THERE ARE MORE Indian dances than there are tribes, and one of the best ways to start an argument in a circle of Indian connoisseurs is to come out with a flat-footed statement that one or another of them is the best. Having thrown your grenade, the sensible thing is to go away from there, since you know what you like; and let the rest of them fight it out.
The adherents of the Navajo Yeibichai will talk emotionally, volubly, as adherents of anything Navajo always do, about “the lyricism of the young men; the surge of masculine power and force.” Those who belong to the Pueblo school of thought will burble warmly of the Corn Dance of Santo Domingo, of “music that left everything for Wagner to know; the passive, plastic, implacable movements of women.” And the adherents of the Apache Crown Dance, Devil Dance, Fire Dance, whatever they happen to be calling it that week, will talk learnedly of “choreography which, with costume and music, is a full expression of earth-based yearning” or something of the sort. You can fill in the gaps for yourself, if you've ever listened to such talk.
Now me, I like the Rain Dance of the Kickapoo. It isn't showy, like all the others, and it isn't easy to locate, like the first two. (The Apache, I will admit, show a decent reticence about their religious pageantry.) But the Kickapoo Rain Dance has something very comfortable and pleasant and homely and real about it, like the Kickapoo themselves. And since it is a religious dance, performed in a religious spirit, it has never been known to fail to bring the rain. But it's a little bit hard to talk to connoisseurs about, because practically nobody has ever seen it.
You have to know a little about the Kickapoo to understand. Back in the middle of the last century, the Government of the United States, in its annual spring clean-up of miscellaneous Indians, gathered together a group of tribes living between the Great Lakes and the state of Missouri, and herded them south into Oklahoma. Eastern Oklahoma belonged to the Five Civilized Tribes, then independent treaty-making nations with “No Trespassing” signs around their borders. Western Oklahoma belonged to the peoples of the High and Southern Plains—the Kiowa and Comanche; Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, and they didn't need to put up signs. People automatically left them alone, in those days.
Remained the middle of the state; the bone-dry or flood-swept Cross Timbers country, where you still “can't raise a row ’less you go there mad,” and into that the mild-mannered middle westerners were herded, and there they were told to make a living farming.
It was a hard pull for everybody. The Kickapoo had more spirit or less industry than the Sauk and the Fox, the Iowa and the Pottawatomi. They slipped by twos and threes and families out of the Cross Timber country and south across the line into Mexico. There are still some of them living down there, and many younger people were born in Musquiscoweela, as they call it, all in one word.
Living was hard, and missionaries came among the Kickapoo. The two combined to obscure the old religion. Nobody had energy enough for dancing, even religious dances. Between 1900 and 1933 there just about stopped being any old religion. This is not the place to talk about all of the substitutes that the Kickapoo tried and discarded.
But on Easter morning, 1933, a young woman went down to the creek early in the morning, to get water. She looked across at the opposite bank as she filled her lard bucket, and among the bushes she saw two fine young Indian men. They were strangers; she had never seen them before. They were Kickapoo; she knew by the way they wore their hair. And they were dressed as men were in the old days; in breech-clouts and moccasins, with no superfluous frills.
The young men spoke to her. There and then they told her the order of the old dances and ceremonies through the year, and the order of each one through its day. They told her of the clothes that should be worn for each, and they named her uncle and two of the older men, who would help her bring the ceremonies back. Then they vanished.
The young woman took her full bucket of water back to her uncle, and told him what she had seen. He called together all of the older men and women who had any recollection of the ceremonies, and among them they began to reconstruct the old cycle of the dances around the year. The tribe was small, and the place where they lived obscure. They were left alone, and they brought back and began to dance again the ceremonies that had been almost forgotten.
You don't go to the Kickapoo Rain Dance unless you are invited. For one thing, without an invitation, you wouldn't know there was anything going on, or where it was taking place. With an invitation and a guide, you can manage to thread your way through the sand hills and the black-jacks.
You come out in a clearing, where the scrub oak has been replaced by real oak trees. There's a creek to the north and a grassy pasture hill to the south. The trees make a deep shade around the edges, but in the center, on a cleared knoll, stands an old-time elm bark summer house. Hidden in the scrub under the real oaks are a series of dome-shaped winter houses of cat-tail mats.
It's mid-June, and in Oklahoma that's hot. But in the full sun, in front of the square summer house, there's a cleared space marked on the ground. The earth has been swept clean of grass and brush and twigs, and logs have been laid around, octagon-shape, with a log fire in the center. The fire is a cross, with an arm to each point of the compass.
You spread blankets on the ground in the shade of your car, and stretch out with a thermos of water within reach. There's a rustle of drum beats, and a group of people step within the octagon of logs. Eight men and eight women, one man and one woman from each of the clans. Maybe they are the only members of their clans, so small has the tribe grown. But they are official representatives; it is their right and their duty that they are doing to-day. None of them is young.
