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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 them.”
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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