By Alice C. Fletcher
Holder of the Thaw Fellowship, Peabody Museum, Harvard University
Author of The Hako, The Omaha Tribe, Indian Stories and Song, etc.
THE YOUTH OF AMERICA
This little book took its rise in the following experience that came to me many years ago when living with the Indians in their homes and pursuing my ethnological studies:
One day I suddenly realized with a rude shock that, unlike my Indian friends, I was an alien, a stranger in my native land; its fauna and flora had no fond, familiar place amid my mental imagery, nor did any thoughts of human aspiration or love give to its hills and valleys the charm of personal companionship. I was alone, even in my loneliness.
Time went on. The outward aspect of nature remained the same, but imperceptibly a change had been wrought in me until I no longer felt alone in a strange, silent country. I had learned to hear the echoes of a time when every living thing upon this land and even the varied overshadowing skies had its voice, a voice that was attentively heard and devoutly heeded by the ancient people of America. Henceforth, to me the plants, the trees, the clouds and all things had become vocal with human hopes, fears and supplications.
When I realized how much closer because of this change I had been drawn to our land, how much greater had become my enjoyment of nature, the desire arose to find some way by which I could help to make audible to others the voice I had heard, and thereby restore to our hills and valleys their lost human element. Impelled by this purpose I have arranged these dances and games with native songs in order that our young people may recognize, enjoy and share in the spirit of the olden life upon this continent.
My obligations are due to Mr. Francis La Flesche of the U. S. Bureau of American Ethnology and to Mr. Edwin S. Tracy, Musical Director of the Morris High School of New York City, for assistance in the preparation of this book.
ALICE C. FLETCHER
The adaptations from Indian ceremonies and sports here offered will enable those who take part in them to follow in happy mood some of the paths of expression that were opened long ago by thoughtful men and women as they lived, worked and played on this land in undisturbed intimacy with nature. Some of the thoughts bred of this intimacy find their expression in these dances and games, and it may help toward a better understanding of them and their spirit to tell briefly how the Indian looked upon and regarded his relation to nature.
The natives of America thought of the cosmos as a unit that was throbbing with the same life-force of which they were conscious within themselves; a force that gave to the rocks and hills their stable, unchanging character; to every living thing on land or water the power of growth and of movement; to man the ability to think, to will and to bring to pass. This universal and permeating life-force was always thought of as sacred, powerful, like a god. To it a name was given that varied in the different languages; in the Omaha tongue it was called Wakon'da. Through Wakon'da all things in nature were related and more or less interdependent, the sky, the earth, the animals and men. Nature was, in a sense, the manifestation of Wakon'da, consequently it was regarded as something more than the means by which physical life was sustained and became the religious and ethical instructor of man.
All food came from the earth; the wild fruits, the roots, the cultivated maize, these and the animals all derived their living power from Wakon'da and yielded their life to man that he might live and be strong. Therefore, the hunt was conducted with ceremonies in which the bounty of Wakon'da was formally recognized, and when food was eaten thanks were offered to this unseen power. The Indian lived in the open and watched with reverent attention the changing aspects of his environment. To him nothing was without significance, for all things were imbued with powers from Wakon'da and could convey lessons or admonitions to be heeded by the individual and by the people in their social life.
For example: the Indian noted the unfailing recurrence of day and night and that upon the regularity with which one followed the other all creatures relied, while man depended upon this constancy to carry out any given purpose. From thoughts upon this natural phenomenon and its effects on the actions of men, ideas arose that led the Indian to the conception of truth, that something, as between man and man, that can be depended on both in word and in deed. "Thus," the old men said, "Wakon'da taught us the necessity of truthfulness, if we would live peacefully together." Other natural aspects, as the storm, with its terrifying thunder and destructive lightning, and the passing of the clouds revealing the blue sky, when the birds renewed their song, seemed to picture to the Indian the devastation of war and the happiness of peace. Again, the tree, compacted of many parts, suggested how the tribe could be made to stand and become strong.
So it came to pass that as the ancient people looked about and thought on what they saw, they gradually formulated ceremonies and adopted symbols in order to express what they came to believe. All their rites, their vocations, their pleasures were born, practiced and enjoyed under the arching skies, and were permeated, as by a vital spirit, with an unquestioning consciousness of oneness with nature.
We shall not be false to any great truths that have been revealed to us concerning the world in which we live, if we listen to the olden voice, an unseen heritage of our bounteous land, as it sings of man's unity with nature. May they who join in these dances and games catch their vital spirit and learn to feel at home with the winds, the clouds, the fields and the woods.