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Rose by any other name ... (the grass dance).

On the powwow circuit, one of the more traditional dances that has survived the times, although it has undergone a number of changes, is the grass dance.

The Cree, Assiniboine and Blackfeet are said to have obtained this dance form from the Yankton Sioux who bought it from the Omaha, then passed it on to their western relatives, the Lakota. The grass dance is said to have entered Canada around 1880, and rapidly grew in popularity, especially among young dancers, due to the incredible amount of energy that is required in its execution.

For a long time, however, it has been called the Omaha Dance. Still, the Cree in Canada call it the Sioux Dance. To trace the dance yet further, it's believed the Omaha acquired it from the Pawnee in Nebraska. And they are the earliest-known users of the grass dance.

In Omaha tradition, it was actually a victory dance for warriors. Symbolic of the dance is the inclusion of braided grass that was tucked into the belts or fastened to them as representations of enemy scalps. Thus, in historic times, Europeans who first saw it performed, mistook the grass dance for a war dance. It has been known by other names as well.

The Arapaho referred to it as the wolf dance, the Crow and Hidatsa called it the hot dance, Indians around the Great Lakes labeled it the dream dance, and Utes called it the turkey dance.

In its earlier days, the dance was preceded by the round or war dance. Nonetheless, it did evolve before the traditional and fancy dances which one views at contemporary powwows.

Idaho dancer Lionel Boyer explained the dance as a time when "dancers gathered and danced to beat down the grass for Indian events," such as the sun dance. According to legend, the dance is supposed to have been introduced by visiting spirit powers to a female who was given the songs, dances, drum and clothes which she passed on to others and, so, it flourishes to this day.

Grass dance regalia, like that of other modern dances, has experienced certain changes. Initially, the garments were quite simple, incorporating moccasins, breechcloths, roaches, bustles with panels or tail pieces and an otter skin cape which was worn down one's front side, like a necktie, to which matching quilled armbands and garters were added.

Later, the otter was replaced by a quilled breastplate, then hair pipe ones which were strung crossways (horizontally), while for women, they were perpendicular (vertical). According to Indian dance historians, Reginald and Gladys Laubin, white Angora goat hair which was used as anklets, and arm wheels which did not surface until the late 1800s, did not really become fashionable until 1920-1950. Dyed-red deer hair was used for roaches which became the standard headdress and included two eagle feathers. The feathers represented medicine men dancing in the fire, the fire being the red-dyed deer hair of the roach.

The eagle feather bustle represented the battlefield and a smaller inner rosette fashioned from bird of prey feathers, symbolized arrows sticking into fallen warriors. The feathers on the panel or tail piece represented feathers falling to earth from the birds that fly over the battlefields. Two upright feathers, called "horns," which protrude from the top part of the bustle represent warriors, with the left one being a friend and the right being an enemy. The horse hair at the tip of the two feathers symbolizes the scalps of the warriors.

Large dance lodges built from logs and sod were usually the setting for grass dances. The structures were circular or octagonal. The last-known enactment of a real grass dance, which included bird and animal dances, was in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was part of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and antelope, buffalo, coyote and deer dances were performed on that occasion. In modern times, the buffalo dance is used by the Sioux who call it the grass buffalo dance.

Today, the grass dance occurs briefly after the Grand Entry at powwows. It has gained tremendous popularity what with its brightly coloured yarn fringes, chevron patterns, and dancers who move side to side, lifting their feet higher than the traditional dancers, and whose shoulders sway to get the fringes flowing like the long prairie grasses.

Unlike the frantic fancy dance movements, the grass dance style is more relaxed. The roach often includes strands of larger beads hanging down in front of the dancer's eyes, or falls in loops around the eyes. Some have a beaded rosette in the middle of the forehead or at the side of one's head. Besides the Angora hair anklets, brass or steel bells are also worn.

Depending on where one is, the dance may be referred to as the fringe, frog, shake or yarn dance. However, over the past several years, it has become accepted by the term grass dance.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Lusty, Terry
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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