The Women’s Dance V: North America

by Max Dashu

Rock painting near Escalante, Utah
A circle dance painted in ochre, near Escalante, Utah. Not making any gender claims for this one, but it had to be included! You can see vandals have gouged, and possibly shot, at the ancient art. Such attacks are unfortunately all too common in the U.S., stemming from a long-standing hostility to Indigenous people and their culture.

Dance of the Mandan Women, 1833
“Dance of the Mandan Women,” 1833, shows a winter ceremony of the female White Buffalo Cow Society. This women’s ritual group danced to call the buffalo in wintertime, wearing white buffalo skin crowns adorned with magpie and owl feathers and eagle down. In summer, it was the Goose Society who danced for the crops, in women’s planting and harvesting rites. More info here. Mandan women were great farmers of the upper Missouri River Valley. Their matrilineal families lived in large round earthen lodges. Their agronomy and ceremonies influenced those of the Hidatsa (and Crow offshoots who moved to Montana) and the Siksika peoples (Blackfeet, Kainai, Piegan) who borrowed their motokiks or matoki ceremony from the Mandan women. A photo of the Mandan women’s Buffalo headdress is here.
Matoki ceremony, Northern Plains
Another picture of the Matoki ceremony, probably Siksika/ Blackfeet Confederacy, who lived further west from the Mandan in Alberta and Montana.
Basket Dance

I don’t have digital scans of the Southwestern shows, so apologies for the poor quality of this unidentified net grab. “Basket Dance” is a Euro name for this widespread Pueblo women’s dance, but that’s the best i can do without knowing where this painting comes from. (Once i figure it out, I’ll post an update.) The Hopi call it Lalakonti or Lakon, and do it sometime around harvest.

Basket Dance, Pablita Velarde

Here’s a Basket Dance painted by the late, great artist Pablita Velarde of Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico. She had far-reaching influence in the Indian arts world, and her daughter, Helen Hardin, became a famous artist in her own right, and so did her grand-daughter, Margarete Bagshaw.

Sacred Corn Dance of the Kiowa
Kiowa women consecrate their seed corn (represented by the ear of corn at left, next to the fire). Southern Plains. Painting by Cherokee artist Jimslee Burton, 20th century.
Ghost Dance, Wounded Knee, 1890

More than a celebration, the Circle Dance gives spiritual and healing power, and many communities have reached for it in times of trauma. So it was with the Ghost Dance that spread from western North America across the Plains following the European conquest. The decimated People reached for vision, inspiration, and connection with the Ancestors in the midst of trauma, occupation, and the starvation that resulted from the settler state confining them to reservations.

This is an artist’s rendition of Lakota Ghost Dancers right before the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. European settlers were afraid of its power, and the US government sent armies to suppress it. They used Gatling guns, the first machine guns, to mow down the Indian warriors. Whites’ hostility to what they called “the Messiah Craze” led directly to the death of Sitting Bull. Because so many men died fighting for their people and country, the number of women dancing in these circles was large.

Similar spiritual liberation movements arose in many parts of North and South America during the European conquests, The Guaraní gathered for ceremonies calling on Ñandecy, “Our Mother,” for deliverance, and envisioning the destruction of the invaders taking over Paraguay. Centuries before, people in some parts of Europe dealt with the trauma of mass deaths from bubonic plague and feudal wars by trance-dancing in groups, especially around the traditional summer solstice holyday.

Black Hawk Ledger, Sans Arc

The Round Dance continued after the US government suppressed the Ghost Dance and forced Indian religion underground.  One of the masterpieces of ledger art from the early reservation period after the US Army seized treaty lands on the Great Plains, this drawing was created by Black Hawk of the Sans Arc Lakota in the late 1800s. He shows young women and men apparently doing a Round Dance, the women identifiable by their belts and trade cloth, the men in tunics and striped leggings. These dances continue today at pow-wows across North America.