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Dances

 

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Dances

     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: [Footnote: League of the Iroquois, 1851, p. 297.]

     "An occasional and very singular figure was called the 'dance for the dead' It was known as the O-he-wa. 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 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. This 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,
[Footnote: Cont. to North American Ethnol., 1878, iv, p. 164.] and relates to the Yo-kai-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 afterward a deputation of the Senel came up to condole with the Yo-kai-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 Senel were the guests of the Yo-kai-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 was 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 figures, 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 commenced 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-kai-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 were 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 mouths 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- kai-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-kai-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-kai-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 ecstatic swaying of her body.

Songs

     It has nearly always been customary to sing songs at not only funerals but for varying periods of time afterwards although these chants may no doubt occasionally have been simply wailing or mournful ejaculation. A writer [Footnote: Am. Antiq., April-May-June 1879, p. 251.] mentions it as follows:

     "At almost all funerals there is an irregular crying kind of singing with no accompaniments, but generally all do not sing the same melody at the same time in unison. Several may sing the same song and at the same time, but each begins and finishes when he or she may wish. Often for weeks, or even months, after the decease of a dear friend, a living one, usually a woman, will sit by her house and sing or cry by the hour; and they also sing for a short time when they visit the grave or meet an esteemed friend whom they have not seen since the decease. At the funeral both men and women sing. No. 11 I have heard more frequently some time after the funeral, and No. 12 at the time of the funeral, by the Twanas (For song see p. 251.) The words are simply an exclamation of grief, as our word 'alas'; but they also have other words which they use, and sometimes they use merely the syllable la. Often the notes are sung in this order, and sometimes not, but in some order the notes do and la, and occasionally mi, are sung."

Games

     It is not proposed to describe under this heading examples of those athletic and gymnastic performances following the death of a person which have been described by Lafitau, but simply to call attention to a practice as a secondary or adjunct part of the funeral rites, which consists in gambling for the possession of the property of the defunct. Dr. Charles E. McChesney, U. S. A., who for some time was stationed among the Wahpeton and Sisseton Sioux, furnishes a detailed and interesting account of what is called the "ghost gamble." This is played with marked wild-plum stones. So far as ascertained it is peculiar to the Sioux.

     "After the death of a wealthy Indian the near relatives take charge of the effects, and at a stated time--usually at the time of the first feast held over the bundle containing the lock of hair--they are divided into many small piles, so as to give all the Indians invited to play an opportunity to win something. One Indian is selected to represent the ghost, and he plays against all the others, who are not required to stake anything on the result, but simply invited to take part in the ceremony, which is usually held in the lodge of the dead person, in which is contained the bundle inclosing the lock of hair. In cases where the ghost himself is not wealthy the stakes are furnished by his rich friends, should he have any. The players are called in one at a time, and play singly against the ghost's representative, the gambling being done in recent years by means of cards. If the invited player succeeds in beating the ghost he takes one of the piles of goods and passes out when another is invited to play, etc., until all the piles of goods are won. In cases of men only the men play and in cases of women the women only take part in the ceremony."

     Before the white men came among these Indians and taught them many of his improved vices this game was played by means of figured plum seeds, the men using eight and the women seven seeds figured as follows:

     "Two seeds are simply blackened on one side the reverse containing nothing. Two seeds are black on one side with a small spot of the color of the seed left in the center, the reverse side having a black spot in the center, the body being plain. Two seeds have a buffalo's head on one side and the reverse simply two crossed black lines. There is but one seed of this kind in the set used by the women. Two seeds have half of one side blackened and the rest left plain so as to represent a half moon, the reverse has a black longitudinal line crossed at right angles by six small ones. There are six throws whereby the player can win and five that entitle him to another throw. The winning throws are as follows, each winner taking a pile of the ghost's goods:

     "Two plain ones up, two plain with black spots up, Buffalo's head up, and two half moons up wins a pile. Two plain black ones up, two black with natural spot up, two longitudinally crossed ones up, and the transversely crossed one up wins a pile. Two plain black ones up, two black with natural spots up, two half moons up, and the transversely crossed one up wins a pile. Two plain black ones, two black with natural spot up, two half moons up, and the buffalo's head up wins a pile. Two plain ones up, two with black spots up, two longitudinally crossed ones up, and the transversely crossed one up wins a pile. Two plain ones up, two with black spots up, buffalo's head up, and two long crossed up wins a pile. The following throws entitle to another chance to win: two plain ones up, two with black spots up, one half moon up, one longitudinally crossed one up, and Buffalo's head up gives another throw, and on this throw if the two plain ones up and two with black spots with either of the half moons or Buffalo's head up, the player takes a pile. Two plain ones up, two with black spots up, two half moons up, and the transversely crossed one up entitles to another throw, when, if all of the black sides come up excepting one, the throw wins. One of the plain ones up and all the rest with black sides up gives another throw, and the same then turning up wins. One of the plain black ones up with that side up of all the others having the least black on gives another throw, when the same turning up again wins. One half moon up with that side up of all the others having the least black on gives another throw, and if the throw is then duplicated it wins. The eighth seed, used by the men has its place in their game whenever its facings are mentioned above. I transmit with this paper a set of these figured seeds, which can be used to illustrate the game if desired. These seeds are said to be nearly a hundred years old, and sets of them are now very rare."

     For assisting in obtaining this account Dr. McChesney acknowledges his indebtedness to Dr C. C. Miller, physician to the Sisseton Indian Agency.

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Introduction to the Study of Mortuary Customs Among the North American Indians

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