What is a “Grass Dance”? To me, the phrase conjures up visions of Hawaiian hula dancers, but this was not really the case. Grass dances began with the Sioux nation, which was located in and around what is today the state of South Dakota. The Sioux used grass dances as part of their war ceremony, so essentially at grass dances originated as war dances. Although this was a music associated with war, it spread to from the Omaha, to their neighbors, through the plains, and across North America. Tara Browner in “An Acoustic Geography of Intertribal War Songs, pointed out that these grass dances had in fact “grafted” on to indigenous warrior society.
When the U.S. government formed Bureau of Indian Affairs, one of the bureau’s functions was to limit communication between the groups of native people. The reason was to prevent these nations from organizing greater resistance and attacks, but an indirect result was preventing “cross fertilization” of music between these nations. This means that the grass dance style spread across North America, but then began to evolve with tribes and nations in isolation. This resulted in different styles of grass dances, one of the main differences being the Northern and Southern styles, which were first, observed in the 1920s (Browner). Although grass dances began as war music, in modern times they are more functional as an important part to pow-wows (Gay).
Now that we have a grasp of the history of grass dances, what did they sound like? Again, the image of hula dances comes to mind, but truly the musical style of Sioux grass dances are a far fling from the familiar soft strumming of the ukulele. The example that we listed to in Musicology 115 started out with the male vocalists singing in falsetto. Their sound gets lower, and then the women join in. There was not really any harmony and not many words. Instead of words, these singers used a great deal of vocables. The range of this song didn’t follow the musical scale that we of European descent are familiar with, but rather used a sort of pentatonic scale characteristic of much Native American music (Gay). These songs may be strophic in verse, have internal repetition, and have an energetic beat (Browner). To quote Frances Densmore who founded the Native American collection at the Smithsonian, in the lines of this music one may find a “sense of indefiniteness”.
The musical texture of the example of a grass dance that we heard in class was difficult to determine. One could argue that it was polyphonic (multiple melodies that can be imitative) or that it could be heterophonic (based on simultaneous variation and embellishment of a melody). Dr. Gay argued that the example in class was heterophonic in texture, and I am inclined to agree. This is because variation and embellishment seem to fit right in with Harold Courlander’s description of traditional Sioux music. In “Music of the Sioux and Navajo”, Courlander said that this style of music was “exhibitionistic and individualistic dancing for entertainment”. So, it logically follows that a music characterised by the participants being exhibitionistic and individualistic would fall into a texture described as being based on variation and embellishment.
So, what did a grass dance look like? According to Densmore, the dancers would imitate eagles and other birds. In the grass dances of the Omaha, the leader of high enough rank would “wear ‘the crow’, a decoration of the highest order”. But, this isn’t called the bird dance; it’s called the grass dance. In class we learned that dancers would wear intricate skirts of woven grass (Gay). Densmore went into more detail, describing how each member would carry a long branch of grass. The rank of society the participant was in would determine how this bunch of grass would be braided and attached to the dancer’s waist. Densmore described it of looking something like a tail. The grass’ symbolic meaning in the song was that it represented “abundance and charity” (Densmore).
As a major in plant sciences with a concentration in public horticulture, to me there would be no greater tribute to a musical arrangement than a floral arrangement. My goal was to capture the spirit of this music with plant life. This began with the nation that started these grass dance songs – the Sioux. Their native range was concentrated around South Dakota, spreading into the surrounding states (Hickerson).
For the purpose of this project, I attempted to use vegetation native to the Sioux’s traditional range. For the grass component of the tribute I used Schizachyrium scoparium, which is commonly known as little bluestem. I collected it in a field by my house where with the recent cold snap is has just turned from its fall crimson color to a more sandy color.
The field where I collected the Solidago, Yarrow, and Little Bluestem
Making the arrangement after collecting all the components
Another native plant that I collected from that field is Solidago, or Goldenrod. I collected it in three stages: bright yellow still in bloom, spent flowers that have dried but are still yellow, and big puffy heads that have completely gone to seed. I decided that the tried but still yellow flowers worked best for the creative purpose of this project. In the arrangement itself, the goldenrod represents the male voice in the song – starting in a high falsetto and falling in the arrangement.
A third native plant from that field is Achillea millefolium, or Common Yarrow. At this point, the flowers had been spent, but they left very interesting and architectural seed heads. I added them into the arrangement to add some nice texture, the way that the female voices added to the texture of the Grass Dance song.
Finally, to symbolize the drums in this arrangement I used the yellow leaves of Acer saccharum or the familiar Sugar Maple. I placed them around the inside of the vase, the same way that the drums were constant throughout the song. The leaves also served well in hiding the unsightly stems that could be seen through the clear vase.
This left the arrangement looking somewhat bland and just too yellow, so for color I incorporated some plants that are native to the U.S. but not necessarily to South Dakota. I feel that this is alright because the Grass Dances spread throughout North America and are used in pow-wows of North American nations where these plants are native to. These include Illex verticillata or Winterberry Holly, which had red berries that really brightened up that base. To add some red to the top of the arrangement it chose Cornus sercia or a Red Twig Dogwood. This helped the red of the berries flow better throughout the arrangement.
Because European technology is what captured and recorded this and other grass dance songs, I attempted to symbolize that in my arrangement. The vase that is holding the arrangement is a glass vase, something the Native Americans did not have or use. I began to research what sort of vases that were popular with white Americans during the 1920s (the time period that Alice Fletcher and Frances Densmore were researching the Sioux and other native peoples). In the end, I simply used a glass vase that was already in my possession, because as an undergraduate student I do not have the time to do any extensive antiquing or the monetary resources to buy an antique vase.
The final result was an attractive, colorful, fall dried floral arrangement that I feel is a nice tribute to the Sioux Grass Dance song. In fact, my Souix Grass Dance tribute was so pretty that it is currently on display in my apartment as part of my fall festive décor.
Browner, Tara. “An Accoustic Geography of Intertribal Pow-wow Songs”. Music of the First Nations: Tradition and Innovation in Native North America. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009. 131-140.
Courlander, Harold. “Music of the Sioux and Navajo”. Ethnic Folkways Library Album no. FE 4401. New York: Folkways Records and Service Corp, 1949.
Densmore, Frances. Teton Sioux Music. New York: Decapo Press, 1972. 468 - 484.
Gay, Leslie. Musicology 115 Lecture. Personal Communication. 25 August 2010.
Hickerson, Harold. Sioux Indians I. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1974. 30.