The Creeks and Their Dances (1)
By Ghost Dancer
To truly understand the history and culture of the early South-eastern Mvskoke Creek People, it is essential that we learn to respect their customs and mores exactly as they were. Nowhere are the strengths, beauty, and good-heartedness of this ancient culture more apparent than in their traditional dances. Considering that life was a hard enough struggle, 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 the different clans that made up the basic structure of the Creek’s matrilineal society, be it, alligator, turkey, deer, bear, wolf, turtle, beaver, opossum, bird, snake, etc., were responsible for arranging dances and feasts to honor the talents and special attributes of their particular animal. Most towns were comprised of several different clans. All towns had a majority clan, but every clan was respected, so even the smallest clan had a time to control the dance and show respect for their namesake.
In reading and hearing other Mvskoke or Mvskoge speak in Oklahoma, I understand many claim to know the true traditional ways. Their grandfather was so and so, and it was passed down and taught to them. I listen and pay attention, and I watch what they do. I’m not saying they are wrong, but I will say this: many things they do have been influenced by other beliefs and practices. For instance, the use of peyote. During the government’s relocation of the tribes, peyote was introduced to the tribes in Oklahoma by the Comanche and the Native American Church was created.
I mention this because I have heard many so-called experts of the traditional Mvskoke or Mvskoge ways say that the use of peyote is our tradition. This is false. We did use certain psychoactive plants for spiritual purposes or healing purposes only, but not peyote. We were known for the different poisonous plants we used. This is the reason many called us the People of the Holly.
Another practice I hear of and have seen claimed in Oklahoma as our tradition are the popular songs and dances of today that bear little resemblance to that of our ancestors. As my Native brother, Richard Thornton pointed out in a People of One Fire article, How Your Creek Ancestors Really Danced, descriptions of our courtship and love dances written by the earliest European explorers on our Southeastern shores reveal they were energetic and exuberant, very unlike our shuffling stomp dances that evolved over hundreds of years of direct contact with Europeans.
In contrast to the Europeans, who were suppressed in their emotions and feelings, we Mvskoke and Mvskoge were an openly affectionate and loving people. In our courtship dances, we were unashamed in showing off to each other to attract mates and prove our love and abilities. To see the Turkey Dance, Snake Dance, Alligator Dance, Heron Dance, and Feather Dance was to enjoy the beauty of who we were and how much love we wished to show. In these sensuous dances, the teasing and the erotic beat of the drums would drive the people into sweating bodies and raise the arousal of male and female alike.
Sometimes – well, many times – falseness was told to outsiders by all tribes to keep our ceremonies safe from outside influences. Our people thought it was a joke to tell the outsiders wild tales to hide our sacred ways. The elders of many tribes swore a vow never to speak of these things for more than 100 years and as a result, many true ways were lost on the following generations. When I have seen these dances today they are nothing like the old ways of our people. The Fancy Dance of the western tribes is more like the tempo of our original dances. In doing the Turkey Dance we reflect the courtship ways of the turkey. The males are showing the ladies how powerful and beautiful they are. The ladies in turn, mimic the hens, being coy and attractive, looking all beautiful and sexy, enticing the males to dance even harder to show how powerful they are.
Ceremony – Heart of the Community
Now understanding the significance of the Green Corn and Planting Ceremonies, is to understand the modern-day ribbon dance in some respects. Women do the Ribbon Dance to celebrate the power of life and rebirth they hold as does our Mother Earth. Each year she brings forth new life in a never-ending cycle. As our Mother Earth spins and turns, so do our women because life revolves in cycles and circles.
Therefore, it is so important to understand all the symbolism. All females dance at these ceremonies, from the oldest to the youngest. The youngest ones are carried in the arms and the ones who are too old and frail are lifted and carried too. We honor our connection to Mother Earth, to Grandmother Sun, and to Grandfather Moon, who is in love with them both and chases after both, affecting the energy of both mother and grandmother. This natural dynamic reminds us that women have needs and want love and they become aroused when they enjoy having their particular needs met.
So, look closely at why planting is so important to our people. When planting season came there was a celebration and all members joined in. The ceremony was supervised by the head clan mother and the beloved women. Just as women have moon cycles (menstrual cycles), Mother Earth does as well. So, each year it was important that the fields were burned and cleared. I won’t go into the full planting ceremony now, but the key point to remember is that our Mother Earth’s womb was prepared and ready to accept the seeds we placed in her. We give the seeds love and all the care we can to help it grow, just as we do for a baby growing in its mother’s womb. This is why the women are in charge of these things.
