To the Creeks, Cherokees and other Southeastern Indians, the Stomp Dance is affiliated with the Green Corn Ceremony.
The term “Stomp Dance” is an English term which refers to the ‘shuffle and stomp’ movements of the dance. In the native Muskogee language the dance is called Opvnkv Haco, which can mean ‘drunken,’ ‘crazy,’ or ‘inspirited’ dance. This usually refers to the exciting, yet meditative effect the Dance and the medicine have on the participants.
The Stomp Dance Grounds
The Stomp Dance Grounds contain an elevated square platform with the flat edges of the square facing the cardinal directions. Arbors are constructed upon the flat edges of the square in which the men sit facing one of the four directions. This is formally referred to as the Square Ground, which is incircled by a ring-mound of earth. In the center of this is the ceremonial fire, which is referred to by many names including ‘Grandfather’ fire. Ceremonially, this fire is the focus of the songs and prayers of the people and is considered to be a living sacred being.
The sacred fire is kept burning constantly which is built by the fire keeper and his assistant. A firekeeper and the assistant begin early in the day at dawn, stoking the burning embers into a large fire for the dance.
The fire is very sacred to traditional Cherokees. It is built at the bottom of a pit below the ground, and burns constantly. It is believed by traditional Cherokees that soon after creation of the Cherokee people, the Creator left his throne in Heaven and visited the earth. He chose four Cherokee men who were strong, healthy, good and true, and believed with all of their heart in the Creator. They were each given a name: Red, Blue, Black and Yellow.
Each was given a wooden stick that was very straight, and was told to place one end of the stick on a surface that would not burn. He said to place the other end in their hands, and start this material that would not burn to magically burn. . . by giving the sticks a circular, rotating motion. When this was done, and all the sticks were burning, they were told to go to the center of the cross, and there the four would start one singular fire. This fire would burn for all time, and be the Sacred Fire. The fire was started with the instructions and help of the Creator.
The Sacred Fire has been held since that time by the Cherokee, and is kept alive by the Chief, Assistant Chief, Firekeeper, and Assistant Firekeepers of the Stomp Ground.
Outside of the circle of earth, surrounding the Square Ground are the community’s seven arbors. These are made from large poles with brush for the roofs. Each arbor is reserved for one of the seven clans. Seats are placed between the arbors for visitors. The dance ceremony cannot begin unless each clan is represented.
Beyond the arbors are the clan-houses. These houses are casually referred to as ‘camps’ and depending on the traditional level and financial situation of the community may be relatively nice cottages, shanty’s or in between.
Events leading up to the actual performance of the Stomp Dance
A-ne-jo-di, (the Stickball game) is played in the afternoon. This is a pre-requisite to performing the actual Stomp dance. In other venues, Anejodi may be played without a Stomp Dance following, but the Stomp Dance is never performed without a preceding game of Stickball.
Prior to the dance, a dinner is prepared in the family camps. Preparation of the food is ongoing throughout the day. Throughout the night guests that arrive are welcomed to help eat up the leftovers. The foods eaten at Stomp Dances are typical southern delicacies such as corn bread, mashed potatoes as well as certain specialized Indian dishes such as sofkee, grape dumplings, fried hominy, frybread, all kinds of pies, cakes, homemade biscuits, salad, ice tea, coffee, kool aid, chicken, and if in season, kanuchi, wild onions with eggs, bean bread and numerous other traditional dishes.
Stomp Dance Protocol
At sundown, the sermons continue. The Chief brings out the traditional pipe, and fills it with tobacco. He lights it with a coal from the Sacred Fire, and takes seven puffs. The Medicine Man from each clan, beginning with the Aniwaya, the Wolf clan, takes seven puffs from the pipe and passes it on.
The chief, medicine men and elders hold a meeting and then issue the call for the first dance, then the second call. The first dance is by invitation, tribal elders, elders, medicine men and clan heads.
The members gather to visit and dance until sunrise. Each individual ground has it’s own schedule for the dances.
The dance circle is a holy place to worship God. Like a traditional anglo church, it should be respected. There are usually grounds post signs requesting no rowdiness, liquor, and general respect. Children should not be allowed to run and play within the circle. It is a sign of disprespect to take a shortcut across the circle. Spectators are expected to walk around the perimeter of the dance circle to get to the other side.
Additional ceremonies may be held prior to, or between rounds of a stomp dance. Two major ceremonies are held at the Redbird Smith Ground, one commemorating the birth of Rebdird Smith, and the other expresses appreciation to the Creator for a bountiful harvest.
