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Indian Games and Dances
with Native Songs

Arranged from American Indian
Ceremonials and Sports


Holder of the Thaw Fellowship, Peabody Museum, Harvard University

_Author of The Hako, The Omaha Tribe, Indian Stories and Song, etc._


Dedicated to



This little book took its rise in the following experience that came to me
many years ago when living with the Indians in their homes and pursuing my
ethnological studies:

One day I suddenly realized with a rude shock that, unlike my Indian
friends, I was an alien, a stranger in my native land; its fauna and flora
had no fond, familiar place amid my mental imagery, nor did any thoughts of
human aspiration or love give to its hills and valleys the charm of
personal companionship. I was alone, even in my loneliness.

Time went on. The outward aspect of nature remained the same, but
imperceptibly a change had been wrought in me until I no longer felt alone
in a strange, silent country. I had learned to hear the echoes of a time
when every living thing upon this land and even the varied overshadowing
skies had its voice, a voice that was attentively heard and devoutly heeded
by the ancient people of America. Henceforth, to me the plants, the trees,
the clouds and all things had become vocal with human hopes, fears and

When I realized how much closer because of this change I had been drawn to
our land, how much greater had become my enjoyment of nature, the desire
arose to find some way by which I could help to make audible to others the
voice I had heard, and thereby restore to our hills and valleys their lost
human element. Impelled by this purpose I have arranged these dances and
games with native songs in order that our young people may recognize, enjoy
and share in the spirit of the olden life upon this continent.

My obligations are due to Mr. Francis La Flesche of the U. S. Bureau of
American Ethnology and to Mr. Edwin S. Tracy, Musical Director of the
Morris High School of New York City, for assistance in the preparation of
this book.



Song and Dance Among the Indians


The Life of the Corn (a Drama in Five Dances)
Dance I. The Corn Speaks
Dance II. Planting the Corn
Dance III. The Corn Springs Up
Dance IV. The Fields are Ready
Dance V. Honor to Mother Corn
Calling the Flowers
Appeal for Clear Sky
The Hé-de Wa-chi (An Omaha Festival of Joy)



Introductory Note
Pa-tol Stick
Plum Stone

Introductory Note
Hand Game
Hiding the Disks

Ball and Racket
Hoop and Javelin
Follow My Leader


Presenting the Child to the Cosmos
Giving the Child a Name
Bestowing a New Name
Taking and Indian Name in Camp
Indian Names for Boys
Indian Names for Girls
Indian Names for Camps





The adaptations from Indian ceremonies and sports here offered will enable
those who take part in them to follow in happy mood some of the paths of
expression that were opened long ago by thoughtful men and women as they
lived, worked and played on this land in undisturbed intimacy with nature.
Some of the thoughts bred of this intimacy find their expression in these
dances and games, and it may help toward a better understanding of them and
their spirit to tell briefly how the Indian looked upon and regarded his
relation to nature.

The natives of America thought of the cosmos as a unit that was throbbing
with the same life-force of which they were conscious within themselves; a
force that gave to the rocks and hills their stable, unchanging character;
to every living thing on land or water the power of growth and of movement;
to man the ability to think, to will and to bring to pass. This universal
and permeating life-force was always thought of as sacred, powerful, like a
god. To it a name was given that varied in the different languages; in the
Omaha tongue it was called Wakon'da. Through Wakon'da all things in nature
were related and more or less interdependent, the sky, the earth, the
animals and men. Nature was, in a sense, the manifestation of Wakon'da,
consequently it was regarded as something more than the means by which
physical life was sustained and became the religious and ethical instructor
of man.

All food came from the earth; the wild fruits, the roots, the cultivated
maize, these and the animals all derived their living power from Wakon'da
and yielded their life to man that he might live and be strong. Therefore,
the hunt was conducted with ceremonies in which the bounty of Wakon'da was
formally recognized, and when food was eaten thanks were offered to this
unseen power. The Indian lived in the open and watched with reverent
attention the changing aspects of his environment. To him nothing was
without significance, for all things were imbued with powers from Wakon'da
and could convey lessons or admonitions to be heeded by the individual and
by the people in their social life.

