thorough researchers was Clark Wissler. In preparing an early and important paper, he had sifted through an enormous amount of data covering twenty-five tribal groups in an attempt to discover the origin of the dance and extent of its spread. In his "General Discussion of Shamanistic and Dancing Societies," published by the American Museum of Natural History in 1916, Wissler forwarded the premise that the dance could ultimately be traced to an older ceremony, the Iruska of the Pawnee Indians. This ceremony was characterized by the performance by its members of "fire tricks" to demonstrate bravery, such as reaching into a boiling pot for meat without being burned; thus it began to be called variously the Hot Dance or Fire Dance as it was adopted by
    other tribes (Omaha, Ponca, Osage, Kansa, et al.).

    From the precursory Iruska ceremonial, Wissler perceived ageographic bifurcation of the dance from its origins "southeast," evolving into two modern ceremonies—the Grass Dance of the Plains, representing the "western type," and the "Dream Dance [Drum Dance]" of the Woodlands, representing the "northeastern type." Concerning the differences between the two, he wrote: The most striking aspect of this distribution is its general agreement with cultural and geographical distinctions. The peculiarity of this correlation is that in each group we find a different form of dance and that each form tends to completely cover its culture area. The development of these ceremonials was during an extremely difficult time for American Indians generally, as white settlers continued to stream into western territories and the pace of frontier confrontations quickened. Especially on the Plains, a general depression had set in resulting from the disappearance of the buffalo and cessation of warfare between tribes. (Bravery in battle had been the accepted means of becoming prestigious.) Also a factor was the failure of Indians to convert, overnight, to farming, as was urged by the government. The general disorientation of Indian people during this period was reflected in increased alcoholism and suicide. Simultaneously, as Indian people attempted to readjust, a flurry of religious activity began, namely the Ghost Dance, peyotism, etc. As Wissler notes, the climate was therefore ripe for the rapid spread of the Grass Dance:The important point for us is that there was a strong stimulus to the diffusion and modernization of ceremonies at the time the grass dance was in full swing and it was this that carried it along to its present [circa 1915] development.

    It is generally accepted that the Grass Dance was based on an Omaha society, the Hethushka, whose membership was limited to warriors. Their meetings (dancing and feasting) took place within a lodge in which the seating location was specified by the offices held within the society. The music for the Hethushka dances was provided by two to four singers grouped around a single drum behind whom sat "a few women who possessed fine voices." The leader of the ceremony needed to be someone of sufficient military rank to wear a special feather bustle called "The Crow," a decoration of the highest order, "said to symbolize a battlefield after the conflict is over." When the Hethushka had evolved into the Grass Dance, the wearing of the Crow belt was retained. Wissler adds to his list of the dance's other important regalia: "a roached headdress of deer hair [like the Crow belt, another war badge], a food stick or spoon, a large drum suspended horizontally [emphasis mine (fig. 14)], a whip, a sword, and a whistle [and] a dancing house of definite form."

    As the Hethushka model was adapted by other tribes, they called it either the Omaha Dance or the Grass Dance. The latter designation was most certainly derived from part of the regalia worn by the Hethushka dancers: a long bunch of grass tied to the back of their belts to symbolize scalps taken in battle. But though the name Grass Dance was used, the original significance of the bunch of grass was soon forgotten by the new adherents; or they inferred the name's derivation from some local practice of long standing. Such an explanation was given by the Hidatsa Edward Goodbird (born circa 1868), for the origin of the term among his people:"In olden times when warriors of my own or other tribes went out on a war party, it was customary for each to carry a bunch of dry grass in the belt in damp or wet or cold weather. This was for two purposes: the dry grass could be used for starting a fire in damp weather when it was hard for the warriors to find anything dry enough for tinder; and in cold weather, the dry grass could be used to thrust into the moccasin in lieu of a stocking. The Grass Dance was to imitate a warrior's life, and I understand that the name Grass Dance comes from this old time custom of our warriors. In the dance, all warriors who had carried the dry grass in a war party did so likewise in the dance.. . . No one in the Grass Dance carried a kip-tsiki [something carried in the belt] of grass unless he had borne one on a war party."

