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Why Cherokees Must Dance
In 1809, it was observed among the Cherokee, “They dance round a blazing fire, the leader singing and his followers keeping chorus. In some dances, there are singers besides, who are seated, singing and keeping time with rattles and drum. When the circle is complete, another is formed within it and so in continuation till it resembles the coils of a snake. In other dances, at certain changes of the tune, the men turn to their followers, generally females, dance to each other, change places, then change again, until the air gives notice to proceed as before.” Women with turtle-shells attached to their lower legs, known as “shell shakers” would set the tempo.
Music has always been a big part of the
Cherokee experience and is still today with many Cherokee musicians
adding their talents to the world of music available.
First of all, there is no doubt that the Cherokee are among the
best-known Indian tribes in the country. The sponge-like way in which
they adopted the technology and ideas of the Europeans in an effort to
hold onto their lands tended to alienate them from other tribes further
west. Sequoyah’s invention of a writing system, the first of any
American Indian tribe in North America, gave the Cherokee literacy and
created the first American Indian bi-lingual newspaper, the Cherokee
Phoenix. So thoroughly did the Cherokee change that they became known
as one of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast.
With this supposed rush to the European idea of
“civilization,” why do the traditional ways still persist? It is very
simple. For the Cherokee, to dance is to pray, to pray is to heal, to
heal is to give, to give is to live, and to live is to dance. This
logic is very “Indian.” It is circular in thought, very Cherokee. In
the above poem by Marijo Moore, noted Cherokee poet and author, she has
captured the essence of “why we dance.” One dancer when asked if he
prayed when he dances, answered, “Yes, because sometimes the other way
of praying just doesn’t seem to work.”
Rituals, such as the Green Corn Ceremony held each
spring to signify rebirth, forgiveness, and new beginnings, includes
interludes of dancing. The Cherokee year originally consisted of
thirteen months - the number of new moons in a year. The year was
celebrated by six festivals symbolizing the six essential phases of
Cherokee life: The First New Moon of Spring, The New Green Corn Feast;
The Green Corn Feast; The Great New Moon Feast in autumn; The Offering
to the Above Beings; and The Ceremony Celebrating the Harvest. On each
occasion, generosity and good will were the rule with every home open
to visitors where hospitality was freely given and abundantly provided.
In the study of these ceremonies the dance leaders were found to also
be the medicine men, responsible for the continued survival of Cherokee
culture and ceremony. The ceremony and dance are closely intertwined.
William Bertram in 1701 wrote, “The Cherokee
were by no means idolaters, unless their puffing tobacco smoke toward
the sun and rejoicing at the appearance of each new moon might be so
interpreted.” Thomas Mails, in his book, The Cherokee People wrote,“ So
far from idolatry were they that they had no religious images among
them, or any idolatrous religions rite or ceremony that could be
observed. Instead, they honored Unetlvnvhi - the Provider with the most
profound and respectful homage. A being whom they regard as the
gift-giver and taker away of the breath of life.” And James Adair in
1737 acknowledged that even though it was well known that other tribes
worshiped a plurality of gods, which they created to satisfy their own
beliefs, the Cherokee did none of this.
There are many Cherokee “preachers” today that
participate in the “stomp” and other ceremonies who also appear in
pulpits on Sunday mornings seeing no conflict between these two
concepts of “religion.” There is an attack however on the ceremonies by
both Indian and non-Indian Christian forces. These people see the
ceremonies as competition and feel they must reassert their
fundamentalist precepts by attacking the remnants of what they see as
an aboriginal culture, as curious practices of ignorant savages to be
derided, as symptoms of idolatrous behavior to be challenged.
Although it is easy to compile highly modified
Biblical tales in the guise of Cherokee myths, the ceremonies
themselves seem to have been little modified by Western influences.
Among some Cherokee and some whites that want to retain the dances as a
valued tradition, unfortunately, seem to regard them more as “Folk
Dances.” But the traditional Cherokee and those inclined to be
knowledgeable in Cherokee religious matters believe the dances are
valid and exert influences in their daily lives and over animals and
the their relationship with people.
When you go to the powwows of today, you see all kinds of dancers representing many tribes and cultures. These are the modern remnants of the old Wild West Shows - a way to attract the public to come, share and support a part of our culture. True, today many of the dances seen at powwows are for exhibition or for contesting. Some dancers travel the “powwow” circuit to earn a living, while others consider themselves as beautiful representatives of their nations. And there are those who dance mainly for the onlookers and attention they may receive. Some are there to offer their dance as a prayer, for like the song, the power is not in the words but in the singing. The power of the dance is in the dancing.
The traditional Cherokee stomp-dance is not a
form of mindless amusement. The stomp is, to be sure, an aspect of
social life that represents the action of a group, not of an
individual. It is a form of praise, worship, and a way of connecting
with the traditions through motion. The Cherokee dance is always done
in a counterclockwise direction, believing that direction brought more
success in what one hoped to achieve and greater blessings from
Unetlvnvhi. By circling to the left around the sacred fire, the center
was always near the left hand.
Dancing was an art before a conception of art ever
existed. Jamake Highwater once wrote, “Dance is the inclination of
primal people to idealize action as a magical force. They believe that
dance can shape the circumstances of nature if it can focus its
contagious powers on animals and spirits. Through their dances they
touch unknown and unseen elements which they sense in the world around
Dancing can open a doorway to a connection with
the total universe. A way to find that “inner being” who recognizes and
appreciates the spiritual essence of interdependence with nature. There
seems to be a resurgence of the spirit of dancing among many Indian
nations today, partly due to the renewed awareness and pride of who
they are. This awareness comes from relearning their language and
heritage. Those who dance in this consciousness, dance as an offering
to Unetlvnvhi - the Provider and are keeping alive the traditions of
the Cherokee and are setting reverent examples for the young people.
When the Cherokee dance, whether at powwows or
during the night at “stomps,” all senses become heightened as the songs
are sung, the drum speaks in its heart-beat way or the shell-shakers
sound their rhythmic rattle and cadence to the chant. These haunting,
mystical sounds transport the imagination to other times and places
enabling the dancers to rest the distractions, cares and worries of
everyday life and become one with the other dancers.
Why do the Cherokee dance? They dance to complete the circle of life.
Out thanks to Marijo Moore for her wonderful
sharing of her notes and insight on Indian dances. She is the author of
Spirit Voices of Bones, Tree Quotes, and Red Woman with Backward Eyes,
plus many other wonderful books. I also suggest you read, Cherokee
Dance and Drama, by Frank Speck and Leonard Broom, and Thomas Mails,
The Cherokee People.
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copyright © 2012 Cherokee Nation of Sequoyah
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