For example: the Indian noted the unfailing recurrence of day and night and
that upon the regularity with which one followed the other all creatures
relied, while man depended upon this constancy to carry out any given
purpose. From thoughts upon this natural phenomenon and its effects on the
actions of men, ideas arose that led the Indian to the conception of truth,
that something, as between man and man, that can be depended on both in
word and in deed. "Thus," the old men said, "Wakon'da taught us the
necessity of truthfulness, if we would live peacefully together." Other
natural aspects, as the storm, with its terrifying thunder and destructive
lightning, and the passing of the clouds revealing the blue sky, when the
birds renewed their song, seemed to picture to the Indian the devastation
of war and the happiness of peace. Again, the tree, compacted of many
parts, suggested how the tribe could be made to stand and become strong.

So it came to pass that as the ancient people looked about and thought on
what they saw, they gradually formulated ceremonies and adopted symbols in
order to express what they came to believe. All their rites, their
vocations, their pleasures were born, practiced and enjoyed under the
arching skies, and were permeated, as by a vital spirit, with an
unquestioning consciousness of oneness with nature.

We shall not be false to any great truths that have been revealed to us
concerning the world in which we live, if we listen to the olden voice, an
unseen heritage of our bounteous land, as it sings of man's unity with
nature. May they who join in these dances and games catch their vital
spirit and learn to feel at home with the winds, the clouds, the fields and
the woods.



While studying Indian life and thought through the sharing, as far as
possible, of native conditions, I discovered Indian music. In the
loneliness that naturally belonged to my circumstances this discovery was
like finding a flower hidden in a tangle hard to penetrate. I had heard
Indians "singing," but the noise of the drum, the singers' stress of voice,
so overlaid the little song that its very existence was not even suspected.
Circumstances at length arose, incident to my convalescence after a long
illness, when, to give me pleasure, my Indian friends came and sang softly
to me, without the drum. Great was my surprise to hear music; to be told
that I was listening to the same songs that the earnest men and women had
previously sung but which for me had been buried under a tumultuous din.
Thenceforth my ears were opened and never again, no matter how confusing
the conditions, did I fail to catch the hidden melody. As my appreciation
of the value of Indian music grew, I determined to gather and to preserve
these wild flowers of song. I wanted them not merely as a contribution to
the study of music but that they might help to vibrate the chords that
belong to a common humanity.

Of the songs I heard in solitude, some were published over thirty years
ago. Since then many of my gleaning have been used by different composers
and the musical message sent far and wide.

With the Indian, words hold a secondary or an unimportant place in a song.
The music and accompanying action, ceremonial or otherwise, convey the
meaning or purpose. When words are used they are few, fragmentary and
generally eked out with vocables. Frequently only vocables are attached to
a melody. To the Indian, song holds a place similar to that filled for us
by wordless instrumental music. In ceremonies, rituals occur that are
always rhythmically intoned; each line generally terminates in a refrain.
Songs have a place in these rituals, breaking in on the recital
particularly when an emotion is evoked, for music is the medium of
emotional expression. An old Indian priest explained this peculiarity by
saying: "Harmonious sounds unite the people."

Unaccustomed as we are to the use of songs that have no words, we would not
only find it difficult to understand their meaning but we would lose much
pleasure when singing them. To obviate the perplexities arising from the
Indian's peculiar treatment of words and to make clear the meaning of a
song, words have been supplied. These words are in no instance a literal
translation, for the few broken words that belong to some of the melodies
used in these Dances and Games, because of their fragmentary character,
would have no value as an interpretation either of the music or of the
action. In a number of instances the original vocables are retained, where
the music is merely a rhythmical accompaniment to a simple, easily
understood movement. Where words are given to a song, they follow closely
both the accents and the rhythm of the music. The written stanzas are not
meant to be read but to be sung. They express the thought or the feeling
that gave rise to the music, they aim to make its meaning understood so
that the song can be intelligently sung. In arranging these words, care has
been taken never to forget or to change the natural and the psychical
environment that belongs to the melody.