    Fortunately for Native American history, information concerning the diffusion and practices of the Grass Dance was collected early enough—not only when elders were still alive who could document the dance in great detail but also when its spread was still underway. Former members of Grass Dance societies could even fairly accurately pinpoint its arrival date on a tribe by tribe basis. Thus we can follow, for example, one trail of the dance leading from the Omaha to the Teton Sioux, circa I860;34 from the Sioux to the Assiniboin in 1872; and from the Assiniboin to the Gros Ventre, circa 1875-80.35 As each group received the new ceremonial, they were evidently able to accommodate some aspects of it immediately to indigenous practices. In reviewing the variants of the Grass Dance, Wissler was able to perceive that the dance changed according to preexistent ceremonial customs of a given tribe: we find evidences of pattern phenomena in that some dominant ceremonial concepts of the respective localities have been incorporated in the grass dance and have inhibited the continuance of others.

    A clear example of this is the ritual consumption of dog flesh. Among the Dakota for whom the eating of dog flesh held great ceremonial value (see fig. 32), the Dog Feast became appended to the Grass Dance, so that by the time the Santee Sioux transferred the dance to the Mandan/Hidatsa, it was included as a ritual requirement. At the end of the first day's ceremony in transferring the ceremonial, the Santee Iron Cloud instructed them, as a matter of course, that "at every feast of this society must be brought a dog, well-boiled, with the head," which would then be divided and eaten. Attempts by the Sioux, however, to transfer the Dog Feast to the Ojibwa were not always so successful, as the eating of dog flesh was considered abhorrent by most of them. In fact, sometimes Ojibwa referred to the Sioux derogatorily as bwaanag (roasters), alluding to the practice. Although the Dog Feast was retained by some Ojibwa in the Drum Dance, doubtless to comply completely with their instructions from the Sioux, often beef was substituted symbolically for dog (the man serving it was called bull cook) or the ritual was dropped altogether—confirming Wissler's point about the discontinuance of certain ceremonial concepts because of local inhibitions.

    Some unfamiliar aspects of the Grass Dance represented such a novelty to its recipients that they had to be carefully learned from the donors. The Gros Ventre, who were camped on Milk River when they were given the Grass Dance by the Assiniboin, were obviously amused by what was for them its peculiar style of choreography:[They] had never had any dancing of that kind before and called it jokingly inaetenin (moving-buttocks) referring to the way [the Assiniboin] danced. Also to be learned were all the special songs and dances assigned to each ceremonial office of the Grass Dance Society; those appointed as ceremonial drumstick owners were responsible not only for learning all the new songs but for the exact order in which they were to be performed as well."
    Last edited by sookout sh'nob; 03-02-2009, 04:55 PM. Reason: formatting
    Mii iw keyaa ezhi-ditibiseyaan

  • #2
    lot's of problems with Wissler, Vennum gives him far to much street cred, Wissler was influenced by Murie way toooo much, and by the way, what we call grass dance today is NOT what Wissler and others of taht time period refer to as the grass dance. What they are referring to is a dance complex (dance/traditions/regalia) that was shared by most plains tribes and those of the weestern great lakes, it has tribal specific names in most cases as well. This ancestor dance complex, over time and influenced by other factors, laid the foundation for the Omaha society form that became the direct ancestor of the modern grass dance which appears in the late 1800s/early 1900s among groups in ND, MT, MB, AB, and SK.

    \Vennum is just repeated the standard anthro party line on this topic, which as I said was mis-presented by Wissler.


    • #3
      Ah, but no one else is talking old son. No one else is talking.
      Mii iw keyaa ezhi-ditibiseyaan


      • #4
        Originally posted by sookout sh'nob View Post
        Ah, but no one else is talking old son. No one else is talking.
        people are talking, but not in places where most people can hear.


        • #5
          I suppose l lies and half-truths will have to do then.
          Mii iw keyaa ezhi-ditibiseyaan


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