Published on November 9, 2010 by John
The Stomp Dance is performed by various Southeastern tribes and Native American communities, including the Muscogee, Yuchi, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Delaware, Miami, Ottawa, Peoria, Shawnee, Seminole, and Natchez tribes. Stomp Dance communities are active in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida.
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The Stomp Dance is a ceremony that contains both religious and social meaning. To the Muscogee Creeks, Cherokees, and other Southeastern Indians the Stomp Dance is affiliated with the Green Corn Ceremony.
The term “Stomp Dance” is an English term, which refers to the “shuffle and stomp” movements of the dance. In the native Muskogee language the dance is called Opvnkv Haco, which can mean “drunken,” “crazy,” or “inspirited” dance. This usually refers to the exciting, yet meditative effect the dance and the medicine have on the participants. In the native Shawnee language, the dance is called Nikanikawe which refers to a dance involving friends or nikane. It is also called the Leading Dance by many Shawnees, but most simply call it the “Stomp Dance.”
Among Muscogee Creeks and Four Mother’s Society members, the Stomp Dance Grounds contain an elevated square platform with the flat edges of the square facing the cardinal directions. Arbors are constructed upon the flat edges of the square in which the men sit facing one of the four directions. This is formally referred to as the Square Ground, which is encircled by a ring-mound of earth. In the center of this is the ceremonial fire, which is referred to by many names including “Mother” fire. Ceremonially, this fire is the focus of the songs and prayers of the people and is considered to be a living sacred being.
Outside of the circle of earth, surrounding the Square Ground are the community’s clan-houses. These houses are casually referred to as ‘camps’ and depending on the traditional level and financial situation of the community may be relatively nice cottages, shanties or in between. Prior to the dance dinner is prepared in these family camps. Throughout the night guests that arrive are welcomed to help eat up the leftovers. The foods eaten at Stomp Dances are typical southern delicacies such as corn bread, mashed potatoes as well as certain specialized Indian dishes such as sofkee, dumplings, hominy, frybread, and numerous traditional dishes.
Kituwah stomp dance grounds are encircled by seven clan arbors. These are influenced by the traditionalist revival among Cherokees during the late 19th century, inspired by Redbird Smith. In 1907, 22 ceremonial grounds were active on Cherokee lands in Oklahoma.
Stickball games are often played at stomp dance grounds. Yuchi stomp dances are held in conjunction with their ritual football games. Especially in Oklahoma, different tribes will participate in each other’s dances.
A traditional Stomp Dance grounds is often headed by a male elder. In the Creek and Seminole traditions the Meko or “king” is the primary ceremonial authority. The Meko is assisted by his second in charge called a Heniha, the chief medicine man called a Hillis Hiya and speaker called Meko Tvlvswv or Meko’s tongue/speaker. It is important to note that Meko’s are not supposed to publicly address the entire grounds and as such that responsibility falls often on Meko Tvlvswsv. A traditional Creek grounds also employs four Tvstvnvkes (warchiefs/generals/police), four head ladies and four alternate head ladies.
The chief speaker calls the people to the dance for each round in the Native language. Every dance must have at least one woman to carry the rhythm. The order of the dancers is male-female-male-female in a continuous spiral or circle with visitors to the ground, then young children, and the odd numbers trailing at the end. The song is led by a lead man who has developed his own song on the multitude of variations of stomp dance songs. The songs are typically performed in call and response form. The dancers circle the fire in counterclockwise direction with slow, stomping steps set to the rhythm created by the women stomping with their shell shakers. As the dance progresses, as many as several hundred people may join the circle. The dance continues until at least four rounds or four songs are completed by the dance leader. At this point, the dance concludes until the next leader is called out to sing. There is normally a 2-5 minute break between leaders. Participants who are making a religious commitment of the ceremony will begin fasting after midnight and “touch medicine” at four different times over night. The medicine is made from specific roots and plants which have been ceremonially gathered by selected “medicine helpers” and prepared by the Hillis Hiya at dawn of the morning of the Dance. This medicine is intended for the physical and spiritual benefit of the members of the dance at the ceremonial ground.
The dance frequently continues throughout the entire night until dawn of the next day. The Stomp Dance is not meant to be a grueling and physically challenging event, but almost every participant on the grounds will dance most of the night.
Stokes Smith Stomp Dance Ground, which is located in an isolated area of the Cherokee Nation tribal lands, is one of approximately seven active Cherokee grounds. Other grounds include, Hossossv Tvlvhvse Ceremonial Ground on the Poarch Creek Indian Reservation near Atmore, Alabama, the White Oak Shawnee Tribe’s grounds and various other Creek and Seminole grounds in Oklahoma and Florida. The Eastern Band Cherokee stomp grounds is currently located in Raven’s Roost, North Carolina, on the Qualla Boundary. The Creek tribe today has 16 active ceremonial grounds located throughout North East Oklahoma. One of which is located west of Eufaula south of Mill Creek called Flat Rock.
Men sing stomp dance songs in a call-and-answer format. A leader is chosen for a song and the other men provided a chorus. Male dance leaders often carry a handheld turtle shell rattle – most commonly made from box turtles. Among some tribes rattles can be made of gourds or coconuts. Women provided the rhythm with shakers worn on their legs, which are traditional made from turtleshells but can be made from condensed milk cans. During certain dances, a water drum can be used. Ethnomusicologist Victoria Lindsay Levine writes that, “Stomp dance songs are among the most exhilarating and dramatic musical genres in Native America.”
The dress of most Stomp Dancers is casual but nice. Most Stomp Dancers keep special attire for ceremonial occasions, but the physical nature of the dance and summery, outdoor conditions of the dance make comfort more important than flair. Women wear skirts and blouses that usually incorporate traditional patterns. The men wear blue jeans or slacks and hats, which are usually cowboy or ballcap styles, usually with a single eagle, hawk or crane feather in the hatband. The ribbon shirt is the standard ceremonial attire for both men and women, which consists of a loose-fitted tunic decorated with ribbons. Cherokee women typically wear full cotton skirts featuring ribbonwork in a rattlesnake pattern.
The women wear turtle shell shakers, or shackles, on both legs (typically 6 to 12 on each leg). The shakers are hollowed out shells which have holes drilled in them and are filled with rocks, shot, soda can lids or anything else that will make them rattle. The traditional Creek and Seminole shell shakers are made of terrapin or box turtle shells. Lydia Sam, a Natchez-Cherokee traditionalist, was the first to dance with tin, condensed milk can leg shackles in the 1920s. Some ground leaders insist on the use of the terrapin by head lady shell shakers. This tradition continues today and most women start out with a set of “cans” before moving up to having their own set of shells. Women stomp dancers are called “Shell Shakers” or “Turtles.”
Participants and visitors to a stomp dance ground cannot be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Depending upon the grounds, they cannot have partaken of either for a prescribed period of time before or after the dance. Photography is not allowed at ceremonial dances. The ceremonies are religious, and many participant do not feel comfortable discussing details with non-Indians, particularly in regards to medicine.Pregnant or menstruating women do not enter the dance circle at ceremonial grounds. Depending on the ground, they may or may not touch medicine.
During the off-season, Stomp Dances are sometimes performed indoors to avoid the winter cold. Some societies incorporate Stomp Dance into pow wows or as educational demonstrations. Caddos,Delaware, and other Woodland and Southern tribes have a secular or social stomp dance tradition. The Chickasaw Nation and Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma currently maintain non-ceremonial grounds for stomp dances and stickball.