Keeping the Smoke Dance alive

Story, Photos and Video By Alicia Graef
Akwesasne, New York (NFIC) 9-08

The circle of children under a summer sky behind Akwesasne Museum’s Cultural Center had learned the steps. Their feet moved across the lawn to the rhythm of the Old Moccasin Dance as the singer beat a water drum from beneath a tree.

“It’s all in a pattern, it repeats itself,” said Cheyanne Doxtador, Oneida, Bear Clan. “If you want to compete later on as a Smoke Dancer, they’ll expect you to know the social dances.”

Doxtador and Frank Phillips, Mohawk, Wolf Clan, had been teaching about 20 youth all week in a program that encompassed the origins of dances preparing them to carry on the Smoke Dance. This day, the parents would come to watch and the children dressed in their traditional clothing.

Phillips led a line of boys and the girls joined the boys two by two. When the beat changed, the boys moved to the outside. The beat changed again and the girls went around the boys back to partnering with another girl.

The singer put down the water drum and went into a Stick Dance, originally called the Delaware Skin Dance.

“Who leads this dance?” Doxtador asked.

The children answered with “the men lead.” Women don’t go in to dance before all the men are in the circle.

“When I say ‘yo’ you’ll reply ‘hee-yo’ with a lot of energy!” said the singer, Skahendowaneh (Big Field) Swamp, Wolf Clan, Mohawk.

The boys called back to Swamp as the circle moved counter-clockwise.

“When you go into a pow wow, you’ll listen for the beats and know which dance it is,” said Doxtador.

The girls came out of the circle when they heard the beat slow to the War Dance.

 3-year-old Shakorenna’:wis Doxtador-Swamp

Lessons at the Cultural Center began for youth a few summers ago. Some of the children had attended in previous years. For others, this was the first.

“With our tradition, it’s absorbed from birth,” said Doxtador. “They hear it, see it, then participate.”

Some of the children don’t get the experience as a daily life, so this gives them a chance to see it and participate in it, she said. They will also see the subtle differences in the other five nations as they travel through their Confederacy.

The Haudenosaunee took dances from their social dances as dance competitions expanded and there came a need for more songs. Their Smoke Dance evolved from the war dance within their Thunder Ceremony.

“When I think of the war dance, it’s not necessarily going out against other people,” said Swamp. “The duties are to the Thunder Beings in our Thanksgiving Address. I teach the kids to be aware of the meanings. They’ve got war clubs swinging, or they’re looking for a bear. When I do it, I grab arrows and shoot at the ground.”

The Smoke Dance is presented in a different style by boys and another by girls. Typically, boys do a fast Smoke Dance and a warrior dance. Girls do a fast Smoke Dance and the Womans Dance.

All move to the rhythm of the singer.

“There’s a lot more resources because of technology,” said Doxtador. “We were able to give them information about the origins and show them the dances.”

The youth had watched three videos of Smoke Dancers and were given CD’s containing information on the origins of the social dances.

“We’re teaching the kids to have respect and keep them informed,” said Swamp. “This is a good opportunity for the kids and for us, who live the culture, to pass it to them.”

Akwesasne Dance Lessons

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