Indian songs are very short. They have no preliminary measures, but at once
voice the actuating emotion; that done, they come to a close. Although they
are so short, they have form and in their structure follow in simple lines
the rules of phrasing and motivization taught in our schools. These songs,
speaking in general terms, partake more of the character of motifs than of
musical compositions. They do not stand alone or apart from the ceremonials
or pleasures of which they form an essential feature.


The different Indian tribes vary in their modes of dancing; moreover, the
same theme is not interpreted by all the tribes in the same manner. In some
sections of our country the dancers wear costumes and masks that are
symbolic, both in color and form; in other regions, feathers are the
principal and emblematic decoration; elsewhere, the men may dance very
nearly nude. However diverse the dancing regalia may be or how marked its
absence, the Indian dance always presents two characteristics, namely:
Dramatic Action and Rhythmic Precision.

Every Indian dance has a meaning. The dance is generally either the acting
out of some mythic story or a presentation of a personal experience. Every
movement of the body, arms, hands, feet and head is always in strict time
with the songs that invariably accompany the dance. Indian dances are
complex rather than simple. Their "spontaneous activity" is not the result
of "a dominating emotion" but of a desire to present dramatically certain
mental pictures. This is particularly true of dances which form a part of
religious ceremonials. As a consequence, none of these dances are
improvised. All follow forms that have been handed down through generations
and have become more or less conventionalized.

When the dance portrays a personal experience the dancer is allowed a
freedom of invention not elsewhere permitted. Even in this case the dancer
is obliged to follow certain conventional forms, as in the sign language;
otherwise his story would not be understood.

On the eastern continent the peoples from whom we are descended had songs
and dances peculiar to their different vocations, so on this western
continent the song and dance were the accompaniment of the Native

A study of the Indian dramatic dances shows that by means of them the
vocations of men and women were lifted out of drudgery, made types of
activity and allied to the forces recognized in the religious beliefs of
the people. The dances here given, those relative to the Corn and also the
Héde-wache, not only illustrate what has been said above but they reflect
back a light upon the religious dances that obtained among the eastern
nations of antiquity.

When the Indian dances, he dances with freedom; his whole body becomes
expressive of the actuating emotion of the scene he intends to portray.
Because of his freedom, his remarkable sense of rhythm and the strong
mental picture he aims to present, whether it be the flight of the eagle,
the sportive pleasure of birds, the movements of animals, the alertness of
the warrior in attack, or in eluding a blow, his motions are always sharply
vivid and natural.

It is a pleasure to be able to offer in the following pages a number of
Indian songs with their original accompaniment of action, as the two
complement each other for the expression of certain native thoughts and

Whoever takes part in the dances here presented should never attempt to
imitate what is supposed to be the Indian's manner of singing or his
dancing steps and postures; in either case the result would probably be an
unmeaning burlesque. Each dancer should have a clear mental picture of the
scene to be enacted and then give free play to bodily movements for its
expression, always keeping in rhythm with the song, so as to make sound and
motion a rhythmic unit.



INTRODUCTION. - These Dances in their purport and music are taken from the
sacred rituals of the Omaha, the Osage and the Pawnee tribes. The richness
and beauty of symbolism in the original language suffer a loss of native
naïveté in their English interpretation.

The American food plant known by the general term "Corn" was developed ages
ago from certain native grasses. The _Euchlaena luxurians_ found in
Guatemala is probably an ancestor of the maize. The word "maize" belongs to
the language of a people living by the Caribbean Sea and never was a
universal term for corn among the Indians of our country. The tribes to
which maize was known gave it a name derived from their own languages. So
very many centuries have passed since corn was a grass that there is no way
now of finding out when in the remote past the natives of this continent
began the task of developing from a grass a staple article of food like the
corn. The process required years of careful observation, manipulation and
culture. Not only did the Indians accomplish this task but they took the
plant from its tropical surroundings and acclimated it throughout the
region east of the Rocky Mountains up to the country of short summers in
the North; Cartier, in 1534, found it growing where the city of Montreal
now stands.

