The gourd dance and gourd dance rattles

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The Gourd Dance is not an intertribal or competition “Pow Wow Style” of dance. Gourd Dances are held regularly by several groups especially in Oklahoma. Today the dance is being done at some Pow Wows before, after, and between intertribal dancing.

Kiowa Gourd Dancers

Kiowa Gourd Dancers

Kiowa Gourd Dancers

The origin of the Gourd Dance is somewhat clouded, but I believe that most people agree that it can be credited to the Kiowa and the Comanche, both tribes of the southern plains.

Origin of the Kiowa Gourd Dance

The origin of this dance, as I have heard it, can be contributed to the legend of the Red Wolf. That is why still to this day at the end of a Gourd Dance song the dancers and singers give out the cry of the Red Wolf.

A Kiowa warrior, tired and separated from his war party, was trying to find his way back to his village. The warrior heard a strange and melodic sound coming from over a rise. He slowly went to the top and peered over to see Red Wolf down at the bottom.

Red Wolf was bouncing up and down on his haunches. He had a fan in his left hand and a rattle in his right. He was singing songs and melodies that were stirring the spirit of the warrior.

The warrior listened to the songs and melodies throughout the rest of the day and night. At the end of each song the Red Wolf would raise his rattle to the sky and vigorously shake it and let out a howl.

At day break the Red Wolf stopped and looked up to the Warrior. Red Wolf called to the Warrior and told him that these songs were a gift to his people for their bravery in battle. He was to take these songs back to the people.

If the people were true to their culture and did things in a good way they would have these songs to sing and this dance to use to honor their Warriors for their bravery and deeds in battle.

The dance in the Kiowa Language is called “Ti-ah pi-ah” which means “ready to go, ready to die.” The Kiowa Gourd Dance was once part of the Kiowa Sun Dance ceremony.

Several other tribes historically held Gourd Dances including the Ponca, Kiowa, Comanche and Cheyenne.

Resurgence of the Gourd Dance

Beginning in 1890 the United States government began to actively enforce bans on Kiowa cultural ceremonials and the Gourd Dance was out of normal practice by the late 1930s.

In 1957 the Kiowa Director for the American Indian Exposition, Fred Tsoodle, called upon singers Bill Koomsa and William Tanedooah who remembered the Gourd Dance songs. He also called Clyde Ahtape, Harry Hall Zotigh, Fred Botone, Oliver Tanedooah, and Abel Big Bow in Kiowa Gourd Dance dress to dance to the songs for a special tribal presentation at that year’s festivities.

Two years later, inspired by the presentation, several Kiowa men reorganized the Kiowa Gourd Dance Society and formally established the organization on January 30, 1957 and voted on the name “Kiowa Gourd Dance.”

Within the next decade the organization split into three unrelated branches: the establishing group (now called Kiowa Gourd Clan), Tiah-Piah Society of Oklahoma (established in 1962), and the Tia-piah Society of Carnegie (now known as the Kiowa TiaPiah Society).

All three societies hold their annual ceremonials on and around July 4, due to the Gourd Dance at one time being a part of the Sun Dance ceremonials usually held in mid-summer.

Gourd dances are also performed as “specials” at many pow wows across the Southwest.

The Gourd Dance has often been mistaken for a “veteran’s dance.” However, leaders of all three of the earliest Kiowa-established gourd dance organizations agree that this is not a requirement to become a member of the societies. 

The Kiowa consider this dance to be theirs, since it was given to them by “Red Wolf.”

It has spread to many other tribes and societies, most of which do not have the blessing of the Kiowa Elders. Some gourd societies do not distinguish race as a criterion, and even non-Indians can and are inducted into their gourd societies.

The Kiowa Gourd Dance society, however, only inducts Indians of half blood or more.

Many participants may be older men, and the dance is less energetic and less physically demanding than most pow-wow dances.

Some of the Gourd Dances that are held go on all afternoon and on into the evening when it finally cools off enough so that more energetic Intertribal dances can begin.

Some Tribal dances feature only Gourd Dancing.

Traditional Gourd Dance Attire

Traditionally dressed gourd dancers wear buckskin leggings and a long, red breechcloth. Today these are accompanied with a long sleeved shirt, bolo tie or tie.A sash is tied around the waist with fringed ends.

The dancers also wear a gourd blanket over their shoulders. The blanket is made of red and blue wool. This accessory represents night and day. Some dancers change the blanket to rest over the heart red during the day and blue after dark.

A bandoleer made from skunk berry (Ka-hole) and silver beads, or mescal beans may be worn across the chest from one shoulder to below the waist. It is fastened on the left shoulder is draped across the heart.

The red skunk berry bandolier was added as a memorial tribute to a battle fought with Cheyenne warriors. The aftermath left the land covered with red blood and is represented by the red skunk berries.

A handkerchief bundle of Indian perfume, gathered from the foothills, is tied to the back of the bandolier.

Head attire can include hair wrapped with otter wraps, a roach or otter cap.

