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Impearls: HIC 3.01: Great dances

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Great dances   by A. L. Kroeber

The major ceremonies of the Yurok reveal the following qualities:

1.  The motive is to renew or maintain the established world.  This purpose includes bountiful wild crops, abundance of salmon, and the prevention of famine, earthquakes, and flood.  To a greater or less extent, the expression of these objects takes on the character of a new year's rite.  This is particularly plain in the first salmon ceremony at Wetlkwau and the fish dam building at Kepel.  Other ceremonies reveal the motive less outspokenly, but all those of the Karok and most of those of the Hupa are distinct world renovation or first fruits rituals; and the equation by all three tribes of the ceremonies of direct with those of indirect new year's type confirms the interpretation.  Most of the rites are made in September or October, the remainder about April.

2.  The esoteric portion of the ceremony is the recitation of a long formula, narrating, mostly in dialogue, the establishment of the ceremony by spirits of prehuman race and its immediate beneficial effect.  This formula is spoken in sections before various rocks or spots that mark the abode of these spirits.  The reciter is an old man, usually accompanied by an assistant; any prescribed symbolic acts are performed by them alone.  They fast and otherwise refrain from ordinary occupation; inhabit a house sanctified by tradition for this purpose; and spend a number of nights in the associated sweat house, sometimes in the company of several men who also observe restrictions, though they do not directly participate in the acts of magic or recitation.  The only offering made is of small quantities of angelica root thrown into the fire, or of tobacco.

3.  After the recitation of the formula, or the major portion, a dance begins, and goes on every afternoon, or morning and afternoon, for 5, 10, or more days.  The regalia are of forms strictly standardized by custom, but are wholly unsymbolical and in no sense regarded as sacred.  They comprise the most valuable things in the world known to the Yurok — all their great treasures, in fact, except dentalium shells; and the largest obsidian and flint blades, and whitest deerskins, far outvalue any of their money, while the bands of woodpecker scalps are each worth more than a string of the largest shells.  The dances are therefore the one occasion on which the wealthy can make public display of the property on which their position in the world depends; while the entertainment of visitors from far and near is a burden they are reluctant and yet proud to bear.  Any man can dance: the lesser regalia are often intrusted to boys.  The singers are those noted for their ability, and constantly compose new songs, although the character of the melodies for each type of dance is so uniform that the novel improvisations prove to be little but minor variations of one theme, or of a set of similar themes cast in one rigid style.  Women watch but never dance.  The valuables are not only those of the home town, but of the whole river, or of long stretches of it.  Men carry their treasures far, and when they are responsible for a dance, receive reciprocation from those whose dances they have aided.

4.  The dances are of two kinds, known to the Americans as White Deerskin and Jumping dance.  In some spots only the latter is made; wherever the Deerskin dance is made, it can be followed also by a Jumping dance.  In both, the dancers stand in a line abreast facing the audience of men, women, and children, and some glowing embers by which sits the formula reciter with angelica incense in his hand.  The chief singer is in the middle of the line, with an assistant on each side; the remainder of the rank form a sort of chorus that adds little but occasional monotone grunts or shouts.  They sway or swing the objects they hold in time to the step or leap which constitutes the dance.

5.  The localization of these ceremonies is extreme.  The formulas abound in place names.  They are spoken at a series of places in and about the village which are exactly prescribed.  The sacred house and sweat house of each ceremony are believed to have stood since the time when there were no men in the world: the planks, it is true, are replaced, but the structures occupy the identical spot.  The dance ground itself is always the same; and when a dance moves from village to village or hillside, it is in invariable sequence.  The selection of the places that enter into the ceremonies is traditionally arbitrary.  It is true that the largest villages are the ones in which dances are held, and that some of the spots of ritual are landmarks; but there is no appearance of anything symbolic or inherently religious in their choices.  The places are usually not prominent in myth, and it is evidently the fact that the dance is made at a particular site that has caused the nameless and colorless spirit referred to in the formula to be associated with it, not the reverse.  It is the locality that has ceremonial preeminent sanctity to the Yurok.  Elsewhere in California the Indian thinks first of his spirit or god and his characteristics or history; if a certain spot counts at all, it is because of its connection with the deity.  There is something strangely old world and un-American in the Yurok attitude, a reminiscence of high places and fanes and hallowed groves.

6.  The dances are conducted with a distinct attempt at climactic effect.  On the first days they are brief and the property carried is inconsiderable.  Gradually they grow in duration, intensity, and splendor.  The famous treasures begin to appear only toward the last day: the most priceless of all are reserved for the final appearance of that day.  The number of dancers, the vehemence of their motions, the loudness of the songs, the crowd of spectators, increase similarly; even on each day of the series, an accumulation is noticeable.  The performances are always conducted by competing parties.  Each of these represents a village — the home town and from one to five of those in the vicinity.  These match and outdo one another, as the rich man of each village gradually hands over more and more of his own and his followers' and friends' valuables to the dancers to display.

The gradual unfolding of the ceremonies is illustrated by the progress of the Weitspus Jumping dance on its way uphill.  At the first stop, on one occasion, 7 dancers, mostly boys, stood in line, and the songs continued for about 14 leaps.  Only two dancers wore woodpecker scalp headbands.  Gradually the dancers became more numerous, the boys disappeared, the songs lengthened, the headbands became 5, then 6, then 9; until, at the summit, 10 men, each with a standard band, danced to songs of nearly 40 leaps.

Such is the character of the great ceremonies.

All ceremonies are likely to have been annual in the old days, but for many years the custom has been to hold them only in alternate years at each locality.  Those on the coast have not been performed in a long time, and of late even the river dances have become very irregular.

Opyuweg is the name the Yurok apply to any form of major dance, and to that only:  the “brush” dance is umeleyek or worero, the war dance wertikerermer, the shaman's dance remohpo.  The Jumping dance is sometimes called wonikulego' but this is a descriptive term: “they leap up.”  The Karok new year's rites at Katimin and Orleans are named welailek by the Yurok, the one at Amaikiara upuntek, that of the Hupa at Takimitlding uplopu.



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