Stomp Dancing in Historical Sources

fox_stomp 2018 full motion2018 Winter Gathering. Photo by Jonathan Fox.

Soon, Myaamiaki ‘Miami people’ and their friends will gather again for the Miami Nation Winter Gathering. A particular highlight is the large (and annually growing) stomp dance on Saturday night.

Although historically Myaamia people did not regard the stomp dance as sacred or original with them, it certainly has a long history in the community. Miamis learned the leading dance from the Shawnees in the distant past and among other names, call it Šaawanokaanki “the Shawnee Dance.”[1] Some forms have changed—for example, the sources tell us that Myaamia men once used water drums in leading dances, whereas in the current Myaamia context, those dances typically called “stomp” do not feature these portable instruments. And today there are even more diverse tribes nearby—Creeks, Cherokees, and Yuchis intermingle with the old kin communities of Ottawas, Shawnees, Delawares, Potawatomis, and Wyandots. But several historical observations also indicate the long-standing tradition of Myaamia people coming together at night, with friends and family, to circle the fire in the Shawnee Dance.

In 1796, a group of travelers heard a dance beginning near midnight on Bois Blanc Island downstream from Detroit and paddled across the river to witness it. The Irish writer probably describes a mixture of Shawnees, Wyandots, Potawatomis, Ottawas, and Miamis on the island.

The men assembled from different parts of the island, to the number of fifty or sixty, to amuse themselves in their turn. They first walked round the fire in a large circle, closely, one after another, marking time with short steps to the music; the best dancer was put at their head, and gave the step; he was also the principal singer in the circle. After having made one round, the step was altered to a wider one, and they began to stamp with great vehemence upon the ground; and every third or fourth round, making little leaps off the ground with both feet, they turned their faces to the fire and bowed their heads, at the same time going on sideways. At last, having made a dozen or two rounds, towards the end of which each one of them had begun to stamp on the ground with inconceivable fury, but more particularly the principal dancer, they all gave a loud shout at once, and the dance ended.

In another two or three minutes another dance was begun, which ended as soon, and nearly in the same way as the other. There was but little difference in the figures of any of them, and the only material difference in the songs was, that in some of them the dancers, instead of singing the whole of the air, came in simply with responses to the airs sung by the old men. They beckoned to us to join them in their dance, which we immediately did, as it was likely to please them, and we remained on the island with them till two or three o’clock in the morning. There is something inconceivably terrible in the sight of a number of Indians dancing thus round a fire in the depths of thick woods, and the loud shrieks at the end of every dance adds greatly to the horror which their first appearance inspires.

Scarcely a night passed over but what there were dances, similar to those I have described, on the island.[2]

By the 1820s, most Miami adults preferred the Shawnee Dance—what we frequently call stomp dance today—as their favored social soiree.[3] When Miamis and Potawatomis came together with American traders and U.S. treaty commissioners in 1826, they spent their evenings socializing and, of course, dancing. This gathering resulted in treaties between the Miami Nation and United States (and a parallel treaty between the Potawatomis and United States), usually called the Treaty of the Mississinewa. Many years later, one of the secretaries of the U.S. treaty commissioners recalled that time, near what became the town of Peru, Indiana:

We were treated to several native dances, one being on a park carefully cleared east of the Wabash, around which a circular path for dancing was prepared with soft leaves for the moccasins. It being night, the limbs of the trees around were well lighted with candles furnished by our commissioners. In a leading dance a prominent brave brightly painted (as most of the dancers were) whirled into the path, keeping with the music with a rough drum, beating time as he passed around the circle, instantly followed singly behind him by the bright girls, making him thus their favorite. And soon after, as other braves joined the dance, space was left for their sweethearts that chose them as partners to follow them in the dance.[4]

The treaties in the early nineteenth century resulted from, and in turn created, a tumultuous period in Myaamia history. Much like their stomp dancing in the wake of American conquest, it appears that despite the gravity of their daytime negotiations, Myaamia people spent their evenings stomping. In this letter from 1832, held at the Forks of the Wabash council house near Huntington, Indiana, an observer described what he saw:

I have witnessed several of their dances, but can give but a faint description on paper of an exercise which is rendered interesting alone by the peculiar appearance of those who compose the group. One or more fires are kindled at night, and the Indians, dressed in the most gaudy manner, with neatly worked leggings and moccasins, red and blue coats, blankets and fringed hunting shirts, with heavy appendages of bells and silver ornaments, commence a march or dance around the fires, and although the train may be quite small at first they gradually fall in, and from one to two hundred are frequently engaged in one circle. The [women] and men join promiscuously in the dance, and appear to enjoy it with as much zest as do our white gentlefolks at their assembly balls and cotillion parties. Their music consists of a drum composed of a common keg with a skin streached [sic] over one end, and a regular beat is kept up by some of the elder Indians. In addition thereto many of the Indians are constantly engaged in the repetition of a dull monotonous tune or sound, which is occasionally enlivened by a general shout or whoop. They appear to have a strong predeliction [sic] for fine dress and fine horses, and some of them are perfectly loaded with heavy feathers or plumes and silver ornaments. The females have a peculiarly modest appearance, and are dressed in fine scarlet and silks, with many very ingenious and beautiful specimens of ornamental needle work and beads.[5]

Clearly, Myaamia families have long enjoyed evening leading dances with their neighbors, and the tradition continues in this year’s winter gathering in Miami, Oklahoma.

stomp post map.jpg

[1] Charles C. Trowbridge and W. Vernon Kinietz, Meearmeear Traditions (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1938), 59.

[2] Isaac Weld, Travels Through the States of North America and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada 3rd edition (London: 1800) vol. 2: 290-92.

[3] Trowbridge, Meearmeear Traditions, 59.

[4] James M. Ray, in Indianapolis News, June 7, 1878.

[5] A.F. Morrison, in Indiana Democrat, Indianapolis, September 29, 1832. These negotiations did not result in a signed treaty that year, but foreshadowed the Forks of the Wabash Treaty of 1834.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Margaret Moore says:

    So excited to have my granddaughter experience the winter gathering! Love seeing the Miami traditions resurfacing!

  2. Lars Hedeen says:

    VERY interesting. Great work. Thanks !

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