Pow wow dances and songs often tell stories of historical events important to Native Americans. Some are tribe-specific, yet they can have more than one tribe laying claim to ownership. If history is defined by who gets counted as the victor – then the significance of certain aspects of Native culture depends on who is doing the telling.
The Duck and Dive is a traditional men’s song that involves men dancing fully upright at first but then quickly shifting to crouching positions as if in a defensive battle stance. It has evolved into a traditional song for all Northern Plains style dancers. However, a perusal of Pow Wow web forums and sites reveals that depending on the Pow Wow and the tribe(s) involved, its meaning has a number of variations.
There seems to be a general consensus that the song and dance is a warrior’s song which likely originated with the Nez Perce depicting their two-day battle with the U.S. Army at Big Hole, Montana, in August 1877.
With this in mind, ICTMN reached out to Nez Perce Storyteller, flutist, and craftsman James Spencer to tell the story of one of his tribe’s most challenging battles and how it inspired the revered traditional song and dance known as the ‘Duck and Dive.’
Spencer tells it this way:
“Chief Looking Glass convinced the people that the soldiers were far behind and the people needed to rest. So they made camp along the North Fork of the Big Hole river; a place known to the Nez Perce as ‘Place of the Buffalo Calf.’ Soldiers attacked early in the morning. The order of the day was to shoot low into the teepees.
“A child was wandering through the village and was shot before anyone could grab the child. The Nez Perce drove the soldiers out of the camp and back across the river. Another child wandered out into the open and a woman ran out, picked up the child. While running for cover, she was shot in the back. The bullet passed through her and struck the child.
“When the cannon arrived, they managed to get off two shots. A group of warriors overtook the cannon crew and captured the cannon. One of the warriors knew how to fire the cannon, but they couldn’t find the primer cords. So the warriors dismantled the cannon and tossed it down the hill. There were two men who were best friends, and they made a promise to each other that they would die on the same day. When one of the men saw his friend had fallen, he made a suicide charge up the hill. He too fell that day. The army counted 89 Nez Perce dead, mostly women and children. Some of the warriors had their heads cut off to be studied like a curiosity.
“The Duck and Dive song was composed by those who were there that day. The two strong downbeats are the two shots from that cannon. This is a song and dance held in high regard, so much so that we stand up when the song is sung. We are taught that when you duck, you also cry out. This isn’t done at other pow wows, and sometimes dancers don’t even duck.”
Spencer is all too aware of others creating their own Duck and Dive songs and dances, including those who disagree with the Duck and Dive being the preserve of the Men’s Traditional and so use it for other Pow Wow categories.
“I realize that there are other Tribes that claim to have a Duck and Dive tradition, as well as their own version of that song. But there has been in the past, tribes that have tried to claim our song as their own. It is our responsibility to recount the story and meaning of the song and dance. Hearing other people’s versions of the Duck and Dive, knowing the meaning to the Nez Perce people; it’s hard not to feel insulted at first.
“Hearing different songs with a Duck and Dive beat, just doesn’t sound right to a Nez Perce ear. I have heard a few on YouTube and thought, ‘What the hell are they singing?’ The Duck and Dive is a Men’s Traditional song and should stay that way. In many traditions along the Columbia River, the Prairie Chicken/Round Bustle is also considered a Men’s Traditional dance.”
At a time when suicide amongst Native youth has reached epidemic proportions, Spencer sees storytelling and other cultural traditions like dancing and ceremony as much-needed reminders that Native Americans continue to be powerful, resilient people.
“All of these stories need to be told and the young made to listen. How else can we learn about our people’s power and ability to adapt and overcome challenges? We face many challenges today, and sometimes we think they are impossible to overcome. But we owe it to our ancestors to find a way to overcome any challenge we may face. Because everything they did, they did for us. Their suffering, their sacrifice; was for the future generations to come.”