In front of them walks a man who carries a drum. It is made of an old iron kettle covered with buckskin, and is partly filled with water. The head is kept taut by inverting the drum to wet it. Beside him walks a man with an enormous gourd rattle, so old that it is ivory black. The leader of the group carries a drum-stick, beats the drum, and leads the singing.
These eighteen people begin to go very slowly around the fire there in the full morning sun. The drum is soft, you can hardly hear the rattle, the singing is whispering. One by one and a few at a time, the women and girls come from the edge of the clearing and make a line behind the singing group. They begin to dance.
The step is soft and light and quick; footsteps on bare earth are almost soundless. The left foot goes forward with a swift pat, the right is drawn shuffling after it; the step is repeated. Around and around and around. Drummer, rattler, singer, dancers. The line lengthens; there are grandmothers and there are babies so small they must be carried. But except for the singers there are no men. It is all a dancing of women.
There are four songs. It does no good to try to count the number of times the fire is circled to each song, for as the line lengthens the encircling logs are moved away from the fire to make more room. It becomes a pattern of color and movement; endlessly repeating yet endlessly changed. Then there is a quick, soft, sudden stroke on the drum-head and the pattern is broken as when one sets a kaleidoscope down. The women go back to their own places in the shade; the older people withdraw to the house, and there is a settling and resting until it shall be time for the next dance.
Each woman has worn her best clothes. They are all made on one pattern, the skirts fully, gracefully sweeping the ground; the blouses loose at the waist; held with a bertha close about the neck. Each woman wears ropes of black bugle beads around her throat, and ties them in a spanking crisp big bow at the nape. The hair is braided in a single pig-tail down the back. The feet are bare or are shod; with high heels and low heels and moccasins and cuban heels and shoes that have lost their heels, all around the circle. All day long the pattern of the feet remains fascinating.
At the end of the dance, the women go to change. They rarely go inside their houses, they sit comfortably on the ground, and by some invisible process transfer themselves from one garment to another. Nobody ever sees how it is done, but at the beginning of the dance you see that every woman has put on a whole new outfit. Later you learn that all the new clothes made during the past year to be worn in the coming one are first put on here.
The materials may be anything; meal-sacking to taffeta. The colors may be anything; this dance encourages all colors and forbids none. All sorts of ornaments may be worn; 18th century silver brooches combine to best possible advantage with dime-store diamonds. The newness of clothes is important, not the quality.
The dance circles and sways through the length of a summer day. You may not take pictures; you may not take notes. To do so is a betrayal of your hostess, now leading the singers, who trusted you so that she invited you. There are intermittent pauses for rest; there is drinking of water, but there is no eating for anybody but you. You, sacrilegious white, will sneak a sandwich near noon. You wonder at the endurance and at the copious perspiration of the singers and dancers. But when you ask about it, and how human flesh can bear it, “They got to dance to sweat. They got to sweat to make rain” is all the answer that you get.
The dancing and the singing, the changing costumes, the varying sizes of the dancers become hypnotic. You sit and sit. The shadow of the car moves away from you, but in due time the shadow of a tree moves to replace it. The sun swings over the earth or the earth swings beneath the sun, and a cloud begins to form in the north.
The sunsets for a month have been clean plunges below the horizon, with no lingering farewells to the clouds. Now, as the light changes to end the day, more and more clouds come and cluster; grow thicker and darker, and the sun begins to run his fingers over them, changing their colors to match the changing dresses of the dancers. The dance neither gains nor loses in tempo; it continues on exactly the same beat and with exactly the same lack of driving that it has had all day.
The clouds take the sky away from the sun, and night takes away earth from the day. The dance has ended itself with the light, and singers and dancers are standing with bowed heads while the drummer who has led them all day long spreads abroad his arms and prays; for health, for life, for rains, for crops.
Buckets of food have been cooking over a fire to the north of the house all afternoon, watched by the men. This is the only time in all the year when Kickapoo men cook food, or even watch its preparation. But now they bring the buckets of hominy, the iron pots of squirrel and turkey stew, and set them on the ground beside the dancers’ fire. The old man prays again, blessing the food.
Food is served in order to the people; first the singers, then the dancers. After them, the onlookers and the men may eat. This is the only time in the year when Kickapoo men eat after their wives have finished. Now they eat humbly the scraps that the women have left.
Your hostess has no way to get home. You load her, and her bundles and bundles of dresses, into the car, with the grandson whom she sent this morning, a year ago, to guide you to the dance. As you drive out of the circle of oak trees, the first big drops begin to fall, and long before you reach the paved highway, you are driving in second, in fear of a skid that will land you in a red mud ditch for the rest of the night. The point of the long day has been to bring rain. For ten unbroken years now, it has been unvaryingly successful.