The Origins of the Smoke Dance
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire—but one of the most compelling pow wow dances done today, Smoke Dance, just might have nothing to do with either.
A Haudenosaunee dance, Smoke Dance is uncommon outside of the eastern region. As with many native dances, it has multiple tales of origin. The home-grown theory: At Haudenosaunee longhouses, the open fire pits would create thick smoke. Young men would dance to create enough air movement to push the smoke upward toward longhouse vents; young women would help out with movements of their own.
Yet though this is the theory that most closely relates to the dance’s name, it’s also the most unlikely. Osage and Haudenosaunee elders talk of the dance as a transfer between nations: The Osage did a dance until the mid-19th century that accompanied gift-giving, either to visitors or within the Osage community. Key participants smoked pipes, hence the dance’s nomenclature of Smoke Dance, which later became synonymous with a giveaway dance. The main problem with this theory is the unlikely dispatch from the Osage to the Haudenosaunee, which some scholars explain by the close proximity of the Oklahoma Osage reservation to Oklahoma Seneca land. Seneca is one of the Six Nations that comprise the Haudenosaunee, so displaced Seneca people could have brought the dance to the Great Lakes region, the original Seneca land and where the bulk of Seneca people live.
But the likeliest origin of Smoke Dance probably has little to do with smoke, and more to do with war. The Six Nations had dances that would help warriors prepare for battle; once nations stopped warring, the dances became ceremonial, an honoring of those who came before. These dances—done solely by men—were slow, heavy, and dramatic, meant to incite or mimic the bravery required on the battlefield. (In fact, another Osage-Haudenosaunee possibility is that the Osage war dance wasase traveled upward to Iroquois lands; Osage elders speak of this but its likelihood is unknown.) Over time, as war dances had lost their original impetus, these dances became known as smoke dances.
Enter the pow-wow circuit and the solidarity it can bring. Amid more common dances such as traditional and grass dance, the Smoke Dance would occasionally be done as a special dance, beginning in the 1920s or 1930s. Given that the slow dance’s ties to the past were indefinite, it was a prime candidate for repurposing by dancers looking for a way to show off their athleticism and footwork.
The dance’s rebirth also allowed it to become known as a women’s dance—and today, though both men and women compete in Smoke Dance, it’s the women’s competition that’s often the highlight. While there’s hardly a movement to bring Smoke Dance back to its possible warrior origins and thus banning women, there are occasional disapproving whispers among conservative tribal members about women’s participation, even though women have been publicly dancing the current iteration of Smoke Dance since the 1960s.
Today, Smoke Dance is strictly for show; it’s a competitive dance, or a special dance, not something that is generally treated with the ceremony it may once have garnered. And as a show dance, it’s splendid: The fast beat prompts women dancers to seemingly fly across the dance arena with peppery steps. The men’s dance maintains the verve but has a slower tempo, though both sexes use similar footwork. As with all dances, ending with the final beat of the drum is crucial, as is staying on the beat. Other than those guidelines, the Smoke Dance is open to a variety of individual interpretations and styles.
Music and regalia are kept simple. The music is a solo singer and a single water drum, though some singers will use a skin drum, yielding a deeper sound. Women’s regalia, cloth dresses with raised beadwork or appliqués, is kept relatively plain, as is men’s regalia—bustle-free, often with a feathered cap known as a gustoweh, and possibly an apron over a cloth top and pants, sometimes featuring flat or raised beadwork.
The origins of Smoke Dance may be unclear, but its current life of fiery steps and entrancing speed is generationally bound in one way that’s certain. As Bill Crouse, Seneca artist and singer, said in a 2008 interview with Indian Country Today about what we now call Smoke Dance: “Really, smoke dance started with the older singers trying to push young guys and give them an outlet to show off.” Call it showing off or call it skill, the Smoke Dance has a lingering trail of talent.
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