Why We Dance

by George Beaver

For the Haudenosaunee, both social dancing and the older sacred dances are aspects of prayer, as are the songs and chants accompanying the dances. Dancing and singing are inseparable; both are ways to communicate with the Creator. The Creator is pleased when people dance and sing for Him. It is a way to tell the Creator that we are happy and thankful for our good health and for this life He has given us. It is a way of giving thanks beyond mere words. Perhaps dancing to give thanks is older than language.

Sacred Songs and Dances

The Haudenosaunee have embedded these sacred beliefs in traditional ceremonies. Each ritual dance has several sacred songs. Three important sacred ceremonies are the Curing Dances, Sacred Society Dances and Sustenance Dances.

While the Curing and Sacred Society Dances are private, the Sustenance Dance is one of the most prominent Social Dances. Sustenance refers to the foods our Haudenosaunee ancestors gathered and ate over the centuries. The Sustenance Dances include the Corn Dance (Onehe odie:na), the Bean Dance (Osahe da odie:na) and the Squash Dance (Onyohsa odie:na). Corn, beans and squash were planted together in one “hill” and sustained each other: the bean vines climbed up the sturdy corn stalks and the wide squash leaves kept the weeds down and helped keep the “hill” moist after a rain. In this way, each of these three sisters helped each other grow and produce more sustenance for the Haudenosaunee. These three have always been important to our diet.

The Social Dances are uniquely ours. Although many of the 500 North American indigenous nations have not survived, “Indian” reserves or reservations hold powwows each summer. These celebrations have a proud history among many, but not all, First Nations. For example, most Northwest Coastal peoples feast, give speeches, honour people, sing and dance at community potlatches rather than the powwow, and the Haudenosaunee Social Dances as well are not suitable for powwows except as demonstration dances.

Longhouses

The Haudenosaunee, or Longhouse People, once lived in long bark houses. In the Mohawk Valley, south of Lake Ontario, anthropologists have unearthed the remains of a longhouse that was over 200 feet long. Longhouses were like apartment buildings with the living quarters built end to end.

We no longer live in Longhouses, so now the Haudenosaunee use shorter buildings. We still call these new buildings longhouses and use them as gathering places for traditional socials and various sacred ceremonies throughout the year. Non-traditional dances, such as square dancing, take place elsewhere.

Social Dancing

On a snowy evening in December 2005, I attended a social at Six Nations Polytechnic, east of Ohsweken, Ontario.

These Six Nations Iroquois events include social dancing and traditional foods, such as corn soup. In Iroquoian culture, singing, drumming, and the steady clatter of rattles always accompany Social Dances.

The people organized this social to seek support for young people who were protesting to stop the town of Caledonia from expanding into Six Nations territory. The youth asked everyone at the social to sign their petition and support their protest in Caledonia the next day.

As yet, no one has settled Six Nations land claims in the Haldimand housing tract. Six months later, in May 2006, non-Native opponents turned violent, but the Confederacy has kept its resolve.

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