From this hasty glance at the long history of the maize we can discern the
natural sequence of its close relation to the thought and to the life of
the Indian, and to a degree understand the love and the reverence with
which the corn was held and regarded as a gift from God. Every stage of its
growth was ceremonially observed and mentioned in rituals and songs.

Among the Omaha tribe when the time came for planting, four kernels from a
red ear of corn were given to each family by the keeper of this sacred
rite. These four red kernels were mixed with the ordinary seed corn, that
it might be vivified by them and made to yield an ample harvest. Red is the
symbolic color of life. In this ceremony is preserved a trace of the
far-away time when all the precious seed corn was in the care of priestly
keepers. The ceremony of giving out the four red kernels served to turn the
thoughts of the people from a dependence solely on their own labor in
cultivating corn to the life-giving power of Wakon'da dwelling within the

In the Omaha Ritual Song of twenty-six stanzas which preceded the
distribution of the four red kernels, the Corn speaks. It tells of its
roots reaching in the four directions (where dwell the messengers that
bring life), of the growth of its jointed stalk, of the unfolding of its
leaves, of the changing color of the silk and of the tassel, of the
ripening of the fruit, of the bidding of the people to come, to pluck and
to eat.

The music of this Ritual Song is simple. It is here given with a very brief
paraphrase of the words of the Ritual Song.


INTRODUCTORY NOTE. - This ceremonial dance touches upon the mystery of the
giving of life that life may be maintained; an exchange that links together
the different forms of life and enhances the joy of living.

_Properties_. - Thin green mantles; yellow plumes like the corn tassel; bone
clips; as many of these articles as there are dancers.

_Directions_. - This dance belongs to both sexes and a number of each should
take part, if that is possible. Should there be trees near the open space
where the dance takes place, one-half of the dancers, closely wrapped in
their green mantles, should be grouped at one side among the trees and the
other half similarly placed at the other side. In the center of the space a
single dancer stands facing the rear, wrapped about the head and body with
the green mantle, leaving only the face exposed.

All being in readiness, the central figure turns slowly, lifts a draped arm
and says slowly and impressively:

"Harken! The Corn speaks!"

The group of dancers on the right then sing softly the _first_ line only of
the Ritual Song in which the Corn speaks. The group of dancers on the left
repeat the _same_ line like an echo of the first group. Both groups of
dancers now begin to move slowly and in rhythm with the following song
toward the figure standing in the center of the space, singing, as they
move, the Ritual Song _from the beginning_:

Ritual Song No. 1

Fourfold deep lie my roots within the land;
Clad in green, bearing fruit, Lo! here I stand!
Pluck and eat, life for life, behold, I give!
Shout with joy, dance and sing with all that live.


At the words "Lo! here I stand!" the company of dancers should all be
standing in a semi-circle. As the words in the third line, "Behold, I
give!" are sung, the draped arms should be slightly extended forward as in
a presentation. The fourth line requires some dramatic action, but it
should be restrained rather than free. The arms, still draped with the
green mantles, should be raised a little as the words "Shout with joy" are
sung, and during the singing of the remainder of the line swayed from side
to side in rhythm with the song, always with a reserve in the movements,
because of the mystery mentioned in the words of the song, that life is
maintained by the giving of life. A pause of about two beats should follow
this Ritual Song.

