A Letter About the Green Corn Dance

Old chiefs were seated at the back of the council house, and of the four houses of the square. They had sharp instruments, sail needles, awls, and flints. Children of from four to twelve, and youths, and young men, presented their limbs, and the instrument was plunged into the thighs and the calves of the legs, and drawn down in long, straight lines. As the blood streamed, the wounded would scoop it up with bark or sticks, and dash it against the back of the building; and all the building thus became clotted with gore. The glory of the exercise seemed to be to submit without flinching, without even consciousness. The youngest children would sometimes show the most extraordinary self control. All offered themselves to the experiment voluntarily. If a shudder were detected, the old chiefs gashed deeper. But where they saw entire firmness, an involuntary glow of admiration would flit over their stony faces.

We now left, and went to an infant town and a savage infant it seemed over the river to break our fast, an indulgence which to our Indian friends is not permitted. They may neither eat nor sleep until the ceremonies close. The town we went to is named Tallassee. It has but about a dozen houses as yet, but is delightfully situated, and I should not wonder to see a large place there in another twelvemonth. It belongs to the region of a clan different from the one we left, though part of the same tribe. Here the investigating agent held his court; and the place was crowded with drunken Indians, and more uncivilized speculators, parading about, as some had done among the spectators at the festival, with blacked eyes and lacerated faces, the trophies of civil war for savage plunder. At the house where we dined, I found the landlady and her family implacable Indian haters. I was afterwards told the cause. Her husband is continually marrying Indian wives, probably to entitle himself to their lands. He, being a sneezer, and keeping a tavern, is a great man among them. I saw a very comely young squaw promenading, who believed herself to be one of the sneezer chubco mico’s last wives. The man’s white and original wife and daughters made an excuse to walk by, to have a look at the aboriginal interloper. The latter had just received from my landlord a present of a pair of gaudy bracelets, for which he had paid eighteen dollars at another sneezer’s, bracelets worth about four. I was told how the man came by this red mate of his. He had taken a young chiefs wife in her husband’s absence. The chief, returning while my landlord was absent, got his young wife back. The landlord, on reappearing, is said to have threatened the chief with General Jackson and big guns. The chief said he was partial to his wife; but he had a sister much prettier, and, for the sake of peace, if nothing were said about the matter, Mr. Landlord should have her for a wife. The bargain was struck. The handsome little squaw I have spoken of is that same young chief’s sister. This stealing of wives is beginning to excite some commotion. I heard that there had been a council of chiefs in the neighborhood of Tallassee. It was a very animated one, and the wrong of wife stealing was violently discussed. It was thought by some almost as bad as land stealing. Others felt rather relieved by it. One of the drunken Indians whom I saw reeling and whooping about, as I stood at the door of the log hut where we dined, seemed of the latter party. I asked a linkister the meaning of a song the Indian was singing with such glee. The black linkister laughed, and was reluctant to explain; but when I pressed him, the following proved to be the meaning of the burthen:

A man may have a wife, And that wife an untrue one; And yet the man won’t die, But go and get a new one.

No doubt the poor fellow had been robbed in the same way, and, between music and whiskey, was providing himself with consolation.

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I was invited to ‘camp out,’ as they call it, near the sacred square. A Mr. Du Bois, a man with an Indian wife and family, had arrangements for the purpose in a neighboring field; so I went to the evening dance, and left my party to the enjoyment of a sheltering roof at the frontier Blue Beard’s in Tallassee; having made up my mind, after I had seen enough more of the Indian festival for the night, to accept the proffered ‘field bed’ which was so conveniently nigh, and sleep, for the first time, in a real ‘sky parlor.’

I sat to look at the evening dances till very late. The blazing fire through the darkness gave a new aspect and still more striking wildness to the fantastic scene. Some ceremonies yet unattempted seemed to be going on over the drinks in the deep cauldrons; and the figures around them, with those of the dancers, reminded me of the witch scenes in Macbeth, as conceived by Shakespeare, not by the actors of them upon the stage. Four grim figures were stirring the cauldrons incessantly, with a sort of humming incantation, the others dancing around. In one of their dances they used a sort of small kettle drum, with a guitar like handle to it. But after a while, the evening dances seemed to vary from the devotional to the complimentary and to the diverting; but the daylight ones were altogether devotional. Apotheola led one of the less lofty order, and he is one of the most popular and respected of their chiefs. Its music seemed to consist of an exclamation from him of Yo, ho, ho! yo, ho, ho! to which the response appeared as if complimentary, and to contain only the animated and measured repetition of ApotheoLA! ApotheoLA! Another dance, which excited most boisterous mirth, was led by a chief who is called by the borderers Peter the Gambler. He is a great humorist, and famous for his love of play, famous even among the Indians, who are all gamblers. Once throwing dice with a chief, he staked himself against a negro slave, and won the negro. I never saw a party more diverted than were the lookers on at this dance. It was all monkey capers, but all with a meaning to the Indians beyond the perception of the whites. The Indian spectators made their remarks from their couches as the solemn mockeries proceeded, and the object of the remarks seemed to be to provoke the dancers to laugh by making fun, and the object of the dancers to provoke the fun makers to laugh by performing extravagant caricatures with imperturbable gravity.

