Monday, January 28, 2013

Red Paint Powwow, New Mexico, Part 3: The Gourd Dance

Gourd dancer. Credit: Tyrone Wilson(pictured) and Kevin Anderson (photographer)

The Red Paint Powwow is an annual event in Silver City, New Mexico, hosted by the Chiricahua Apache. I attended the powwow on Saturday, January 19, 2013.

The White Eagle Gourd Society performed the gourd dance on several occasions during the powwow.

Gourd dancers. Credit:

The story behind the gourd dance

The generally-accepted story is this, which I excerpted from The Daily Times (Farmington, NM):

"Legend has it that a Kiowa warrior was trying to find his way back to his village when he heard a melody from the other side of a hill. He went to the top of the hill and peered down, where he saw Red Wolf bouncing up and down on his haunches. The wolf had a fan in his left hand and a rattle in his right. He was singing melodies, and at the end of each song, he raised his rattle to the sky, shook it and let out a howl. At dawn, Red Wolf told the warrior the songs were a gift to the people so they could continue honoring their warriors...."

The Navajo and other groups have adopted the gourd dance from the Kiowa, who are based in Oklahoma.  Here is a lively discussion about the dance's origins and who "owns" the dance. There are a few jibes directed at the Navajo. 

Gourd dancers. Credit: Red Star Intertribal Gourd Dance Society.

Dance attire

The Golden State Gourd Society explains thoroughly about appropriate dress for the gourd dance: 

"... If the dancer does not have traditional clothing he should wear dress pants, a plain long sleeve colored dress shirt and moccasins. No cowboy hats, ball caps, boots or tennis shoes should be worn, but dress shoes are acceptable.  Other articles that should be worn are a bandolier made of two strands of mescal and silver beads draped over the left shoulder, crossing the heart and bound together at the right hip.  A sash, usually made of velvet with beaded trim on the ends, should be around the waist and tied at the right hip.  A red and blue blanket should be draped over the shoulders or worn over the right shoulder and held together over the arms at the left hip.  ... Gourds used today are natural gourds, German silver, milk cans, salt and pepper shakers or baking powder cans, which are painted for decoration.  The handles are usually decorated with beads and rolled fringe, with horse hair and assorted feathers adorning the tip.  A fan is carried in the opposite hand.  ...."

At the Red Paint Powwow, the emcee explained that veterans could wear veterans' caps or berets while they participated in the gourd dance, but otherwise dancers could not wear modern-day hats.

Choctaw gourd dancers, James family, Oklahoma. Credit: Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

From article, For Tribe and Country, three generations deep in tradition: "'It’s very spiritual,'” says Michael [James]. “'Like a prayer in movement, the positive vibration, the drumming. It’s like singing a hymn in church. I feel a connection to earth and sky, like it’s all interwoven during the gourd dancing.'”

What the dance is like

The gourd dance and the trance dance of the "whirling dervishes" share characteristics. There is a building-up of sound and beat and rhythm as the participants warm up to the mind-body prayer that is the trance dance or the gourd dance.  

First came drumming, with singing. The gourd dancers at this time remained in the audience. After a time of drumming, I noted that some men in the audience began to shake their hand-held gourd instruments. (A man seated next to me was a gourd dancer.)

Presently, the gourd dancers stood in place and shook their gourds to the drumming and the singers.

With changes to the drumming and singing, the gourd dancers moved into the dance arena, with small steps and gourd shakes. When the drums rose to a crescendo, the dancers froze in place, then moved again when the drumming calmed. 

After awhile, I noticed a few women who moved to the perimeter of the dance arena. They bent their knees in concert with the drum beats.

Again, the Golden State Gourd Society helps out with a fine description:

"The Gourd Dance is a dance of dignity and pride. As the dance begins, the dancers are seated around the arena.  As the starting song is sung, the seated dancers begin to shake their gourds to the beat of the drum, but do not dance to the first song.  As the song ends the dancers give a howl/yell at the end of the song.  As the tempo increases, during the second song, the dancers rise from their chairs.  The dancers step in place or walk in time with the music during the slow beat of the drum, moving freely around the arena. Once the tempo changes, they once again stand in place and dance to the beat of the drum, shaking their gourd. 

"When the song ends, the dancer raises his gourd and shakes it vigorously ending with a howl/yell (honoring the Red Wolf) and waits for the next song to begin.  Songs are usually sung in sets of four (this is left to the discretion of the head singer) and the dancers do not sit down again until the full set of gourd dance songs has ended or they are dismissed.

"Once the gourd dancers start to dance, the women take their places behind the men, dancing in place, in the outer arena.  The women never start dancing before the men and never walk in front of the dancers. ...."

As with similar dances, there are moments of intense interest, moments of boredom and distraction, and moments of flow as one merges into the sound and the movement.  Dances like these take time to sink into one's body and head. 

An idea I find so fascinating is how certain tonalities and rhythms affect our brain. I think of the man who wrote a book about his experiences as an expedition doctor. He began the book with the story of a Tibetan sherpa who had seriously injured his head on a climb. The man's injury was such that it was virtually certain to be fatal. But his companions had come to the medical tent (or they sent monks?) to chant non-stop, day and night, in the man's tent while he lay there, unresponsive. The author was amazed to realize that, over the course of many hours, the man began to recover. Evidently, the qualities of the sound caused healing changes in the man's brain.


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