Green Corn Dance
The Green-Corn Dance.
From an Unpublished Ms. By John Howard Payne, Author of "Home, Sweet Home"
The following letter was written by the late John Howard Payne to a relative in New York, in 1835. The Green-Corn Dance which it describes was, it is believed, the last ever celebrated by the Creeks east of the Arkansas. Soon after, they were removed to the West, where they now are.
Macon, Georgia, 1835.
My Dear --.
I have been among the Indians for a few days lately. Shall I tell you about them? You make no answer, and silence gives consent; so I will tell you about the Indians.
The State of Alabama, you may remember, has been famous as the abode of the Creek Indians, always regarded as the most warlike of the southern tribes. If you will look over the map of Alabama, you will find, on the west side of it, nearly parallel with the State of Mississippi, two rivers, one the Coosa and the other the Tallapoosa, which, descending, unite in the Alabama. Nearly opposite to these, about one hundred miles across, you will find another
river, the Chattahoochee, which also descends to form, with certain tributaries, the Apalachicola. It is within the space bounded by these rivers, and especially at the upper part of it, that the Creeks now retain a sort of sovereignty. The United States have in vain attempted to force the Creeks to volunteer a surrender of their soil for compensation. A famous chief among them made a treaty a few years ago to that effect; but the nation arose against him,
surrounded his house, ordered his family out, and bade him appear at the door after all but he had departed. He did so. He was shot dead, and the house burned. The treaty only took effect in part, if at all. Perpetual discontents have ensued. The United States have assumed a sort of jurisdiction over the territory, leaving the Creeks unmolested in their national habits and their property, with this exception in their favor, beyond all other tribes but the
Cherokees, they have the right, if they wish to sell, to sell to individuals, at their own prices, but are not bound to treat with the republic at a settled rate, which last mode of doing business they rather properly looked upon as giving them the appearance of a vanquished race, and subject to the dictation of conquerors. So, what the diplomatists could not achieve was forthwith attempted by speculators; and among those the everlasting Yankee began to
appear, and the Indian independence straightway began to disappear. Certain forms were required by government to give Americans a claim to these Creek lands. The purchaser was to bring the Indian before a government agent; in the agent's presence, the Indian was to declare what his possessions were, and for how much he would sell them; the money was paid in presence of the agent, who gave a certificate, which, when countersigned by the President,
authorized the purchaser to demand protection from the national arms, if molested. All this was well enough; but it was soon discovered that the speculators would hire miscreants and drunken Indians to personate the real possessors of lands, and, having paid them the money, would take it back as soon as the purchase was completed, give the Indian a jug of whiskey, or a small bag of silver, for the fraud, and so become lords of the soil. Great
dissatisfaction arose, and lives were lost. An anonymous letter opened the eyes of government. The white speculators were so desperate and dangerous that any other mode of information was unsafe. Investigators were appointed to examine into the validity of Creek sales, and the examiners met at the time I went to witness a great Indian religious festival, concerning which I will inform you presently; for it was by my curiosity to view this relic of their
remotest times that the visit among the Indians, alluded to in the beginning of my letter, was prompted. It has been necessary for me to be thus prolix, to make you understand the nature of the society and a sort of danger too-by which we were surrounded. On one side, white rogues-border cutthroats-contending, through corrupted red men, for the possessions of those among them, who, though honest, are unwary. On another side, the cheated Indian robber of
his brethren, wheedled by some fresh white cheat into a promise to sell (payable in over charged goods) at a higher price to the last comer, on condition of the latter individual getting the earlier inadequate sale set aside by the agent of the United States, through evidence from its pretended victim that the payment for it had only been nominal, and was forthwith fraudulently withdrawn. Even the judges are accused of being, covertly, sometimes as bad as
any of the rest, and it is said that instances are not unknown wherein some of them have, not long after withdrawing from the seat of justice, proved to be full of wealth in lands, which could only be accounted for by a supposed collusion with accusers who have supplied them with pretexts for cancelling prior sales by Indians in favor of better offers, when contrasted with the preceding ones, though offers really amounting to nothing at all in comparison
with the true worth of the purchase. Amid these scenes of complicated villainy, it is not unusual, after the session of a commission representing the United States for trying the validity of titles, to see a foiled thief rush at the successful overreaching one, with fist and bowie knife; and it is then accounted a case of uncommon good luck if either live to look upon what both have stolen from the Redman, and one not only from the Redman, but the white.