Our semi civilized inviter got a bench for us. Some Indians, when it was not entirely filled, tried to pull it away. Several young ones, as a fellow was trying to tug it from under us, seemed vastly amused at Du Bois for saying, ‘Keep your seats! keep your seats!’ and mimicked him and laughed. But we were entirely unmolested in any other way, excepting for an instant by one white rascal on the road, as I was coming, who galloped up towards me violently, in the dark, and shouted, ‘Who the hell may you be, if one were to let you alone?’ Just then, however, I got up to my party, and he said no more.

I have not mentioned, I believe, that no one is allowed in the sacred square who tastes food during the devotional part of the ceremonies; but to get drunk on this occasion is a specially great offence. It is also considered as a desecration for an Indian to allow himself to be touched by even the dress of a white man, until the ceremony of purification is complete. There was a finely, though slightly, built Indian, more French than Tartar in his look and manner, a linkister, too, the whites called him Charley, and Charley had got very drunk. He was, of course, compelled to keep among the crowd outside. During the evening dance, a chief censured those who stayed from the ceremony, and those who dishonored it by appearing in this unworthy state. Charley was by that time very drunk indeed, but very good humored. He came nearly naked to listen. He heard the lecture; and, as he reeled around, pretending to cover his face for shame, it was amusing to see his tricks to evade tumbling against any of the bystanders, lifting his hands with an air of dandified disdain as he staggered to one side, and repeating the mock contemptuousness when rolling towards the same peril on the other. Next morning I heard numbers of the natives, sitting all along the outside of the sacred square, laughing very loud, and very good naturedly quizzing poor Charley, who had slept off somewhat of his exhilaration, but none of his good humor. Charley laughed, too, and looked foolish, and laughed again.

So, to go back and resume my story.

We went to our ‘field bed.’ It consisted of a shed of loose boards on tall stakes, and under it a raised platform of loose boards upon shorter stakes. There were several human forms already wrapped in blankets and asleep upon the platform. One of our party, attempting to get among them, was told by Milly, Du Bois’s Indian wife, who just then awoke, ‘No here, no here! dat not de rule!’ It seems this was the female side of the house. My buffalo robe was spread at the opposite end. I pulled off my boots, and set them in the grass under the bed, and slept delightfully. The only time I awoke, I saw the eyes of a towering black figure fixed upon me. The chap was seeking a spot for a snooze among us; but finding every inch of room occupied, gazed for a moment at a tree, flung down his blanket, and tumbled on the grass, the tall tree he had been eyeing, at his head, and a lesser one at his heels. The female side of my house was divided from the male side by Du Bois, who slept between the ladies and the gentlemen. Our party consisted of nine in all, Indian ladies included. In the morning, at day break, we were up. With a joke to Milly about ‘de rule,’ which she answered with a good humored smile, covering her face as she smiled, we went back to the sacred square among the Indians, who had been all night awake and at their devotions.

I found them preparing for the ceremonies which close the fast. Many were standing about, and all intent on the preparations for the morning forms. They went through the taking of the black drink, repeating all they had done the day previous. But on this occasion I more particularly observed two circular plates of brass and steel, which appeared the remains of very antique shields. They were borne with great reverence by two chiefs. The natives do not pretend to explain whence they came. They keep them apart, as something sacred. They are only produced on great occasions. I was told, too, that ears of green corn were brought in at a part of the ceremony to day, which I missed, and that they were presented to a chief. He took them, and, after an invocation that the corn might continue plentiful among them the year through, handed them back.

This seemed the termination of the peace offerings, and the religious part of the affair was now to wind up with emblems of war. These were expressed in what they call a Gun Dance. When the dispositions were making for it, some persons in carriages were desired by a white linkister to fall back and to remove their horses to a distance. Some ladies, especially, were warned. ‘Keep out of their way, ma’am,’ said the linkister to a lady, ‘for when they come racing about here with their guns, they gits powerful sarcy.’ I saw them dressing for the ceremony, if it may be called dressing to throw off nearly every part of a scanty covering. But the Indians are especially devoted to dress, in their way. Some of them went aside to vary their costume with nearly every dance.

Now appeared a procession of some forty or fifty women. They entered the square, and took their seats together in one of the open houses. Two men sat in front of them, holding gourds filled with pebbles. The gourds were shaken so as to keep time, and the women began a long chant, with which, at regular intervals, was given a sharp, short whoop from male voices. The women’s song was said to be intended for the wail of mothers, wives, and daughters at the departure of the warriors for the fight; the response conveyed the resolution of the warriors not to be withheld, but to fight and conquer. And now were seen two hideous looking old warriors, with tomahawks and scalping knives, painted most ferociously. Each went half round the circle, exchanged exclamations, kept up a sort of growl all the while, and at length stopped with a war whoop.

At this juncture, we were told to hurry to the outer square. The females and their male leaders left their places inside, and went to the mound in the centre of the outer square. The mound became entirely covered with their forms, and the effect was very imposing. Here they resumed their chant. The spectators mounted on the embankment. I got on a pile of wood, holy wood, I believe, and heaped there to keep up the sacred fires. There were numbers of Indian women in the crowd. Four stuffed figures were placed, one in each of the four corners of the square.


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