A Letter About the Green Corn Dance

I cannot describe to you my feelings when I first found myself in the Indian country. We rode miles after miles in the native forest, seeing neither habitation nor an inhabitant to disturb the solitude and majesty of the wilderness. At length we met a native in his native land. He was galloping on horseback. His air was oriental; he had a turban, a robe of fringed and gaudily figured calico, scarlet leggings, and beaded belts and garters and pouch. We asked how far it was to the Square. He held up a finger, and we understood him to mean one mile. Next we met two Indian women on horseback, laden with watermelons. In answer to our question of the road, they half covered a finger, to express that it was half a mile further, and, smiling, added, ‘sneezer much,’ meaning that we should find lots of our brethren, the sneezers, there, to keep us company. We passed groups of Indian horses tied in the shade, with cords long enough to let them graze freely. We then saw the American flag a gift from the government floating over one of the hut tops in the square. We next passed numbers of visitors’ horses and carriages, and servants, and under the heels of one horse a drunken vagabond Indian, or half Indian, asleep. And, finally, we found ourselves at the corner of the sacred square, where the aborigines were in the midst of their devotions.

As soon as I left the carriage, seeing an elevation just outside of one of the open corners of the sacred square, whence a clear view could be obtained of what was going on within, I took my station there. I was afterwards told that this mound was composed of ashes which had been produced during many preceding years by such fires as were now blazing in the center; and that ashes of the sort are never permitted to be scattered, but must thus be gathered up, and carefully and religiously preserved.

Before the solemnities begin, and, some one said, though I am not sure it was on good authority, ere new earth is placed, the women dance in the sacred square, and entirely by themselves. I missed seeing this. They then separate from the men, and remain apart from them until after the fasting and other religious forms are gone through, when they have ceremonies of their own, of which I shall speak in due course.

As I gazed from my stand upon the corner mound, the sacred square presented a most striking scene. Upon each of the notched masts, of which I have already spoken as attached to each of the structures within, was a stack of tall canes, hung all over with feathers, black and white. There were rude paint daubs about the posts and roof beams of the open house fronts, and here and there they were festooned with gourd vines. Chiefs were standing around, the sides and corners, alone, and opposite to each other, their eyes riveted on the earth, and motionless as statues. Every building was filled with crowds of silent Indians, those on the back rows seated in the Turkish fashion, but those in front with their feet to the ground. All were turbaned, all fantastically painted, all in dresses varying in ornament but alike in wildness. One chief wore a tall black hat, with a broad, massive silver band around it, and a peacock’s feather; another had a silver scull cap, with a deep silver bullion fringe down to his eyebrows, and plates of silver from his breast to his knee, descending his tunic. Most of them had the eagle plume, which only those may wear who have slain a foe; numbers sported military plumes in various positions about their turbans; and one had a tremendous tuft of black feathers declining from the back of his head over his back; while another’s head was all shaven smooth, excepting a tuft across the center from the back to the front, like the crest of a helmet.

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I never saw an assembly more absorbed with what they regarded as the solemnities of the occasion.

The first sounds I heard were a strange low, deep wail, a sound of many voices drawn out in perfect unison, and only dying away with the breath itself, which indeed was longer sustained than could be done by any singer I ever yet heard. This was followed by a second wail, in the same style, but shrill, like the sound of musical glasses, and giving a similar shiver to the nerves. And after a third wail in another key, the statue like figures moved and formed two diagonal lines opposite to each other, their backs to opposite angles of the square. One by one, they then approached the huge bowls in which the black drink was boiling, and, in rotation, dipped a gourd, and took, with a most reverential expression, a long, deep draught each. The next part of the ceremony with them was somewhat curious; but the rapt expression of the worshippers took away the effect which such an evolution would be apt to produce on a fastidious stomach if connected with an uninterested head. In short, these dignitaries, without moving a muscle of the face, or a joint of the body, after a few seconds, and with great solemnity, ejected what had been swallowed upon the ground. It seemed as if given forth in the spirit of a libation among the ancients. The chiefs having afterwards tasted, each replacing the gourd, and returning to his stand before the next came forward, they all went to their seats, and two old men approached and handed round gourds full to the other parties present who had remained stationary. The looks on each side were as full of solemn awe as I have ever seen at any Christian ceremony; and certainly the awe was more universal than usually pervades our churches.