I beheld a fine, gentle, innocent looking girl, a widow, I believe, come up to the investigator to assert that she had never sold her land. She had been counterfeited by some knave. The Investigator's court was a low bar room. He saw me eyeing him, and some one told him I was traveling to take notes. He did not know but government had employed me as a secret supervisor. He seemed to shrink, and postponed a decision. I have since heard that he is a rascal
of the sort at which I have just hinted.
The ill starred red people here are entirely at the mercy of interpreters, who, if not negro slaves of their own, are half breeds, a worse set, generally, than the worst of either slaves or knaves. In the jargon of the border, they are called linkisters, some say because they form, by interpreting, a link between the Indian nations and ours; but I should rather regard the word as a mere corruption of linguist.
The Indians become more easily deluded by the borderers than by others, because the borderers know that they never esteem any one to be substantial who does not keep a shop. So your rascal of the frontier sets up a shop, and is pronounced a sneezer. If his shop be large, he is a sneezer chubco; if larger than any other, he is a sneezer chubco mico. But, in any of his grades, a sneezer is always considered as a personage by no means to be sneezed at. The
sneezer will pay for land in goods, and thinks himself very honest if he charges his goods at five hundred times their worth, and can make it appear by his account against the Indian's claim that he has paid him thousands of dollars, when in fact he may scarcely have paid him hundreds of cents.
Well! So much for the beautiful state of our national legislation and morals, as civilizers and protectors of the redmen. It is time for me to relieve you from these details, so uncomplimentary to us of the superior order, and to tell you something about the famous religious festival which took me amongst the Indians, and thereby caused, the foregoing first preamble, the ennui produced by which I proceed to cure, like a quack doctor, by doubling the dose.
Accordingly, here comes a second preamble, by way of introductory explanation of what is to come at last.
The festival in question is called the Green Corn Festival. All the nation assemble for its celebration at a place set apart for the purpose, as the Temple at Jerusalem was for the religious assemblages of all the Jewish tribes. It has been kept by the Creeks, and many other Indian nations, indeed, perhaps, by the entire race, from time immemorial. It is prepared for, as well as fulfilled with, great form and solemnity.
When the green corn is ripe, the Creeks seem to begin their year. Until after the religious rites of the festival with which their New Year is ushered in, it is considered as an infamy to taste the corn. On the approach of the season, there is a meeting of the chiefs of all the towns forming any particular clan. First, an order is given out for the manufacture of certain articles of pottery to be employed in the ceremonies. A second meeting gives out a
second order. New matting is to be prepared for the seats of the assembly. There is a third meeting. A vast number of sticks are broken into parts, and then put up in packages, each containing as many sticks as there are days intervening previous to the one appointed for the gathering of the clans. Runners are sent with these. One is flung aside every day by each receiver. Punctually, on the last day, all, with their respective families, are at the well
That you may the more clearly understand the whole matter, I will so anticipate my story as to put you in possession of many essential particulars concerning the place set apart by the Creeks for gathering their people to the festival in question. This will provide you with the unexpected gratification of even a third preamble, as an explanatory avenue extra to the main subject.
The chosen spot is remote from any habitations, and consists of an ample square, with four large log houses, each one forming a side of the square, at every angle of which there is a broad opening into the area. The houses are of logs and clay, and a sort of wicker work, with sharp topped, sloping roofs, like those of our log houses, but more thoroughly finished. The part of the houses fronting the square is entirely open. Their interior consists of a
broad platform from end to end, raised a little more than knee high, and so curved and inclined as to form a most comfortable place for either sitting or lying. It is covered with the specially prepared cane matting, which descends in front of it to the ground. A space is left open along the entire back of each house, to afford a free circulation of air. It starts from about the height of my chin, so that I could peep in from the outside through the whole
of each structure, and obtain a clear view of all that was going on. Attached to every house towers a thick, notched mast. Behind, the angle of one of the four broad entrances to the square, rises a high, cone roofed building, circular and dark, with an entrance down an inclined plane, through a low door. Its interior was so obscured that I could not make out what it contained; but some one said it was a council house. I occupied one corner of an outer
square, next to the one I have already described, two sides of which outer square were formed by thick corn fields, a third by a raised embankment apparently for spectators, and a fourth by the back of one of the buildings before mentioned. In the center of this outer square was a very high circular mound. This, it seems, was formed from the earth accumulated yearly by removing the surface of the sacred square thither. At every Green Corn Festival, the
sacred square is strewn with soil yet untrodden; the soil of the year preceding being taken away, but preserved as above explained. No stranger's foot is allowed to press the new earth of the sacred square until its consecration is complete. A gentleman told me that he and a friend chanced once to stroll along through the edge, just after the new soil had been laid. A friendly chief saw him and remonstrated, and seemed greatly incensed. He explained that
it was done in ignorance. The chief was pacified, but nevertheless caused every spot which had been polluted by their unhallowed steps to be uptorn, and a fresh covering substituted.
