Dancing as Games to Teach Lessons and Create Balance . . . by Ghost Dancer
DYNAMIC SOUTHEASTERN CREEK INDIAN DANCES
The People of One Fire continues its series on Muskogean dancing as taught by the Alabama Mvskoke Keeper . . . Ghost Dancer.
Nowhere are the strengths, beauty, and good-heartedness of the South-eastern Creek Peoples more apparent than in our dances. Life was a hard-enough struggle, so the people looked for any reason to celebrate and have fun. Whenever games, feasts, ceremonies or social dances were planned, the word went out to all the neighboring towns. These times were pure fun for everyone and they served to strengthen the bonds of clan kinship and allowed young people opportunities to make new friends and find future marriage partners from different clans.
All dances have a purpose. Our ways have never really been shared with outsiders so they would understand, and pitifully worse, many of our own people have lost the reasons and purposes behind our dances. In the old days, there were numerous dances; each serving specific purposes, but all were about healing, creating, blessing, or asking for something. Dance is core to our belief that life itself is a dance. We dance with Spirit; we dance with everything as one. Dance is a work of beauty and love which creates a perfect balance.
Even a war dance had its purpose: to bring balance back from what had been taken or disrupted, whether it be a clan mother’s honor or the life of one of the people. Even the lands that we used were honored for they had been given to us by Spirit. They must be protected and all that lived within and on the land.
So, let’s discuss some dances that help us have fun and gain balance.
THE OPOSSUM DANCE is like a game intended to bring laughter and spirit to the people, children and adults alike. The dancers form a circle and all will dance until the drum beat stops. Then everyone falls over, curl ups and plays dead just like an opossum. The one whose foot comes down last after the beat and falls over last is then removed from the game. Then everyone gets up and continues until a lone winner is left. Part of the entertaining excitement comes as the dancers compete to give the best performance in authentic dramatic falling as they mimic the opossum playing dead. Active games such as the Opossum Dance encourage the people to have fun and laugh despite tough problems and hard times. Children are highly encouraged to join in follow the lead of the adults. The purpose of the Opossum Dance is to bring the balance of happiness to the people and keep everyone laughing.
THE RACCOON DANCE is another dance designed to bring balance back to the people. This involves members of every age, and both genders. Dancers are required to wear a mask that completely hides their faces and robes that hide their bodies so no one knows who the other dancers are. The dancers line up in two circles, one inside of the other, moving in opposite directions. Now the dancers weave in and out as the dance progresses, all keep in rhythm with the drum. When the drum stops, each person is then required to kiss the person closest to them. After the kiss, they all remove their masks so everyone can see who they just kissed. Maybe they kissed someone they liked, or maybe they didn’t. The Raccoon Dance brings laughter and entertainment, but its purpose is to bring balance back between people who may have differences or arguments even. Laughter can heal many hearts. The children love this game and know it is to help bring peace and love back to the people.
See, when a dance is going to be held, people come from all directions. Yes, even those that may have a blood feud or even an enemy of the people. Dances are neutral and safe sites just as certain towns are peace towns.
THE ANT DANCE is a healing dance between individuals, or clans or even different peoples. Stop and think about ants. Ants are workers and must work together to be strong, safe and happy. So, in doing this dance, groups are put together to include those who are unhappy, feuding, upset or even hating one another, to dance together as in a column as ants. Different tasks which require cooperation are laid out by the clan mothers for these competing groups to perform. See, great honor and recognition is gained by being able to cast aside personal feelings to accomplish a goal. Also, prizes are won so it is important to all concerned to put forth their best effort to win these dances.
Understand that when you gain honor, the honor isn’t just for you. The honor goes first to your people, then your clan. then your family, and then last, it goes to you. While doing these tasks in the dances, people experience first-hand the closeness it takes to work together. This gives them a bond of respect that had been lost and now, balance is being restored. Once respect is earned and given again, then understanding and beauty come into play.
THE OTTER DANCE was mostly a young people’s dance. Water was thrown in an area of the dance square to make a good muddy spot and the kids got to be otters for this day. Kids all loved this because they could dance really fast and then dive in and slide. Now while they are otters they must also do certain chores, like gathering firewood, picking up old corn cobs, or washing a dish with sand. When the chore was done, they would dance back into the circle ready to dive in again. The dancers were cheered on to complete all the different chores while keeping in rhythm with the drum. The purpose of this dance is to teach the young that they should find happiness in their work or tasks they are assigned or responsible for just as the otter does. When the dance was finished, they would all go and dive in a nearby creek or stream to clean off and then come dancing back to the circle. Gifts were awarded and all gained honor.
THE SQUIRREL DANCE is a couple’s dance. The woman has a basket strapped in front of her. Her hands are tied behind her. Her partner has his hands tied behind his back and he is blindfolded. Now they must dance in rhythm together and on the stop of the drum must work together. The man must bend inside the circle where the clan mothers have set up an assortment of items and using his mouth only, he must gather as many items in his mouth as he can and place them in her basket. All the while, she is giving him instructions on where to bend and what to feel for with his lips. Now he must do this fast before the drum starts again. And oh, yes, there are surprise gag things there too that he doesn’t want to put in his mouth, so he must listen to his woman. He may think he is picking up a string of beads, but he could be picking up a string of intestines. So, when the drum starts again he resumes dancing and hopes he is dancing next to his partner as she is guiding him to her side. They both must stay in rhythm with the drum. Sometimes there are falls or he finds himself chasing the wrong woman. The dance is hilarious, but it also teaches the young men to trust and listen to the woman by his side, in life and in all things. The clan mothers make sure this lesson is taught quite often, so this dance is held as much as possible. Trust is very important in all aspects of life, but in a relationship, it is vital!
THE DUCK DANCE we describe here is very much a laughing dance and is done as just plain fun. Each dancer puts on the duck feathers, has a made-up duck bill, and made-up duck webbed feet. Dancers all squat down and in this squatting position, dance around following the lead duck. Whatever the lead duck does they all have to do. Yes, they waddle and quack and do all kinds of duck things that create laughter and entertainment for all.
Another Duck Dance we do honors the duck when we are hunting for food. This dance pays respect for the duck’s life and shows appreciation that its sacrifice will feed the people. Women do this dance, for it was the women who normally did the duck and bird hunting.
Ghost Dancer July 2017 ©
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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