Non-Native entertainment

imageBy Anna Hoefnagels

Despite the official banning of various cultural expressions through the Indian Act, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries many performances of Indigenous music and dance were organized for non-Native audiences.  These often took the shape of Wild West Shows, country fairs, or, in some cases, church fund-raisers. Indigenous men and women were invited to perform their traditional dances, wearing their traditional outfits and dancing to Native music. As early as 1837, the American artist George Catlin incorporated dances as part of his Indian Gallery in the eastern United States and later in Europe.
During Catlin’s eight-year stay in Europe touring with his North American Indian Collection, he used three different groups of dancers to illustrate aspects of Indigenous culture. The first and third groups were “O-jib-be-way” from the Lake Huron area in Upper Canada. According to his Notes of Eight Years’ Travels … this culture consisted of some 15,000 to 20,000 persons. “They were all clad in skins of their own dressing, their head-dresses of eagles’ quills and wild turkeys’ feathers; their faces daubed and streaked with vermilion and black and green paint. They were armed with their war-clubs, bows and quivers, and tomahawks and scalping knives, just as they roam through the woods in their country; and their yells and war-whoops, which were occasionally sounded in the streets at some sudden occurrence that startled their attention, gave a new excitement amid the smoke and din of Manchester [England]” (Catlin 1848, vol. 1: 109). The first group consisted of nine persons including: Ah-quee-we-zaints (Big Chief, age 75), Pat-an-a-quot-a-wee-be (Driving Cloud, age 35, a war-chief, who fought in the War of 1812), Wee-nish-ka-wee-be (Flying Gull, medicine person), Sah-mah (Tobacco), and Gish-ee-gosh-egee (Moonlight Night) – two young men with their wives, Not-een-a-akm (Strong Wind, interpreter, the son of M. Cadotte), two women called Wos-see-ah-e-neuh-qua and Ne-bet-neuh-qua plus a girl, Nib-nab-ee-qua.
Catlin called his presentations “Tableaux vivants on the North American Indians”.  Among the dances he would include were the War Dance – a ceremony during which the warriors would take a solemn oath by dancing to and striking the reddened post with their war-clubs, the Scalp Dance – this celebration of victory had women in the centre of the group holding scalps on little sticks, while the warriors danced around them, brandishing their weapons and yelling, the Pipe-of-Peace Dance where the warriors held pipes of peace or calumets and danced to the beat of the drum (Catlin 1848, vol. 1: 95-6). Sometimes the O-jib-be-ways performed the Wa-be-no or Mystery Dance, “given at some occasion of their mystery-feasts, or for the accomplishment of some mysterious design” (Catlin 1848, vol. 2: 116). Wa-be-no is also the name Catlin gives for their drum which he described as “Straining a piece of raw hide over a hoop or over the head of a sort of keg, generally made by excavating the inner part of a log of wood, leaving a thin rim around the side.  In the bottom of this they always have a quantity of water, which sends out a remarkably rich and liquid tone.  Besides this, they use several kinds of rattles and whistles – some of which are for mystery purposes, and others merely for the pleasing and exciting effects they produce in their dances” (Catlin 1848, vol. 1: 116).  Shi-she-quoi referred to a mystery rattle (Catlin 1848, vol. 1: 131).
The first group of O-jib-be-ways performed for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle as well as at many other English locations to appreciative audiences who gave them numerous gifts such as silver tobacco-boxes.  The later, larger group of O-jib-we-ways performed for Catlin’s presentations in France and included the following: Maun-gua-daus (Great Hero, Chief, age 41), Say-say-gon (Hail-Storm, age 31), Ke-che-us-sin (Strong Rock, age 27), Mush-she-mong (King of the Loons, age 25), Au-nim-muck-kwak-um (Tempest Bird, age 20), A-wun-ne-wa-be (Bird of Thunder, age 19), Wau-bud-dick (Elk, age 18), U-je-jock (Pelican, age 10), Noo-din-no-kay (Furious Storm, age 4), Min-nis-sin-noo (Brave Warrior, age 3), Uh-wus-sig-gee-zigh-gook-kway, Woman of the Upper World, wife of the Chief, age 38), and (born in the Salle Valentino) (Catlin 1848, vol. 2: 279).  Unfortunately most of this group, seven members in all, later died of small pox while in Europe.

Appearing throughout North America from 1885 on, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show entertained audiences by staging battles between “cowboys” and “Indians” and showcasing traditional music and dancing. The show, including its Indigenous performers, traveled to Britain in 1887, to appear before British royalty and various audiences. These shows, and later Hollywood renditions, introduced the general Canadian public to a particular image of the “Indian,” one which suggested an uncivilized and barbaric group of “primitive” people, or a romanticized image of the “pristine Indians” of North America.


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Indigenous Dance