Passamaquoddy Trade Dance and More

Trade Dance – I have been told that there is an old custom among the Micmacs, still remembered by many now alive, which is probably a remnant of a ceremony with which was connected an old dance. To this custom is given the name of the “Trade Dance,” for reasons which will appear. The account of the custom was given by Peter Selmore, who witnessed it not many years ago. It is said to be more common among the Micmacs than among the Passamaquoddies.

The participants, one or more in number, go to the wigwam of another person, and when near the entrance sing a song. The leader then enters, and, dancing about, sings at the same time a continuation of the song he sang at the door of the hut. He then points out some object in the room which he wants to buy, and offers a price for it. The owner is obliged to sell the object pointed out, or to barter something of equal value. The narrator remembers that the dress of the participants was similar to that of the Indians of olden times. He remembers, in the case of women, that they wore the variegated, pointed cap covered with beads, the loose robe, and leggings. The face of the participant was painted, or daubed black with paint or powder.

This song is recorded on cylinder 17.

The singer told me, and I can well believe it, that the song is very ancient. I have little doubt that in this ceremony we have a survival of dances of the olden times, when they assumed a significance now either wholly lost or greatly modified.

It is not without probability that the songs sung as ancient songs may have modern strains in them, but as a general thing I think we can say that they are authentic. I do not think I draw on my imagination when I say that one can detect a general character in them which recalls that of Western Indians. In order to experiment on this, I submitted the records to a person who had heard the songs of the Plain Indians, and who did not know whether the song which she heard from the phonograph was to be Indian or English. She immediately told me correctly in all cases which was the Indian, although she had never before heard the Passamaquoddy songs.

The folk stories of the Passamaquoddies are but little known to the young boys and girls of the tribe. It is mostly from the old and middle-aged persons that these stories can be obtained. I was told by one of these story-tellers that it was customary, when he was a boy, for the squaws to reward them for collecting wood or other duties with stories. A circle gathered about the fire after work, and listened for hours to these ancient stories, fragments no doubt of an ancient mythology, upon which possibly had been grafted new incidents derived by the Indians from their intercourse with the various Europeans with whom they had been brought in contact.

War Songs

I succeeded in getting upon the phonograph several war songs, typical of a large number known to the Passamaquoddies. The words of many are improvised, though there is no doubt that the tunes are ancient. The words of one of these songs are given below.

I will arise with tomahawk in my hand, and I must have revenge on that nation which has slain my poor people. I arise with war club in my hand, and follow the bloody track of that nation which killed my people. I will sacrifice my own life and the lives of my warriors. I arise with war club in my hand, and follow the track of my enemy. When I overtake him I will take his scalp and string it on a long pole, and I will stick it in the ground, and my warriors will dance around it for many days; then I will sing my song for the victory over my enemy.

M‘ Toulin”

Passamaquoddy Indians are believers in a power by which a song, sung in one place, can be heard in another many miles away. This power is thought to be due to m’ toulin, or magic, which plays an important part in their belief. Several instances were told me, and others have published similar observations. Leland, in his “Algonquin Legends of New England,” pp. 517, 518, gives a weird account of an Indian who was so affected by m’ toulin that he left his home and travelled north to find a cold place. Although lightly clad and bare-footed, he complained that it was too hot for him, and hastened away to find a climate more congenial to his tastes. In this account one is led to believe that the man was insane, and that to the Indian insanity is simply the result of m’ toulin.

The Origin of the Thunder-Bird

In a very interesting paper of A.F. Chamberlain, on “The Thunder-Bird among the Algonquins,” in the “American Anthropologist,” January, 1890, reference is made to the belief in this being among the Passamaquoddy Indians. On my recent visit to Calais I obtained from Peter Selmore a story of the origin of the Thunder-Bird, which is different from any mentioned by Leland. This story, I regret to say, I was unable to get on the phonograph.

A story of the old times. 1 Two men desired to find the origin of thunder. They set out and traveled north, and came to high mountains. These mountains drew back and forth, and then closed together very quickly. One of the men said to the other, “I will leap through the cleft when it opens, and if I am caught you can follow and try to find the origin of thunder.” The first one passed through the cleft before it closed, and the second one was caught. The one that went through saw, in a large plain below, a group of wigwams, and a number of Indians playing ball. After a little while these players said to each other, “It is time to go.” They went to their wigwams and put on wings, and took their bows and arrows and flew away over the mountains to the south. The old men said to the Indian, “What do you want? Who are you?” He told his mission, and they deliberated what to do. Finally they took him and put him in a mortar and pounded him up so that all his bones were broken. Then they took him out and gave him wings and a bow and arrows, and sent him away. They told him he must not go near the trees, for if he did he would go so fast that he could not stop, but would get caught in the crotch of a tree.

He could not get to his home because the bird Wochowsen blew so hard that he could make no progress against it. As the Thunder-Bird is an Indian, the lightning from him never strikes one of his kind. 2
This is the same bird one of whose wings Glooscap once cut when it had used too much force. There was for a long time, the story goes, no moving air, so that the sea became full of slime, and all the fish died. But Glooscap is said to have repaired the wing of Wochowsen, so that we now have wind alternating with calm.

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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  1. The Zuñi folk-tales always begin with a similar introduction, which may be translated, “In the time of the ancients.” The Passamaquoddies often end a story by the words which, being translated, mean “this is the end.” The same occurs in other Indian stories.[]
  2. The wind (Wochowsen) is represented as resisting the Thunder-Bird. According to Chamberlain and Leland, “thunder beings are always trying to kill a big bird in the south.” It is said by the Passamaquoddies that Wochowsen is the great bird which overspreads all with his wings and darkens the sky. Often when he passes by, the glare of the bright sun is ample to blind them.[]

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