The Passamaquoddy Snake Dance

The Passamaquoddies, no doubt, in old times, had many dances, sacred and secular. Some of these were very different from what they now are, and in consequence it is not easy to recognize their meaning. Indians declare that in their youth dances were much more common. Possibly some of these will never be danced again. That the Micmacs, neighbors of the Passamaquoddies, had dances in which elaborate masks were worn, seems to be indicated by pictographs found on the rocks in Nova Scotia. Mrs. Brown has in her possession a head-band made of silver, similar to those worn in ancient times on festive occasions, and probably at dances. It was not necessarily a badge of a chief. In excavations made at East Machias, an Indian was found with a copper head-band and the remnant of a woven tiara. These relics are now in the hands of Dr. Shehan, of Edmunds, Maine. Copper head-bands have repeatedly been found on the skulls of Mound Indians. When a boy, I myself was present at the work of excavating an Indian burial place on the banks of Charles River, near the end of Maple Street, Watertown. With one of these skeletons a turtle shell was found, which was possibly an old Indian rattle.

One of the most interesting of the selections mentioned is the Song of the Snake Dance, No. 8. Although the ceremonial element has now disappeared from this song, it may be presumed that it originally had a religious importance similar to that of the Snake Dances of the Southwest, since the extent of the worship of the snake among North American Indians is known. The same dance is also celebrated by the Micmacs, having been performed by them during the past year. In both nations, it is generally united with other dances, and seems to be an appendage to the more formal ones.

The general impression among the Passamaquoddies is that this dance never had a sacred character. The name is said to have been derived from the sinuous course of the chain of dancers, and from its resemblance to the motion of a snake. While there is nothing to prove that it is a remnant of an ancient snake worship, still it is natural to presume that such is really the case. There are several tales relating to the manner in which men were turned into rattlesnakes, and how the noise of the rattlesnakes has its lineal descendant in the rattles of the dancers. The Indians told me of several songs used for snake dances, but in those which were sung I think I detected the same music, and am confident that the words as given occur in most of them. The discord at the end of the first line is also a feature of the snake dances which I have heard. 1

The dance is performed at weddings and other festive occasions. It is not used alone, but only with others, and, as I am told, is employed at all times of festival.

Snake Song

The words of the first strain are as follows:
Way’ ho yarhnie, way ho yarhnie.

The words of the second strain are as follows:
Hew nay ie hah, hew na’y ie hah, hew na’y ie hah,
Hew nay ie hah, hew nay ie hah, hew nay ie hah.

When the strain changes from the first to the second, the words ho yar’h nie become a discord like noyah.

The first part of the song is sung alone, by the conjurer, as he moves about the room in search of the snake. In the second part all in the chain of dancers join in with him in the song. The description of the song in Passamaquoddy, including the invitation to take part in the dance, is given on the first part of the cylinder. Calls to the assembly to join in the dance are interpolated in the second strain.


The leader or singer, whom we may call the master of the ceremony, begins the dance by moving about the room in a stooping posture, shaking in his hand a rattle made of horn, beating the ground violently with one foot. He peers into every corner of the room, either seeking the snake or inciting the on-lookers to take part, meanwhile singing the first part of the song recorded on the phonograph. Then he goes to the middle of the room, and, calling out one after another of the auditors, seizes his hands. The two participants dance round the room together. Then another person grasps the hands of the first, and others join until there is a continuous line of men and women, alternate members of the chain facing in opposite directions, and all grasping each other’s hands. The chain then coils back and forth and round the room, and at last forms a closely pressed spiral, tightly coiled together, with the leader in the middle. At first the dancers have their bodies bent over in a stooping attitude, but as the dance goes on and the excitement increases they rise to an erect posture, especially as near the end they coil around the leader with the horn rattles, who is concealed from sight by the dancers. They call on the spectators to follow them, with loud calls mingled with the music: these cries now become louder and more boisterous, and the coil rapidly unwinds, moving more and more quickly, until some one of the dancers, being unable to keep up, slips and falls. Then the chain is broken, and all, with loud shouts, often dripping with perspiration, return to their seats. 2

In this dance all present take part; it always occurs at the end of the Passamaquoddy dances, though it may be followed by a dance of the Micmacs, or other foreign Indians. There was, when last presented, no special dress adopted for the snake-dance, and the horn rattle is used also in other dances. It seems probable that everything used in the old times has disappeared, with the exception perhaps of the last-named implement, yet the song resembles closely that of the olden time. The invitations to dance are possibly introduced, and the boisterous finale may be of modern date. There is recorded also on the phonograph, with the song, the invitation to the dance in the Passamaquoddy language. An invitation is extended to all to come to the dance. It is a proclamation that there will be a good time, much to eat, “Indian dances,” snake dance, and Micmac dances. The shell of the turtle was used in old times for a rattle, in place of the horn, and in a story of the origin of the rattlesnake the conqueror is said to use a rattle of this kind. In the Zuñi dances, and in the Moqui snake-dance, a turtle rattle is tied to the inside of the left leg. The rattle, carried in the hand by the Moqui snake dancer, is a gourd, but the Passamaquoddies seem to find the horn better adapted for their purpose. The almost universal use of the rattle among the Indians in their sacred dances is very significant. The meaning of the snake song is unknown to the Indians who sing it. The words are probably either archaic or remnants of a sacred language or mystic words of an esoteric priesthood.

The Indian dances held in honor of the chief (governor) and other officers continued for several days. On the first night the newly elected chief sang a song complimentary to the food, thanking the tribe, greeting the past governor, etc. Noel Josephs, at the last celebration, sang this song by proxy, as the newly elected chief could not sing. When sung by proxy, the song is called by another name than when sung by the person elected. This song is preserved on one of the cylinders.Citations:

  1. I myself have never witnessed the snake-dance. The description which follows was obtained from Mrs. Brown, who has seen it performed twice, as well as from Peter Selmore, Noel Josephs, and other Indians who have frequently taken part in it. The song was recorded on the phonograph from the lips of Josephs, who is recognized by the Indians themselves as one competent to sing the song. Josephs told me that he remembered when this and other dances took place in a large wigwam made of bark.[]
  2. The last part of this dance somewhat resembles a play among boys, known as “Snap the whip.”[]

Fewkes, J. Walter. Contribution to Passamaquoddy Folklore: Hemenway Southwestern Archaeological Expedition. Reprinted From The Journal Of American Folk-Lore, October-December, 1890.

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