As "Ho-o! Ho-o!" the opening of the next song, is given, every dancer
should suddenly turn half-way round, give a movement of the head such as
would cause the mantle to fall back and leave the head with the corn tassel
exposed; the ends of the mantle should be gathered in the hands so that the
mantle can wave with the dance as the following song is sung:

Song No. 2

Ho-o! Ho-o!
Dance we singing,
Promise bringing
Of the wealth of summer fair;
Hearts beat lightly,
Skies shine brightly,
Youth and Hope are ev'rywhere.

_Refrain_: Ho-o! Ho-o! Ho! Ho! Ho!


As each "Ho-o!" of the refrain is sung, the dancers should whirl like merry
sprites, twine and untwine their green mantles about their forms until the
song begins again. Then they should all skip off with springing, rhythmic
steps in open Indian file, letting their mantles float and wave about them
as they wind in and out over the camp ground carrying "Youth and Hope
ev'rywhere." Every time the refrain is reached, the dancers should stop and
whirl, then as the song begins again move off in line, dancing as before.
When they are ready to stop (that can only be done during the singing and
whirling of the refrain), each dancer should whirl from the line and keep
up that movement, singing "Ho!" until his or her tent is reached.


INTRODUCTORY NOTE. - The rituals and ceremonies from which this dramatic
dance with its accompanying songs are taken have been handed down through
numberless generations. They deal with the perpetuation of the vocations of
the people and also with the duties of the warrior, who must so protect the
people that these vocations can be pursued in peace and safety. The portion
of the ritual that relates to the planting of the maize is here given. It
is practical in character. The ground is to be cleared of the débris of
winter's storms and the dead leaves and twigs gathered into heaps and
consumed by fire. When the brown earth is uncovered on the sunny slope it
is to be mellowed and made into little hills with flattened tops to receive
the kernels of the corn. The first seven of these hills must be
ceremonially planted. Into the first hill one kernel of corn is dropped,
two kernels are put into the second hill, three in the third, and so on to
the seventh, in which are placed seven kernels. The product of these seven
little hills must be kept separate, for it is to constitute the "first
fruit offering" made to Wakon'da, through the priest, in recognition of the
gift of corn as food. After the seven hills are completed, then the rest of
the field is similarly prepared and planted. When the kernels are put in
the loosened ground they are covered and stamped with the foot, so that
each little hill beards the mark, the footprint, of the planter. The Ritual
Song depicts the task of planting to its completion and compares the rows
of little brown hills to lines of buffalo following one another down the
slope. With this vision, suggesting the promise of abundant food, the
workers joyfully turn toward the home fireside.

The words given for the first song are a brief paraphrase of the many
stanzas of the original Ritual Song, which so touches the necessary acts of
the planter as to lift them above a merely prosaic level.

_Properties_. - As this dance represents work, no scarfs or mantles are
used. The garments should be plain and the arms free for the necessary
dramatic motions in portraying the various acts connected with clearing,
preparing and planting the ground. In ancient times the hoe used for this
work was made from the shoulder blade of the elk, or a stick three or four
feet long shaped at one end like a wedge. Similarly shaped sticks of wood
should be used in this dance, one for each dancer. Pouches are required
made of brown cloth, with broad bands or straps long enough to pass over
the shoulder and chest and to let the pouches hang at the back. Both
pouches and straps should be ornamented with geometric designs painted in
red, yellow, blue or green; two or three of these colors should be combined
in each design. The corn carried within the pouches can be represented by
rounded chips, little stones or, when possible, by the corn kernels

The boys must wear head-bands, carry bows and have quivers hung at their
backs. They must scatter around the border of the "field," move watchfully
about, peer into the distance and act as if on the alert to detect or to
meet any prowling enemy.

_Directions_. - A space should be set apart to represent the "field" where
the dramatic action takes place. This dance requires considerable dramatic
pantomime. The words in the two lines of each stanza of the song serve as a
prelude to the action which follows. Sometimes the action may be confined
to the refrain, but generally there must be acting throughout the singing
both of the words and the refrain. Much in this dance must be left to the

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Online LibraryAlice C. FletcherIndian Games and Dances with Native Songs → online text (page 1 of 8)