Song and Dance Among the Indians

by Alice C. Fletcher

The Song

While studying Indian life and thought through the sharing, as far as possible, of native conditions, I discovered Indian music. In the loneliness that naturally belonged to my circumstances this discovery was like finding a flower hidden in a tangle hard to penetrate. I had heard Indians "singing," but the noise of the drum, the singers' stress of voice, so overlaid the little song that its very existence was not even suspected. Circumstances at length arose, incident to my convalescence after a long illness, when, to give me pleasure, my Indian friends came and sang softly to me, without the drum. Great was my surprise to hear music; to be told that I was listening to the same songs that the earnest men and women had previously sung but which for me had been buried under a tumultuous din. Thenceforth my ears were opened and never again, no matter how confusing the conditions, did I fail to catch the hidden melody. As my appreciation of the value of Indian music grew, I determined to gather and to preserve these wild flowers of song. I wanted them not merely as a contribution to the study of music but that they might help to vibrate the chords that belong to a common humanity.

Of the songs I heard in solitude, some were published over thirty years ago. Since then many of my gleaning have been used by different composers and the musical message sent far and wide.

With the Indian, words hold a secondary or an unimportant place in a song. The music and accompanying action, ceremonial or otherwise, convey the meaning or purpose. When words are used they are few, fragmentary and generally eked out with vocables. Frequently only vocables are attached to a melody. To the Indian, song holds a place similar to that filled for us by wordless instrumental music. In ceremonies, rituals occur that are always rhythmically intoned; each line generally terminates in a refrain. Songs have a place in these rituals, breaking in on the recital particularly when an emotion is evoked, for music is the medium of emotional expression. An old Indian priest explained this peculiarity by saying: "Harmonious sounds unite the people."

Unaccustomed as we are to the use of songs that have no words, we would not only find it difficult to understand their meaning but we would lose much pleasure when singing them. To obviate the perplexities arising from the Indian's peculiar treatment of words and to make clear the meaning of a song, words have been supplied. These words are in no instance a literal translation, for the few broken words that belong to some of the melodies used in these Dances and Games, because of their fragmentary character, would have no value as an interpretation either of the music or of the action. In a number of instances the original vocables are retained, where the music is merely a rhythmical accompaniment to a simple, easily understood movement. Where words are given to a song, they follow closely both the accents and the rhythm of the music. The written stanzas are not meant to be read but to be sung. They express the thought or the feeling that gave rise to the music, they aim to make its meaning understood so that the song can be intelligently sung. In arranging these words, care has been taken never to forget or to change the natural and the psychical environment that belongs to the melody.

Indian songs are very short. They have no preliminary measures, but at once voice the actuating emotion; that done, they come to a close. Although they are so short, they have form and in their structure follow in simple lines the rules of phrasing and motivization taught in our schools. These songs, speaking in general terms, partake more of the character of motifs than of musical compositions. They do not stand alone or apart from the ceremonials or pleasures of which they form an essential feature.

The Dance

The different Indian tribes vary in their modes of dancing; moreover, the same theme is not interpreted by all the tribes in the same manner. In some

Every Indian dance has a meaning. The dance is generally either the acting out of some mythic story or a presentation of a personal experience. Every movement of the body, arms, hands, feet and head is always in strict time with the songs that invariably accompany the dance. Indian dances are complex rather than simple. Their "spontaneous activity" is not the result of "a dominating emotion" but of a desire to present dramatically certain mental pictures. This is particularly true of dances which form a part of religious ceremonials. As a consequence, none of these dances are improvised. All follow forms that have been handed down through generations and have become more or less conventionalized.

When the dance portrays a personal experience the dancer is allowed a freedom of invention not elsewhere permitted. Even in this case the dancer is obliged to follow certain conventional forms, as in the sign language; otherwise his story would not be understood.

On the eastern continent the peoples from whom we are descended had songs and dances peculiar to their different vocations, so on this western continent the song and dance were the accompaniment of the Native industries.

A study of the Indian dramatic dances shows that by means of them the vocations of men and women were lifted out of drudgery, made types of activity and allied to the forces recognized in the religious beliefs of the people. The dances here given, those relative to the Corn and also the Héde-wache, not only illustrate what has been said above but they reflect back a light upon the religious dances that obtained among the eastern nations of antiquity.

When the Indian dances, he dances with freedom; his whole body becomes expressive of the actuating emotion of the scene he intends to portray. Because of his freedom, his remarkable sense of rhythm and the strong mental picture he aims to present, whether it be the flight of the eagle, the sportive pleasure of birds, the movements of animals, the alertness of the warrior in attack, or in eluding a blow, his motions are always sharply vivid and natural.

It is a pleasure to be able to offer in the following pages a number of Indian songs with their original accompaniment of action, as the two complement each other for the expression of certain native thoughts and aspirations.

Whoever takes part in the dances here presented should never attempt to imitate what is supposed to be the Indian's manner of singing or his dancing steps and postures; in either case the result would probably be an unmeaning burlesque. Each dancer should have a clear mental picture of the scene to be enacted and then give free play to bodily movements for its expression, always keeping in rhythm with the song, so as to make sound and motion a rhythmic unit.

Next: The Life of the Corn (a Drama in Five Dances)

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