This done, a chief made a speech, but without rising. It was listened to with profound attention, and in one place, at a pause, called forth a very unanimous and emphatic shout of approbation, a long sound, seemingly of two syllables, but uttered by all in the same breath. I asked a professed linkister what the speech was about; but he was either indifferent or ignorant, for he only replied that it was an appeal to them not to forsake their ancient ceremonies, but to remain faithful in their fulfillment to the last, and that it wound up with a sort of explanatory dissertation upon the forms which were to follow.

One chief then walked round, and, in short, abrupt sentences, seemed to give directions; whereupon some whitened, entire gourds, with long handles, and apparently filled with pebbles, were produced; and men took their stations with them on mats, while those who had been seated all arose, and formed in circles around the fire, led by a chief, and always beginning their movement towards the left. The gourds were shaken; there arose a sort of low sustained chant as the procession went on; and it was musical enough, but every few seconds, at regular intervals, a sound was thrown in by all the dancers, in chorus, like the sharp, quick, shrill yelp of a dog. The dance seemed to bear reference to the fires in the center. Every time they came to a particular part of the square, first the head chief turned and uplifted his hands over the flame, as if invoking a benediction, and all the people followed his example in rotation. The dance was very unlike anything I ever saw before. The dancers never crossed their feet, but first gave two taps each with the heel and toe of one foot, then of the other, making a step forward as each foot was tapped on the earth; their bodies all the while stately and erect, and each, with a feather fan, their universal and indispensable companion, fanning himself, and keeping time with his fan as he went on. The dance was quickened, at a signal, till it became nearly a measured run, and the cries of the dancers were varied to suit the motion, when, suddenly, all together uttered a long, shrill whoop, and stopped short, some few remaining as guards about the sacred square, but most of the throng forthwith rushing down a steep, narrow ravine, canopied with foliage, to the river, into which they plunged; and the stream was black on every side with their heads as they swam about, playing all sorts of antics; the younger ones diving to fetch up pieces of silver money which the visitors flung into the water, to put their dexterity to the test.

Returning to the sacred square, they went through other dances around the fire, varying in figure and accompaniment. All were generally led by some aged chief, who uttered a low, broken sound, to which the others responded in chorus. Sometimes the leader, as he went around, would ejaculate a feeble, tremulous exclamation, like alleluliah, alleluliah, laying the stress upon the last syllable, to which all would respond in perfect accord, and with a deep, sonorous bass, ‘alleluliah,’ and the same alternation continued to the close, which was invariably sudden, and after a long general whoop.

Each dance seemed to have a special form and significance; one in particular, where the dancers unstacked the tall canes with feathers suspended from them, each taking one from the mast sustaining it; and this one, I was told, meant to immortalize triumphs won at ball plays. The feathered canes are seized as markers of points gained by the bearers in the ball play, which is the main trial of strength and skill among rival clans of the same tribe, in friendship, and even between tribe and tribe, when in harmony. The effect of these canes and feathers, as they glanced around, with an exulting chorus, was very inspiriting, and the celebrants became almost wild with their delight as it drew near its climax, ending their closing whoop with a general laugh of triumphant recollection.

Other dances were represented as alluding to conquests over bears and panthers, and even the buffalo, which last memorial is remarkable enough, having among them survived all traces of the buffalo itself. But, excepting these vague hints, I could not find any bystander capable of giving me a further explanation of any point on which I inquired, than that it was ‘an old custom;’ or, if they wished to be more explicit, with a self satisfied air, they would gravely remark that it was ‘the green corn dance,’ which I knew as well as they. Could I have been instructed even in their phrases and speeches, I might have made valuable conjectures. But even their language, on these occasions, seems, by their own admission, beyond the learning of the ‘linkisters.’ It is a poetical, mystical idiom, varying essentially from that of trading and of familiar intercommunication, and utterly incomprehensible to the literal minds of mere trafficking explainers. Even were it otherwise, the persons hovering upon the frontier most ingenuously own, when pressed for interpretations of Indian customs, that they care nothing for the Indians excepting to get their lands, and that they really consider all study concerning them as egregious folly, save only that of finding out how much cotton their grounds will yield, and in what way the greatest speculations can be accomplished with the smallest capital.

The last of the ceremonies of the day consisted of a sort of trial of fortitude upon the young.


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