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Impearls: HIC 3.03: The dances of Weitspus

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

The dances of Weitspus   by A. L. Kroeber

The Deerskin dance at Weitspus comes in autumn, and is held on a little terrace facing the village (fig. 2 2).  It lasts 12 to 16 days, according to the number of visitors present, their requests, and the quantity of treasures they bring.  There is a short dance late each morning, another before sunset.  By the last day the evening dance has grown to occupy most of the afternoon.  Wahsekw, Loolego, Pekwututl, and Weitspus equipped the competing parties of dancers in the old days.  The concluding dance was formerly made in two large canoes that crossed the river from Pekwututl to Weitspus.

The Jumping dance at Weitspus lasts two days.  The formula reciter, followed by a girl assistant or wood gatherer, prays and makes offering, beginning early in the morning at three rocks or bushes in the village, then at five on the way up the mountain Kewet, at a ninth spot near the summit, at a tenth on top, which subsequently serves as a dressing place, and at an eleventh, under a venerated cedar, where a fire is kindled and the dances of the remainder of the afternoon and next day are held.  The people follow him up at respectful distance, breakfastless.  There is no dancing in the village.  At the fourth to eighth halts, small groups of men and boys dance in line to three songs.  At the ninth and tenth stops, a larger number of men dance in a circle; under the sacred tree they dance to three songs in a circle and then to three in line.  All the way up, the older people occasionally weep as they think of their dead of long ago who used to come with them to these cherished spots; and each man's and woman's wish is to be similarly remembered after he or she is gone.  When the tree is finally reached and the dance reaches its height, there is an outburst of wailing: the song and lamentations, the brilliance of the ornaments, and the streaming tears, make an impressive scene.  Then everyone, hungry and tired, goes to eat and relax amid merriment.

In the afternoon the village parties begin to dance against each other, and visitors from a distance arrive.  Wahsekw has made its own way up the mountain and now endeavors to surpass Weitspus.  As it grows dark the dancing ends, and the people camp for the night.

The next day dancing is resumed.  The line grows in length, more and more of the gleaming headbands are produced, until in the afternoon the ceremony comes to a magnificent climax of half an hour with hundreds of spectators weeping aloud.  Then all pack up and journey well satisfied back to Weitspus.

Here is a case of Indian allegation versus action.

The Deerskin dance at Weitspus is usually stated to continue from 12 to 16 days.  In 1901 it commenced on September 3 and ended 18 days later, on September 20, in a great quarrel.  Too many old men had saved out their most precious obsidians for the final appearance at the end of the afternoon, no one would withdraw, the altercation soon developed recriminations, old jealousies were awakened, all the men present took sides and participated in the argument, and the end was that everyone wrapped up his regalia and went away.  Thus the climax of the dance never came off.  The Jumping dance was announced for two days later, and most of the visitors went home to stow away their deerskin ornaments and bring those for the Jumping dance — ostensibly.  Actually most of them were much embittered, and there was a general feeling that the Jumping dance would not be held.  On September 21 it rained, and the old man who knew the sacred formula for both dances announced that the weather would prevent the dance.  The Indian opinion was that he was still angry.  He was a poor man, but had become involved in the quarrel.

On September 26 an American visitor attempted to get the dance under way, but the old man refused to take part “because a moon had now gone by since the Deerskin dance begun.”  Really only 24 days had elapsed.  On September 30 he alleged the same reason with more accuracy; if it rained the following day the dance would have to be definitely omitted for the year, because of the interval of a moon.  The American persisted, however, and the old formula speaker remaining obdurate, another man who had several times assisted him volunteered to act.  He did not know the entire formula, he admitted, but enough of the essential parts to answer.  He fixed the payment due him at $4 in American money.  This was regarded by the Indians as a reasonable amount, but no one wished to contribute now.  Some tentative pledges of small amount were made, however, and by dint of persistent dunning and soliciting, with an addition by himself, the interested outsider after several days succeeded in bringing together the whole of the stipulated sum.  As soon as this was handed to the assistant, the native attitude changed to one of interest.  The new formula reciter began his preparation.  At once his chief decided to officiate in person, and claimed the fee.  Part of this having been already spent by the substitute at the trader's store for flour and a shirt, the old man accepted the balance and next morning was at his task.  The dancers followed him, and about noon, when the assemblage reached the summit, all differences seemed to have been forgotten and the ceremony developed undisturbed to the end of the next day.

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