Grass Dance of the Spirit Lake Dakota

Feb 21st, 2016 | By | Category: 27-3: The Trials of Teacher Education, Media Reviews

Grass Dance of the Spirit Lake Dakota By Louis Garcia with Mark DiedrichBy Louis Garcia with Mark Diedrich
Cankdeska Cikana Community College
Publishing (2014)
189 pages

Review by John Peacock

Spirit Lake tribal historian Louis Garcia writes “the Grass Dance should not be thought of as just a dance, but rather as an all-important male fraternal organization with complex rules and ceremonies.” In his book, Grass Dance of the Spirit Lake Dakota, he weaves oral tradition with his own archival research and decades of interviews. Elders remember parts of the dance, such as steps and regalia, that are either no longer in use or have evolved into elements of modern powwow dancing.

For example, according to an oral tradition recounted by Edward Goodbird (Hidatsa), the Omaha/Ponca taught the Grass Dance to the Dakota, who then taught it to the Arikara/Hidsatsa in exchange for 600 horses. Originally the Grass Dance was intended for warriors to learn, practice, and demonstrate their agility to spring into action as well as their discipline to not charge the enemy prematurely and spoil the element of surprise.

As war societies became defunct with the waning of intertribal warfare and the beginning of the reservation period (1870-1890), the extra braids of grass that warriors carried to stuff into wet moccasins for dryness and warmth became strips of trade cloth. The stuffed raven skins at the back of the belt evolved into a bustle of feathers. Considered a living being, this bustle was ceremonially fed ritually sacrificed puppies during the Dog Feast. The dogs symbolically represented the heads of former enemies, as the Dakota had rejected the literal cannibalism found in other tribes’ ceremonial traditions. When U.S. authorities outlawed the Dog Feast, the culinary dimension of the Grass Dance evolved into the elaborate preparation of food that is so much a part of powwows today.

The practice of fining Grass Dancers for breaching dance protocol also evolved over time. Formerly, a warrior might have been fined the very horse he rode into battle, but once the whole military rationale for the dance ended, dancers, singers, and food-preparers continued to be fined for the slightest breach—a missed or late step, a dropped feather, leaving a drum uncovered or laying on its side during a break, or failing to use the proper ceremonial utensil in food preparation. Fines, however, were no longer in the form of horses, but in money, food, clothing, or some other item that would be given to the widows of deceased dancers or to the poor. Thus the Grass Dance society continued to protect the most vulnerable members of the tribe whom warriors and hunters had once provided protection and meat.

This book is highly recommended.

John Peacock, Ph.D. (Dakota) is a professor of Native American studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

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