Following Kiowa protocol, it is considered disrespectful to wear ball caps, T-shirts, cowboy hats or boots while participating in this dance. The four Kiowa headsman of this society urge its members to dress with dignity and discretion.

Still, it is common to see men in cowboy boots and cowboy hats while dancing this dance.

The Gourd Dance

The Gourd Dance is traditonally a dance for men because it honors the warrior, but it also honors men of wisdom. Women sometimes dance behind the men’s circle, but women don’t usually handle the gourd rattles or sing the songs or participate directly.

The gourd rattle is held in the right hand and and an eagle (sometimes turkey) feather fan is held in the left hand.

The gourd dances are danced primarily by warriors or veterans, and honored older men, but some young men are learning the dance and songs. One must be invited by a Gourd Dance Society to learn the dance and songs. The songs sung during a gourd dance are special songs that are sacred. 

During the song the dancers move around the circle slowly dancing and shaking their gourds.

As the song changes to a louder, stronger beat, the dancers stop in place and lift their heels up as they hold their rattles to the sky and shake the gourds harder. At this point, the dancers will dance in place.

When it changes to softer beats the dancers will dance a short distance from their spots.

Typically, the dance begins in the afternoon, and the opening song (referred to as a “Calling Song”) is sung first. The head singer will determine how many songs are sung in a set. Usually the slower paced songs are sung in the beginning and progressively faster songs are sung as the gourd dance progresses. When the gourd dance draws to a close, a fast song is usually the last to be performed, but it is not the “official” closing song.

Sometimes buffalo songs will be sung after that last gourd dance song.

The Gourd Dance Rattles

The Gourd is either a real gourd, or a stainless steel salt shaker or an evaporated milk can. They are decorated with leather, beads, string, feathers, and horsehair.

The rattle most commonly used in the gourd dance is made from a bell gourd. The gourds are picked from the vine in the fall and usually stored over the winter in a warm, dry place and allowed to dry and cure without cleaning. When the gourd seeds rattle, the gourd is dry and ready to use.

This is a bit trickier than it sounds. If you don’t store them properly, your gourds will rot. If it is too hot they may crack. If they freeze, they may crack. If they have mold or imperfections, or if it is too cold or damp, or they don’t have good air circulation on all sides, they may rot. If they are over dried, they will be brittle and tend to crack when you try to work with them.

Many people skip this step and just buy a gourd from someone else. They are readily available on the internet. You can buy them cleaned or uncleaned. It is a bit of work to clean the gourd, so it can be worthwhile to pay a few dollars more for one that is already cleaned and dry. You will still have to clean out the inside.

Gourd shells have both a thin outer skin and a pithy center that should be removed in order to make them suitable for use as a gourd rattle. 

First, you scrape off the “skin” (outer husk) of a raw gourd. If you buy cleaned gourds, this will have been done for you, but there still may be imperfections. If your gourd still needs cleaned and skinned, soak it briefly in hot water and mild dish soap,then scrub off any dirt, mold stains, skin, bumps and imperfections.

Usually steel wool, or the common pot scratcher you probably have in  your kitchen sink will work for this. Use the dull side of a butter knife to peel off any mold-stained skin still remaining after the scrubbing.

After you have scrubbed off all the mold stains and husk you can get off, you might want to go over it with  a rougher grit sand paper or foam block and sand off any bumps or imperfections you don’t want. Then lightly sand with a piece of fine grit sand paper to smooth everything out.

The center of the gourd will contain the seeds and a pithy sponge like substance. This must be removed.

If the bottom of the gourd has not been cut off, do this now and remove the seeds and pyth. A coping saw with a fine blade or hacksaw works well for this. Leave about an inch of the gourd neck attached to the bell. You may want to save some of the seeds.

Peyote Gourd Rattles

Peyote Gourd Rattles

A small spoon, like a grapefruit spoon or a baby spoon, with the edges filed sharp works good to clean out the gourd. You can also take a narrow flat file with a pointy end and move it around in the gourd to break the pyth into smaller chunks that will fit through the gourd neck. But be careful not to press too hard, or you will crack the gourd.

Sometimes you can get hold of a stubborn piece of pyth with tweazers or a pair of meat tongs or stab it with one blade of a pair of scissors.

Another tool often used is a 30 penny nail with the end bent in an L shape, or a straightened coat hanger or even chopsticks. Use whatever  you have that will fit through the gourd neck and is sharp enough to scrape and dislodge the pyth and seeds. The cleaner you get the inside of the gourd, the better your instrument will sound.

When you have the inside as clean as you can get it, make a bleach solution with water of 1:8 ration, (one part bleach to 8 parts of water,)  to kill off any remaining mold spores or other bacteria that potentially can make you sick or destroy and decompose your gourd.

You are going to dip and soak the gourd just a minute or two, then shake out as much water as  you can, gently pat dry with a towel and then let it air dry overnight or until thoroughly dry.

Some people varnish the inside of the gourd with a small paintbrush, others don’t bother.