Stomp Dance participants include a leader, assistants, and one or more female shell shakers who wear leg rattles traditionally made out of turtle shells filled with pebbles. Some wear shakers made from small milk cans. The shakers provide rhythmic accompaniment while dancing around the fire, and a dance cannot begin without the shakers.
A series of wampum belts serve to record and ‘read’ the traditional beliefs and stories. The belts are very old, and are made of wampum beads sewn together with a form of seaweed from old Mexico. The wampum belts are shown only on very sacred occassions. The history of the belts relate that many years ago, the tribe was preparing to go to war.
The medicine men foresaw which would survive, and cut the original wampum belt into seven pieces. After the war, the belts were scattered, and the last one was recovered by Redbird Smith in the very early 1900’s.
A traditional Stomp Dance grounds is often headed by a male elder. The Meko is the primary ceremonial authority. The Meko is assisted by his second in charge called a Heniha, the chief medicine man called a Hillis Hiya and speaker called Meko Tvlvswv or Meko’s tongue/speaker.
It is important to note that Meko’s are not supposed to publically address the entire grounds and as such that responsibility falls often on Meko Tvlvswsv. A traditional stomp grounds also employs four Tvstvnvkes (warchiefs/generals/police), four head ladies and four alternate head ladies.
The chief speaker calls the people to the dance for each round in the Native language. Every dance must have at least one woman to carry the rhythm.
Order of the Stomp Dance
The order of the dancers is male-female-male-female in a continuous spiral or circle with young children and the odd numbers trailing at the end. The song is led by a lead man who has developed his own song on the mulitude of variations of stomp dance songs. The songs are typically performed in call and response form. The dancers circle the fire in counter-clockwise direction with slow, stomping steps set to the rhythm created by the women stomping with their shell shakers.
As the dance progresses, as many as several hundred people may join the circle. The dance continues until at least four rounds or four songs are completed by the dance leader. At this point, the dance concludes until the next leader is called out to sing. There is normally a 2-5 minute break between leaders.
Participants who are making a religious commitment of the ceremony will begin fasting after midnight and “touch medicine” at four different times over night. The medicine is made from specific roots and plants which have been ceremonially gathered by selected “medicine helpers” and prepared by the Hillis Hiya at dawn of the morning of the Dance. This medicine is intended for the physical and spiritual benefit of the members of the dance at the ceremonial ground.
The dance frequently continues throughout the entire night until dawn of the next day. The Stomp Dance is not meant to be a grueling and physically challenging event but almost every participant on the grounds will dance most of the night.
The Stomp Dance is related to the ancient dances
The Stomp Dance is related to the ancient dances of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, sometimes referred to as the Southern Cult.
During the Stomp Dance, at various rounds in the dance, one of the ancient Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni dances called the Running Dance does emerge. In this variation, the dancers do not form a spiral into the water, but form a snaking, sinuous line of people that haphazardly circles the fire.
This is a variation of a more traditional social dance performed during the Green Corn Ceremony and is the only element of the Stomp Dance that resembles the ancient running dance, which was the final social dance performed during a traditional Green Corn ceremony.
During the off season Stomp Dances are performed indoors to avoid the winter cold. Some societies incorporate Stomp Dance into their pow-wow or cultural reinactment groups and perform them only as secular expressions of Native American tradition.
Each ground has its own unique protocol and differences, but the general worship is similar with the same intention. The Stokes grounds are one of the most popular for the performance of this sacred dance. At the New Echota grounds near the heritage center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, a more public atmosphere has been created, and non-tribal members are allowed to attend, but at some grounds this is a religious celebration not open to the general public.
Traditional Stomp Dance Clothing
The dress of most Stomp Dancers is casual but nice. Most Stomp Dancers keep special attire for ceremonial occasions, commonly called regalia by whites, but the physical nature of the dance and outdoor conditions of the dance make comfort more important than flair. Many native people prefer to call their dance clothing their “outfit,” and don’t really like the word “regalia,” which was introduced by anglos. If you really want to offend them, call it a “costume.”
Women wear skirts and blouses that usually incorporate traditional patterns. The women wear turtle shell shakers, or shackles on both legs (typically 13 or less on each leg). The shakers are hollowed out shells which have holes drilled in them and are filled with rocks, shot, soda can lids or anythig else that will make them rattle.
The Traditional Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee shell shakers are made of terrapin or box-turtle shells. Following the Trail of Tears terrapin shells were harder to come by and the impoverished Indians had to resort to using condensed milk cans instead. This tradition continues today and most women start out with a set of “cans” before moving up to having their own set of shells.
The men wear blue jeans or slacks and hats which are usually cowboy or ballcap styles, usually with a single eagle, hawk or crane feather in the hat band. The ribbon shirt is the standard ceremonial attire for both men and women, which consists of a loose-fitted