Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Continuing Native American Heritage Month--"At the Stomp Dance"

"Contemporary Stomp Dance" by Marcine Quenzler
On the last day of Native American Heritage Month, I said I wanted to extend it at least to the end of the year, since it was the only time mainstream America paid any attention to or acknowledged that there were still Natives living in this contemporary world beside them, that we weren't just historical and extinct. That last may just be wishful thinking on some parts, since we are so inconvenient as reminders of the results of a history of genocide and ethnic cleansing that mainstream America chooses to forget.

Today's poem is about the stomp dance, which is the Cherokee equivalent of
church services--never forgetting that many Cherokee can be and are active in both traditional Cherokee ceremonies and Christian church services. I wrote this poem based on the stomp dances of my childhood down in Oklahoma. In it, the women all use shell shakers made of turtle shells. These were and are treasured heirlooms, handed down many generations through the line of female ancestors. Today, women are much more likely to use tin can shell shakers as more environmentally sustainable. The original
turtle shells were harvested when turtles were in great abundance and the turtles were eaten by the family before the shells were cleaned and used in ceremony and then handed down for generations. As the environment has changed and turtles become less abundant due to habitat loss and death by automobile, the Cherokee have adapted, not wanting to hunt them into endangered status.

Since I have lived away from the Cherokee Nation in adulthood, I have seldom had an opportunity to attend a stomp dance. When I do, they are not as elaborate as those of my childhood, usually no longer including the stickball games that used to accompany those of my childhood. However, the Cherokee stomp dance is still going strong in all the aspects of ceremony that make it so important. There is still the food, the focus on clans, the sacred fire, the men handing down the songs through the generations, the women with their shell shakers setting the rhythm of the dance, the spiral of prayer to the Creator. It is still as powerful as ever and as beautiful.


Cars, trucks, all day coming.
First the leaders and their helpers
set up the cook shed,
clean, rake the ball and dance grounds, 
refurbish the seven brush arbors
circling the dance ground—
helpers from each clan do this.

The women bring hot and cold dishes
from home, begin to cook and cover tables
while men build the sacred fire,
centered in the dance ground’s circle
to reflect the sun.

The crowd grows.
Flirting, catcalling between young men and women
turns into challenge. Head for the ball ground,
men grabbing ballsticks, women hands free—
all the better to rest on a hip while calling a sassy retort.
Game on, men against women,
each plays by their own set of rules
to much laughter and hooting.
The sad-eyed carved fish swimming through the air
on top of the pole in the center of the ball ground
watches benevolently
while the ball whizzes past
or—success!—strikes it.

Older women and others not playing call out
encouragement and laughing insults.
So do the older men, sitting in their lawn chairs.
All the while, final preparations continue
for the main event, the dance.
Women work on old cowboy boots,
making sure their turtleshell rattles
handed down the chain of daughters,
are securely fastened to the split-open tops of the boots.
They try them on and stamp their feet hard
to check the sound of the pebbles in the rattles,
to make sure they won’t come loose.

Children are everywhere underfoot,
watching ball game and sacred fire,
sniffing around the cook shed,
playing tag and hide-and-seek
outside the ring of clan shelters.
The elders of each clan—
Ani-Wahya (Wolf), Ani-Kawi (Deer), Ani-Tsisqua (Bird),
Ani-Gilahi (Long Hair), Ani-Sahani (Blue), Ani-Wadi (Paint),
and Ani-Gatagewi (Wild Potato)—
settle into each brush arbor
as the cooks call out that the food is ready.
Clan members bring food to the elders,
join them or eat with families, friends.

Now, the food is eaten and dishes cleaned.
Now, the turtledoves are calling as they nestle in to sleep.
Now, the fireflies are taking to the air with children chasing.
Now, the sun has set and the sacred fire brings back its light.
Now, the women put on their rattle-sewn boots.
Now, the old lead singer calls out the beginning,
Now, his brothers and nephews echo their response.
Now, his sisters and nieces step into the circle beside them.
Now, the women set the rhythm with their fast turtleshelled feet.
Now, the circle spirals out from the fire.
Now, the dance can begin.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications, 2018)