Drill the top center of the gourd with a 7/32″ (or smaller) bit. Use an awl to make an initial guide impression so that the drilled hole will be perfectly centered and the gourd will be less likely to crack.

It is better to make a hole a little smaller than the diameter of the stick where the top of the gourd will actually rest. The hole probably will enlarge slightly as you pull it on and off the stick while checking for fit. Use a small rattail file to carefully and gradually enlarge the hole through trial and error to its finished size. Never force the gourd, as it probably will crack.

The gourd may be left with its natural finish, but at this point, you may want to further decorate the gourd. You could:

  • Boil it in Rit dye. (Over-cooking will cause the gourd to turn to mush, so don’t leave it in the dye too long.)
  • Soak in pokeberry juice, or mullberry (with an acid mordant).
  • Use leather dye, then apply a clear leather finish solution to impart a polish.
  • Use shoe polish. When buffed, this gives a nice polished sheen.
  • Use a wood burning tool to decorate with images.
  • Paint the gourd with acrylic or oil paints.
  • Polish it with beeswax.
  • After I get the color I want, I like to finish it off with several coats of polyurethane to make it shine and be more durable.

The gourd can also be baked to darken the color and to give it a “brighter” sound. However, baking makes them brittle, which means they are more likely to crack, so if you choose to do this, it must be done SLOWLY and carefully.

  • The hole must be drilled in the top of the gourd before baking.
  • Set the gourd on a grill in the oven. If several are being prepared, space them so that air can move around them.
  • Raise the temperature only to a maximum of 225-250 degrees until they begin to smell like roasting peanuts.
  • Carefully monitor the gourds during heating and remove them when the desired color is achieved. Desirable colors range from light buckskin to dark brown.  Keep in mind: the darker the color, the more brittle the gourd becomes.

 Options to achieve an “antique” look:

  • Stain white horsehair using strong tea or coffee.
  • Stain the gourd with Old English brand dark furniture polish.
  • Use dark red or yellow horsehair for the top tassel.

Traditionally the handle is beaded with small seed beads in a gourd stitch, also knows as peyote stitch, since this rattle is also used in Peyote ceremonies within the Native American Church. You can wrap the parts of the handle that aren’t beaded with leather, or leave the stick bare or stain it or carve it.

For the handle, a dowel makes a nice straight handle for easy beading. Or you can find your own branch or root, if you want to add some extra character. Traditionally, willow branches or cottonwood roots were used for the handle.

White buckskin is traditionally used to wrap the handle and to add long fringes on the bottom of the handle. Sometimes the fringes are twisted to give them a fancier look. You can add a few larger beads to the fringes, if you want.

A horse hair tassel is tied onto the top of the rattle where the stick comes out the top of the gourd. A couple inches of the stick are usually left sticking out of the top and beaded, and the horse hair tassel is tied to the tip.

Rattles can be filled with the traditional corn and bean mixture which produces a nice cadence. I use popcorn for the corn and dried beans of any kind. I try to mix bigger and smaller seeds for the best sound.  

If you choose seed beads, the sound is softer and gentle, more like a swoosh, swoosh.  Shells make a nice sound too, almost like bells tinkling. A couple tablespoons of clean sand added to corn and beans makes a nice woosh on the backbeat.

You can add a few small protection stones such as turquoise, or clear quartz crystal to repel negative energy. Each rattle I make is usually for a particular person, and I try to keep in mind what might be a powerful totem for that person or have meaning for them.

Before you seal it up, hold your hand over the bottom hole and shake it a few times to see how it sounds, and adjust as needed. You make need more seeds of a particular size or have too many and need to take some out. Be careful when you are gluing the handle not to get your seeds or stones stuck in the glue.

The top hole in the gourd should fit tightly around the handle. Secure it with some super glue or epoxy glue. The bottom hole in the gourd will probably be bigger than your handle. You can plug this with a tight fitting cork sealed with glue, then drill a hole through the cork to fit your handle, and then glue the handle into the cork.

If your handle fits tightly enough, you might just be able to fill the gap with glue. Some people use car bondo, but if you use that, be sure to do it in a well ventilated place, because it has toxic fumes.

Metal Shaker Rattles

Metal Shaker Rattle used in the Gourd Dance

Metal Shaker Rattle used in the Gourd Dance

In the old days, when people on the reservation didn’t have access to gourds, they made their rattles out of aluminum salt and pepper shakers or evaporated milk cans. 

Most of the salt and pepper shakers on the market today are much too large for gourd rattles.

But replicas that are the right size are available, and are also popular. These are just like the old ones with screw-on lids, except there are no salt and pepper holes in them.

They are about 3″ tall and 2″ in diameter, which is the perfect size for gourd dance rattles.

The metal rattles are often preferred by Kiowa Gourd Clan members for Gourd Dances, because the Bell Gourd Rattles are also associated with the Native American Church’s Peyote Ceremonies, and not all native americans belong to that church.