Grass Dance history – As mysterious and entwined as footwork

Grass Dance history – As mysterious and entwined as footwork

Just as a Grass dancer’s steps interlace and weave a pattern of strength
and flexibility across the arena floor, narratives about the origin of the
Grass Dance mesh into an intricate history. Grass Dance roots are buried
deep in Northern tradition, but stories come from a myriad of directions.

According to Tara Browner, Oklahoma Choctaw, associate professor of
ethnomusicology and American Indian studies at the University of
California, Los Angeles, much of the scholarly literature and most written
material – including pow wow programs on Grass dancing – has pushed aside
Native oral traditions that recount two Grass Dance forms. She concluded
one is a Northern Plains style of men’s pow wow dancing and the other, an
ancestral version of the modern form of Men’s Northern Traditional Dance.

Severt Young Bear, Oglala Lakota, tells a similar tale. In his book
“Standing in the Light: A Lakota Way of Seeing,” co-authored by R.D.
Theisz, Young Bear differentiates between Grass and Omaha dancing. “They
[Grass dancers] have their own set of songs and their dancers do a lot of
fancy footwork. They dance backwards, cross their legs, and go in circles.
By comparison, the Omaha and Tokala [Kit Fox Warrior Society] dancers were
Straight dancers.”

There were only two categories of dancing in the 1940s and 1950s: Fast and
slow, explained an elder from Oklahoma who wished to remain anonymous. He
said the fast category included two styles, Feather and Grass, which was
also known as Ribbon or Fancy. “Ribbon dancers are today’s Grass dancers,”
he said, adding that it was the first dance recorded by whites.

“When I was growing up and started [dancing] in 1960, it was a dance that
didn’t really have a meaning,” said Jonathan Windy Boy, Chippewa Cree, a
champion Grass dancer from Rocky Boy, Mont. Windy Boy (D-Mont.) serves in
the House of Representatives in the Montana State Legislature. “Back in
those days, it was known as a Straight Dance. There weren’t separate
categories as you see now.”

Windy Boy credits two Southern Cheyenne brothers, Gideon and Crazy Horse
Bison, with bringing the Fancy Feather War Dance northward during the late
1960s, resulting in separate categories for Grass Dance and Fancy Dance. He
said it was at that time the Straight Dance (which is today’s Grass Dance)
was the Northern Style Fancy Dance.

“Conrad Gayley, Comanche, always wondered where the term ‘Grass Dance’ came
from,” said Jim Anquoe, Kiowa, who gives lectures on Native history for the
Oklahoma State Historical Society and is head singer for the Red Stone
Singers from El Reno, Okla. Anquoe explained that Gayley was a champion
Grass dancer and is credited by many with bringing the Northern Cheyenne
style of Ribbon dancing to the state.

Gayley, originally from Oklahoma, coached high school basketball for the
Northern Cheyenne in Busby, Mont. during the early 1950s, where he learned
to Grass dance. “He said the old people called it Ribbon Dance or they
called it Fancy Dance or they called it Omaha Dance. The Omaha people own
that War Dance – it’s theirs.”

Edward Wapp, Comanche, Sac/Fox, a professor at the Institute of American
Indian Arts, recalled attending a number of Northern pow wows in the
Dakotas with his family during the late 1950s. He told Browner he saw the
early forms of modern pow wow Grass dancing there, performed primarily by
Cree people. In his opinion, the form originated in Canada and then
migrated south.

“The story that was shown to our people is similar to the Pawnee version,”
said Windy Boy.

The earliest form of Grass dancing came from the Pawnee around 1820, wrote
Clark Wissler, an American anthropologist in his work entitled “Indians of
the United States.”

He said the Pawnee called the dance Iruska (“the fire is in me”) or “Hot
Dance,” and it centered around taking meat from a boiling kettle. According
to Wissler, the Pawnee passed the Iruska to the Omaha/Ponca Nation during
the 1830s, who referred to their version of the dance/ritual as the Heluska
or Man Dance.

In the early 1840s, the Omaha passed on the right to perform the dance and
its songs to the Yanktonai Dakota, who soon after gave performance rights
to the Teton Lakota. Both nations called the ceremony “Omaha Dance” in
honor of the people from whom they got it.

In an interview with Browner, Norma Rendon, Oglala Sioux, related a story
of the Peji Waci (the traditional Lakota name for Grass Dance) that she
first heard from her grandfather, Wallace Little, Oglala Sioux. Rendon
explained that a war party of Lakota men wore a row of grass around their
heads, arms, ankles, and under their knees in order to blend in as they
moved stealthily, close to the ground, toward the buffalo they were hunting
or a camp they were raiding.

“When the hunt was over or the war was over, they came back to camp and
were the first ones to dance. As they went into the dance arena before the
people they would stomp down the grass with their feet,” Rendon said.

Other traditions infer that the “grass” does not come from the stomping of
grass, but from tying braids of sweetgrass, symbolizing scalps, to the
dancers’ belts.

No matter its origins, today’s Grass Dance is athletic, strenuous and
unique. Its footwork, reminiscent of “flattening the grass,” involves
partially bending one leg while dragging the foot of the other around the
body and tapping the ball of each foot four times. The dancer’s upper body
shakes, vibrates and contorts in order to make the fringe dance as well.

In the last half-century, Grass Dance style continues to transform. New
moves are added while old forms are dropped. “All the moves the old style
did, they evened out – they had an equal move to the opposite direction. If
you didn’t do that, [the judges] called it,” Anquoe said, noting that the
Feather or Fancy dancer didn’t even out but the old Ribbon dancer did.

“It was much footwork. There was no spinning, just a lot of weaving,” said
Kenneth Scabby Robe, Blackfeet, a champion Grass dancer and lead singer for
Black Lodge Singers in an online interview for SimonPure Productions. “You
weave like the grass. When you’re dancing you symbolize that, like you see
the grass moving.”

Grass Dance outfits have changed, too. “Fringe used to be buckskin, then
strips of T-shirt material: now it’s ribbon or yarn,” said Stanley
Prettypaint, Crow. The base of the outfit used to be dyed long johns, but
today it’s jogging pants. Headgear is much the same: roach, spreader and
maybe a beaded headband. Prettypaint explained the primary difference for
Grass dancers are the optional “antennas,” or long, thin wires with fluffs
protruding from the spreader in place of roach feathers. A cape edged with
lots of yarn or ribbon and a matching apron at the waist and fringed side
tabs complete the outfit. Bells are worn just below the ankles above the
moccasins.

“The outfits have gotten very bright, so it’s different in the sense that
it’s more contemporary in the amount of color that’s been used,” explained
Dr. Lita Mathews, co-founder with her husband, Derek, of the Gathering of
Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque, N.M. She said much of today’s pow wow
outfit designs are based on popular culture.

Outwardly, the Grass Dance facade may be popularized and public, but
inwardly the dance’s meaning remains intact. “It’s one of the most sacred
dances that we have,” said Scabby Robe.

“It was either Grass Dance or bull riding,” said Windy Boy with a laugh,
“and I guess the bulls can wait.” He’d stopped dancing in the 1970s but
resumed after a bad experience with alcohol.

He said dancing helped him turn his life away from the gutter and that it’s
not the competition that is important. Rather, it’s the camaraderie and
dancing “for the joy of it.”

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