We men, well we do men stuff like listen to our women. Yes, seriously we are supposed to do what we are told to do. Any man that has been around when the woman is pregnant knows full well, you are going to be busy doing this or that. And you might not tell your buddies or friends, but when mama wants something you go get it!
We all celebrate with joyous songs and dance during the planting because a pregnancy is beginning. We are all happy but we know we must all take care of these infants too. We all must work the fields (communal gardens) besides working our personal family gardens. Dancing is a way of celebrating our love. If a woman is pregnant and is singing and dancing, the embryo feels all of this and as it grows into an infant it feels the joy and love even more. The same is true of the plants; the seeds feel you dancing and singing your love. The plants are alive, they feel, and they feel our love. So, we love them because we know they bring life to all of us too. We share this bond with them. This dance of life. The ribbon dance is a symbol of the umbilical cord connection to all women: to our Mothers, Grandmothers and to all life. This is the reason why the women dance the Ribbon Dance.
The planting dance is the connection of love, so the females lead the dance 4 times around and then the males join in, alternating between each female, because males are needed to plant the seed of life. This is balance. We must be balanced to feel our beauty and love. This is a very romantic love dance. In the old times, the males brushed up against the body of each of the women sensuously to arouse them, smiling, teasing and attracting their love. Planting season wasn’t just for planting plants!
Green Corn Time
Green Corn is a celebration of life’s new cycle: The lighting of the new Sacred Fire and home fires. The letting go of all past deeds – gaining balance through forgiving the wrongs and making right the wrongs the people have done over the year. New friends, new goals, new cycle of life. Green Corn is a new day, a new beginning for all. It is a time of being so thankful for all you have been given.
Green Corn is also the time for new courtships and new blood lines to be introduced. Even enemies are invited now to become friends. After the blessing of the lighting the Sacred Fire being by the sacred fire keeper and beloved women, the Fire Dance is led by the fire keeper, the fire apprentices and beloved ones. Each woman of the house, according to their position of rank, takes a burning ember from the sacred fire back to her lodge to relight the fires of each home.
A feast follows and then comes the time for the dancing to commence. The first dance will be the beautiful and sensual Feather Dance. In the Feather Dance, the women will choose their lover or mate. All is done in beauty and a sequence of moves that to see or participate will stir the emotions in anybody’s blood. The women line up on one side of the square and the men line up on the opposite side. The men all have feathers in their hands. Usually these will be crane, flamingo, heron, or duck because of these birds’ very beautiful courtship dances or the fact that their feathers are beautiful and feel good when teasing a woman’s body.
The men must use only the feathers to gain the attention of the woman. The woman may reject any man’s attention, so the men must dance as sensuously as they can to show off their abilities, strengths, balance, and desires. A man may bow to the ground on one leg and start at the feet of the woman with a feather in his mouth insinuating his desires. His body can get very close; just not touch the woman. The discipline the man shows demonstrates his commitment and character. If the woman rejects the man’s attentions with the feather, he moves on to the next available female.
The Butterfly Dance is similar, only the roles are reversed and the women use their shawls instead of feathers. This is the origin of the Fancy Shawl Dance so familiar today. If a woman touches a man with her shawl while she was dancing, she is signaling that she is interested in him. The woman’s body is scented in honeysuckle and wild plum blossoms, and dyes from blackberries used to accentuate her most alluring features. Dancing erotically, arms extended, a mischievous glint in her eyes and a taunting smile, she teases the man, yet he cannot touch her. He must become the male flower, swaying his body in rhythm with hers.
The rabbit dance is a love dance as well. This one the man and woman dance together as a couple and the moves become more and more complex as they dance faster and faster with lots of touching which causes accidents which are fun for dancers and all who are watching.
Now you understand why the Europeans had such a problem with the Native people’s dances. At least on the surface, European attitudes about morality and sexuality were entirely different. They simply could not understand that the Native Peoples saw themselves as natural children of the Creator. With nothing to hide, the people were not ashamed of their bodies or their need to love and be loved. I hope this gives everyone a better insight.
Ghost Dancer July 2017 ©