The Colonial Music Institute
Bringing History to Life Through Music
AN IROQUOIS DANCE
In 1748, when Washington was sixteen, he was invited to go with George Fairfax on a trip to survey lands on the remote south branch of the Potomac River. This trip was Washington’s initiation into wilderness life and he kept a daily journal from March 11 to April 13, 1748. He described seeing a rattlesnake, fording cold rivers, shooting at wild turkeys and sleeping on flea-filled pallets in back-country houses. On March 21st the party arrived at the stockaded house and trading post of Colonel Thomas Cresap, in what is now Oldtown, Maryland, about fifteen miles south-east of present-day Cumberland.
As the rain that had plagued the expedition continued to pour, they tarried at Cresap’s fireside and on the 23rd they “were agreeably Surpris’d at ye. sight of thirty odd [Iroquois] Indians coming from War with only one Scalp We had some Liquer with us of which we gave them Part it elevating there Spirits put them in ye. Humeur of Dauncing of whom we had a War Daunce there manner of Dauncing is as follows Viz They clear a Large Circle & make a Great Fire in ye. middle then seats themselves around it ye. Speaker makes a grand [illegible] Speech telling them in what Manner they are to Daunce after he has finish’d y. best Dauncer Jumps up as one awakened out of a Sleep & Runs & Jumps about ye. Ring in a most comicle Manner he is followed by ye. Rest then begins there Musicians to Play ye Musick is a Pot half [full] of Water with a Deerskin Streched over it as tight as it can & a goard with some shott in it to Rattle & a Piece of an horses Tail tied to it to make it look fine y. one keeps Rattling and ye. other Drumming all ye. while y. others is Dancing” (Myers 62-63 and facsimile).
In 1775, Joseph Bloomfield described another Iroquois dance, this in the Mohawk Valley and with more detail: “Those who dance are the Youngest Men. The Chiefs are Spectators & Conductors. The middle State conduct the music. One beats upon a Keg over the head of which is streached a skin. The others round him join their Voices, He who beats setting the tune. Their notes are few, but soft, & all keep time & Tune with the greatest exactness. Every one who sings has two little sticks which He beats together in concert with the Drum. Round these the Dancers perform after their manner, which consist of Violent exertions & according to some rules. Once in the space of two Minutes, they step with a shout in which they exert their Voice to the Utmost. The Singers are grave & the Dancers full of pleasantry. After a little pause the Music begins & the dance goes on they stomp violently upon the ground & Exert themselves to great fatigue. This dance seems calculated to enure to harden & to render the Muscles Vigorous. In the midst of the dance one of the chief Warriors who was a spectator steps forward & strikes with a stick, which produced an instant pause. In a short speech He related his warlike exploits, the Prisoners & Scalps taken from other Nations. . . This custom is intended in the time of their mirth to Inspire them with a thirst for War & an emulation to have the like Opportunity publickly to relate their gallant deeds” (Lender 82-83).
Like the dance that Washington saw, this was probably also a social dance—a community event. While most period narratives describe any Indian dance as a “War Dance,” the American Indians of the period actually had many dances, for they were the center of Indian
community life and were affected by their beliefs, their culture and their world view. Indian traditions are long-lasting, fusing the past with the present. Their dances were and are planned events for an entire community and involve singing, story-telling, dancing, gift-giving, feasting, prayer, and oration. These events function as a means of news distribution and diplomacy, as well as a spiritual experience, community bonding, and recreation for the participants.
Dancers use both exaggerated and subtle movements as appropriate to the setting and the occasion. François, Marquis de Barbé-Marbois described dance steps he saw performed by Iroquois of the Oneida Nation at Fort Schuyler, New York in 1784: “the men leap from one foot to the other and strike the earth sharply; [the women] dance without leaving the floor, sliding their feet. All keep time with perfect precision” (Chase 198). Of the eastern woodland Indians in colonial times, Heth states that “many of the dances and songs were responsorial, incorporated shouts and animal cries, were performed by both genders, and circumscribed a counter-clockwise dance area. Most featured hand-held rattles and water drums along with strung rattles worn on the dancers’ bodies. Vocally, the singing tended to be nasal and somewhat high-pitched” (Heth 3/413). Period observers often characterized these movements as “comical” or “grotesque.” It is important to remember that they were seeing them through Euro-American eyes—judging them against the structured minuets and country dances of plantation house balls and city Assemblies.
The dance that both Washington and Bloomfield saw appears to be what might today be called a “Stomp Dance” or a “Snake Dance” and the two steps that Barbé-Marbois described are common among Indian dancers today. Washington saw a water drum of a type still in use. This is a single-headed drum, often made of wood, that holds water. By adjusting the volume of water, the drum can be tuned to suit the singer’s preference. A wooden stick is generally used as a beater.
An article published in the Massachusetts Magazine in 1796 describes the importance of dance to the North American Indian. “Dancing. . . calls for his active powers, when, unemployed, languish and decay for want of exercise. And in no employment; does he become more animated, vigorous, and eager. . . Dancing . . . is a ceremony of great importance and seriousness. With this ceremony war is declared, an ambassador is received, and peace is concluded. It is by a dance, that every important transaction in public or private life, is celebrated. Their dances are generally carried on by the men, and it is but seldom that the women are permitted to join in them. All the steps, figures, and motions of the dance, are expressive; and significant of the business or transaction, it is designed to denote.
Author’s note: It is important to remember that we know virtually nothing about American Indians from first-hand reports by the native people’s themselves. These accounts are from the European-American observers who may or may not truely understand what it is that they were seeing. We have only a vision of what the Iroquois dancing looked like through their eyes. We can only guess what it mean to the dancers themselves..
Chase, Eugene Parker. Our Revolutionary Forefathers: the Letters of François, Marquis de Barbé-Marbois. New York: Duffield & Co., 1929.
Heth, Charlotte. “Native American Aesthetics: Music and Dance” in Jacob Ernest Cooke, ed. Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993, vol. 3, 410-414
Lender, Mark E., et al., eds. Citizen Soldier, The Revolutionary War Journal of Joseph Bloomfield. Newark: New Jersey Historical Society, 1982.
Myers, Albert Cook. The Boy George Washington Aged 16, His Own Account of an Iroquois Indian Dance 1748. Philadelphia: Myers, 1932.
Text taken in part from Keller and Hendrickson’s George Washington: A Biography in Social Dance (Sandy Hook, CT: The Hendrickson Group, 1998), p. 37.