This past weekend (March 29 and 30), there was a powwow in Nachez, Mississippi. Native American powwows are very colorful and the dances are festive and interesting. Dancing and singing has always been a major part of Native American life. When James Mooney lived with the Cherokee in the 1830’s, he witnessed and wrote about the Cherokee Ball Play Dance. Here are some of Mooney’s observations:
“In 1834, before the removal of the Cherokee to the west, a great game was played near the present site of Jasper, Georgia, between the settlements of Hickory Log and Coosawattee, in which there were eighteen players on a side, and the chiefs of the rival settlements wagered $1,000 apiece on the result.
“On the night preceding the game each party holds the ball-play dance in its own settlement. … The dance begins soon after dark on the night preceding the game and lasts until daybreak.
“The ball-play dance is participated in by both sexes, but differs considerably from any other of the dances of the tribe, being a dual affair throughout. The dancers are the players of the morrow, with seven women, representing the seven Cherokee clans. The men dance in a circle around the fire, chanting responses to the sound of a rattle carried by another performer, who circles around on the outside, while the women stand in line a few feet away and dance to and fro, now advancing a few steps toward the men, then wheeling and dancing away from them, but all the while keeping time to the sound of the drum and chanting the refrain to the ball songs sung by the drummer, who is seated on the ground on the side farthest from the fire. The rattle is a gourd fitted with a handle and filled with small pebbles, while the drum resembles a small keg with a head of ground-hog leather. The drum is partly filled with water, the head being also moistened to improve the tone, and is beaten with a single stick.
“Men and women dance separately throughout, the music, the evolutions, and the songs being entirely distinct, but all combining to produce an harmonious whole. The women are relieved at intervals by others who take their places, but the men dance in the same narrow circle the whole night long, excepting during the frequent halts for the purpose of going to water.
“The players are all stripped and painted, with feathers in their hair, just as they appear in the game. When all is ready an attendant takes down the ball sticks from the frame, throwing them over his arm in the same fashion, and, walking around the circle, gives to each man his own. Then the rattler, taking his instrument in his hand, begins to trot around on the outside of the circle, uttering a sharp Hï! to which the players respond with a quick Hi-hï’! while slowly moving around the circle with their ball sticks held tightly in front of their breasts, Then, with a quicker movement, the song changes to Ehu’! and the response to Hähï’!–Ehu’! Hähï’! Ehu’! Hähï’! Then, with a prolonged shake of the rattle, it changes again to Ahiye’! the dancers responding with the same word Ahiye’! but in a higher key; the movements become more lively and the chorus louder, till at a given signal with the rattle the players clap their ball sticks together, and facing around, go through the motions of picking up and tossing an imaginary ball. Finally with a grand rush they dance up close to the women, and the Hu-u’! part of the performance ends with a loud prolonged Hu-u’! from the whole crowd.
“In the meantime the women have taken position in a line a few feet away, with their backs turned to the men, while in front of them the
drummer is seated on the ground, but with his back turned toward them and the rest of the dancers. After a few preliminary taps on the drum he begins a slow, measured beat and strikes up one of the dance refrains, which the women take up in chorus. This is repeated a number of times until all are in harmony with the tune, when he begins to improvise, choosing words which will harmonize with the measure of the chorus and at the same time be appropriate to the subject of the dance. As this requires a ready wit in addition to ability as a singer, the selection of a drummer is a matter of considerable importance, and that functionary is held in corresponding estimation. He sings of the game on the morrow, of the fine things to be won by the men of his party, of the joy with which they will be received by their friends on their return from the field, and of the disappointment and defeat of their rivals. Throughout it all the women keep up the same minor refrain, like an instrumental accompaniment to vocal music. As Cherokee songs are always in the minor key, they have a plaintive effect, even when the sentiment is cheerful or even boisterous, and are calculated to excite the mirth of one who understands the language.
“Through the kind assistance of Prof. John P. Sousa, director of the Marine band, I am enabled to give also the musical notation.
Note; the words have no meaning and are similar to singing “fa-la-la”.
“At a certain stage of the dance a man, specially selected for the purpose, leaves the group of spectators around the fire and retires a short distance into the darkness in the direction of the rival settlement. Then, standing with his face still turned in the same direction, he raises his hand to his mouth and utters four yells, the last prolonged into a peculiar quaver. He is answered by the players with a chorus of yells–or rather yelps, for the Indian yell resembles nothing else so much as the bark of a puppy. Then he comes running back until he passes the circle of dancers, when he halts and shouts out a single word, which may be translated, “They are already beaten!” Another chorus of yells greets this announcement. This man is called the Talala, or “woodpecker,” on account of his peculiar yell, which is considered to resemble the sound made by a woodpecker tapping on a dead tree trunk. According to the orthodox Cherokee belief, this yell is heard by the rival players in the other settlement–who, it will be remembered, are having a ball dance of their own at the same time–and so terrifies them that they lose all heart for the game. The fact that both sides alike have a Talala in no way interferes with the theory.”
The ball-play was just as important to the Cherokee as football or baseball is in America today. It is said that the ball-play often replaced war as a method to settle disputes. It’s a shame that disputes today aren’t settled this way.
— Courtney Miller
Mooney’s description taken from “Myths of the Cherokee”, by James Mooney
Piano arrangement of dance song by Courtney Miller