The Mysterious Snake, Owl and Panther Dances
by Ghost Dancer
The Snake Clan is well known as a warrior clan and spiritual clan. Their role is one of strength and power and this is reflected in each of the distinct types of dances they conduct and oversee. The varied Snake Dances serve very different purposes so we will discuss each of them. Unlike some other cultures which feared and abhorred snakes, they were not looked at as being cursed or evil by the Southeastern tribes. Quite the opposite. Our stories and imagery are filled with tie snakes, winged serpents, rattlesnakes and water moccasins. Snakes were treated with respect and honor.
This first Snake Dance is a couple’s dance and courtship dance. If you have ever seen snakes do a courtship ritual, you will understand the parallel sensual dance that happens deep in the night, by the light of the fire, when the old ones and children are fast asleep. With upper bodies painted to resemble the different snakes and only the lower torso covered, the couples move in rhythm with the drum, mimicking the snake spirit. This type of snake dance is rare in modern times, but was common in the old days.
The second Snake Dance seeks knowledge from the snakes who are rulers of the underworld, the unseen. It is performed by those seeking to learn the mystical secrets of the earth and walking in between worlds through spirit travel. In the old days, many poisonous plants and even venoms were used to seek higher knowledge. Living in a world filled with poisonous plants, insects, and snakes it was imperative for the people to protect themselves and their babies from harm. Healers knew the art of diluting venoms and poisons and administering them in tiny doses to build immunity, so the dancers were afforded this protection.
In the dance, live snakes are tied to the arms of the dancer with braided grass and the dancer holds them in each hand. The snakes are poisonous, but they are being handled with love and respect. Dancing in rhythm with the drum, the dancer seeks to bind together and become one with the snakes in this dance of life and death. If the dancer is bitten, it will only hasten the desired feeling of leaving the physical body, letting the spirit free to travel. The dance continues until the dancers are all laying down. The snakes will be respectfully and gently taken away and released while the spirit of the dancer travels to wherever it needs to go to finds the answers sought in the ceremony.
The third Snake Dance Ceremony is of utmost importance to the entire community and is danced by members of the Snake Clan. The dance gives respect and honor to all the snakes for the gifts and protections they provide for all life as hunters, warriors, healers, trackers, and teachers.
The Snake Clan members dress in their finest regalia and wear head dresses fashioned to look like the snake they represent: the winged serpent, tie-snake, rattlesnake, water moccasin, black snake, green snake, coral snake, and all the other snakes. Moving in a single line to the rhythm of rattles, they are led by the winged serpent and then the rattlesnake, the dancers make their way through the whole town, between each home and building, around the ball field and the community garden fields. Along the way, the people toss tobacco, cedar, and tidbits of berries as gifts and offerings to the snake. Everyone understands that the Snake People protect all sacred places and the Snake Dance ceremony symbolizes the people’s gratitude to the snake for protecting them from diseases and those that try to sneak an attack in any form or way.
Now another misconception about Southeastern Natives is their relationship to the owl. Many tribes west of the Mississippi feared the owl as bad medicine, but Southeastern Peoples see the owl as wise and able to see things that others don’t through its ability to hunt in the darkness. Mainly we see the owl as a powerful messenger. The owl’s call is commonly thought of as foretelling of someone dying. This scares many, but traditionally we natives do not fear death, for we believe it is just another part of our cycle, our balance, and we all know we will be reborn to begin a new life and form.
Those who practice and become seekers of knowledge and spiritual advancement, welcome the gift of the owl. Many keep the feathers or an owl’s dried body in their sacred areas so they will know the intentions of any who enter. Any who seek the help of a skilled medicine keeper to use one of the highly poisonous plants to travel quickly into the spirit world, use the owl’s feathers to guard their bodies. The owl also serves as a warning system at night when enemies may try to sneak into your area. Owls are always welcome around our towns and villages.
The Owl Dance is a ceremonial dance done only for the select few who seek a deeper understanding and balance between this and other worlds. It is used to call forth the spirit of the owl to come and help the dancer. A spiritual teacher conducts this ceremony and prepares the special root. A circle is drawn and a wooden stake with a leather thong attached is placed in the circle. The circle is then sprinkled with cedar leaves and poles with owl feathers and claws attached are placed in each the four cardinal directions.
Those seeking the medicine of the owl wear owl headdress and owl wings on their shoulders. Their eyes are painted to look bigger, resembling the owl’s. Symbols of the first quarter moon and last quarter moon are painted one on each side of the body. As an owl call is being made, the dancer(s) begins dancing around the circle while the spiritual teacher stirs a paste made of the special sacred root. After the dancer has completed 4 complete circles, he sits down.
Now the drum begins a slow heartbeat. The spiritual teacher sings an owl song while putting the paste on the dancer’s temples and then gives him a tiny bit to swallow. He then takes the thong that is tied to the stake and ties it to the wrist of the dancer. Symbolically, this cord serves to guide the spirit back to the dancer’s body as the spirit begins to travel outward. The drum beat becomes slower and slower as the owl calls the dancer deep into another world. The dancer will feel the true spirit leaving the fleshly body and will see the body sitting there as it hovers momentarily, then it begins to travel where it needs to go.
Now I must speak about the Panther or Tiger Dance. This dance is conducted by the Panther or Tiger Clan for members of the clan and those who want to invoke or call for the spirit of panther or tiger to come to them. Dancers first fast and purge themselves using the black drink and then prepare their bodies for the dance. Dancers wear the whole hide and head of the big cat. Many have their faces painted to resemble their spirit animal with claws hanging from their neck.
As the Clan Mother of the Panther Clan screams the panther cry, the rattles begin rattling. The dancers make offerings to the spirit of the panther and begin dancing; moving, stalking, and leaping as attacking their prey. Each dancer will be seeing the panther, visualizing in their minds its heart, its spirit, its body, and its mind; invoking all its characteristics to become one with them. They will feel it, taste it, hear it, know it, and believe it. Faster and faster they dance and move; leaping, pouncing, clawing and snarling through the night until they lay exhausted and the dream becomes real and the spirit of the big cat is there speaking with them; welcoming them as family. Other Panther Clan members and clan mothers will watch over them as they lay receiving the gifts and teachings from the spirit of the big hunter.
Ghost Dancer, July 2017 ©
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