Why We Dance

By Elaine Keillor

The Algonquins’ basic economy combined hunting, gathering, and agricultural activities. Each activity has used songs and sometimes dances. The Elders who have passed along the culture of long ago would say that these songs and dances, if the people performed them properly, would assure success.

Crops, for example, might need more rainfall, so an esteemed medicine person would perform a special dance-song. One song, the Rain-man’s Dance, dates back more than a century to Beaver Woman of Oga.  The dance took place around the fire (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B325 F.4).

White Caribou Woman sang this song in 1948 to Gathering Flower Woman. She said it was very powerful: “When the summer was dry, [they] would take pieces of THUNDER-WOOD of a tree struck by lightning and build a fire. They would dance for half of the night, and sing around the fire, and then the rain would fall” (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B325 F.4).

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Hear Rain Man Song

 

Growing Corn

The southernmost Algonquin, on the northern fringe of where corn could grow, discovered a way to encourage the young plants. They would germinate the kernels first in a bag that contained clay; then they would plant the seedlings which would then take off on their own.

When harvest time came, the Algonquin would build a huge bonfire, then hold hands and dance around it. Periodically they would throw ears of corn into the fire as they sang “Put it there.” After the corn had cooked, everyone would take part in the feast (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B325 F.5).

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Hear Corn Dance Song

 

The Algonquins have always dried corn to use all year long. Sun-Woman, Gaultier said, sat by her pikogan grinding corn in a stone mortar made from hollowed stone. She pounded the kernels with a corn-stone to make flour. While she did this, Sun Woman would sing all the time (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B325 F.1).

Hunting

In the Algonquin area, the people have long hunted moose, rabbits, beaver and deer, among others. Algonquin stories have helped people to hunt wisely:

“Once there were two hunters who went to hunt for moose. On their way, they met with two moose, but the moose on hearing the tread of feet fled far into the bush, so each hunter went a different direction. They went too far from camp and were separated from each other. [Each] hunter, after having shot a moose and not having taken their flints along to light their way through the bush, chose a different place to spend the night.

“One of the hunters found a hollow log, so he crept inside the log and fell fast asleep. The other hunter, being none too wise, started to skin the moose he had shot. He rolled himself inside of the untanned green-hide and went to sleep. The hide froze tight to him and he could not get up anymore.

“Two days later, a hunter chanced to pass by. He found his friend frozen stiff inside of the hide.  ‘One must never sleep inside of an untanned moose or deer-hide or any green-hide’ said Na-da-we-si, Iroquois-bird” (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B326 F.4).

Sometimes, a Moose-Dance Song would accompany this story. Gaultier wrote the tune on a piece of birch-bark. She said the Algonquin would whistle or sing to syllables the tune accompanied by a drum. Each time the song repeated, the singers would raise the pitch a half-tone higher (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B326 F.4).

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Hear Moose Dance Song

 

Hunting for Deer

When the Algonquins had gone out to hunt deer, sometimes a loon or duck would cry plaintively to notify the hunter that the deer were close by. The Algonquins had a song for that. They would make the deer’s hooves into a rattle to accompany the song. One such rattle would consist of a cedar hoop made with twigs and cedar bark. Deer hooves would adorn it and make a soft jingling sound, particularly when the people would perform the Deer Dance-Song.

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Hear Deer Dance Song

 

In late November, the deer would appear as ghosts to dance around the trees. The Algonquin children and their parents would go to the woods to dance. They played games to call the deer using the rattles. They would sing one octave above the normal voice.  The song would use a trembling tone.  The singer would hold a hand in front of the mouth and tap slightly on the lips to give a quivering sound (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B326 F.5).

The performers would imitate the deer’s footsteps in this dance, using body movements to separate the brush and the trees’ lower limbs while entering the woods in a serpentine line (Personal communication, 2006: Jacob Wawatie).

Hunting for Rabbit

A rabbit hunter and his family would gain good fortune if they would sing the Rabbit Song and dance in a circle. Later, when they returned, they would sing and dance around the rabbits that had given themselves to feed the family.

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Hear Rabbit Dance Song

 

The Algonquins have used this song for different purposes. Sometimes the song had a quick tempo and one or more personal hand-held drums would accompany it. But the same tune would be a lullaby when the tempo was slower and no drums were used.

This soft, slow song represented Sun Woman singing to her child and asking about the rabbit, Wabo: “Mother is going to hunt the rabbit; go to sleep my little one. The Rabbit sleeps all day and hunts at night. Sleep Maa- Ka- De- Mik- Ni- Ni (Black Beaver-Boy)” (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B326 F.4).

 

Hear Rabbit Song Lullaby

 

Thus, the food and hunting dances have always played a central role in the lives of the Algonquin. Food, as the Creator’s gift, has provided the Algonquin people with reasons to dance.

This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
Native Dance