The sacred square being ready, every fire in the towns under the jurisdiction of the head chief is, at the same moment, extinguished. Every house must also at that moment have been newly swept and washed. Enmities are forgotten. If a person under sentence for a crime can steal in unobserved and appear among the worshippers when their exercises begin, his crime is no more remembered. The first ceremonial is to light the new fire of the year. A square board
is brought, with a small circular hollow in the center. It receives the dust of a forest tree, or of dry leaves. Five chiefs take turns to whirl the stick, until the friction produces a flame. From this sticks are lighted and conveyed to every house throughout the tribe. The original flame is taken to the center of the sacred square. Wood is heaped there, and a strong fire lighted. Over this fire the holy vessels of new made pottery are placed. Drinking
gourds, with long handles, are set around on a bench. Appointed officers keep up an untiring surveillance over the whole, never moving from the spot; and here what they call the black drink is brewed, with many forms and with intense solemnity.
Now, then, having rendered you, by these numerous prefaces, much better informed about the Creek Jerusalem and its paraphernalia than I was when I got there, I will proceed with my travel story, just as if I had not enabled you to ponder all that I saw so much more understandingly than I myself did.
I cannot describe to you my feelings when I first found myself in the Indian country. We rode miles after miles in the native forest, seeing neither habitation nor an inhabitant to disturb the solitude and majesty of the wilderness. At length we met a native in his native land. He was galloping on horseback. His air was oriental; he had a turban, a robe of fringed and gaudily figured calico, scarlet leggings, and beaded belts and garters and pouch. We
asked how far it was to the Square. He held up a finger, and we understood him to mean one mile. Next we met two Indian women on horseback, laden with watermelons. In answer to our question of the road, they half covered a finger, to express that it was half a mile further, and, smiling, added, 'sneezer much,' meaning that we should find lots of our brethren, the sneezers, there, to keep us company. We passed groups of Indian horses tied in the shade, with
cords long enough to let them graze freely. We then saw the American flag a gift from the government floating over one of the hut tops in the square. We next passed numbers of visitors' horses and carriages, and servants, and under the heels of one horse a drunken vagabond Indian, or half Indian, asleep. And, finally, we found ourselves at the corner of the sacred square, where the aborigines were in the midst of their devotions.
As soon as I left the carriage, seeing an elevation just outside of one of the open corners of the sacred square, whence a clear view could be obtained of what was going on within, I took my station there. I was afterwards told that this mound was composed of ashes which had been produced during many preceding years by such fires as were now blazing in the center; and that ashes of the sort are never permitted to be scattered, but must thus be gathered up,
and carefully and religiously preserved.
Before the solemnities begin, and, some one said, though I am not sure it was on good authority, ere new earth is placed, the women dance in the sacred square, and entirely by themselves. I missed seeing this. They then separate from the men, and remain apart from them until after the fasting and other religious forms are gone through, when they have ceremonies of their own, of which I shall speak in due course.
As I gazed from my stand upon the corner mound, the sacred square presented a most striking scene. Upon each of the notched masts, of which I have already spoken as attached to each of the structures within, was a stack of tall canes, hung all over with feathers, black and white. There were rude paint daubs about the posts and roof beams of the open house fronts, and here and there they were festooned with gourd vines. Chiefs were standing around, the
sides and corners, alone, and opposite to each other, their eyes riveted on the earth, and motionless as statues. Every building was filled with crowds of silent Indians, those on the back rows seated in the Turkish fashion, but those in front with their feet to the ground. All were turbaned, all fantastically painted, all in dresses varying in ornament but alike in wildness. One chief wore a tall black hat, with a broad, massive silver band around it, and
a peacock's feather; another had a silver scull cap, with a deep silver bullion fringe down to his eyebrows, and plates of silver from his breast to his knee, descending his tunic. Most of them had the eagle plume, which only those may wear who have slain a foe; numbers sported military plumes in various positions about their turbans; and one had a tremendous tuft of black feathers declining from the back of his head over his back; while another's head was
all shaven smooth, excepting a tuft across the center from the back to the front, like the crest of a helmet.
I never saw an assembly more absorbed with what they regarded as the solemnities of the occasion.
The first sounds I heard were a strange low, deep wail, a sound of many voices drawn out in perfect unison, and only dying away with the breath itself, which indeed was longer sustained than could be done by any singer I ever yet heard. This was followed by a second wail, in the same style, but shrill, like the sound of musical glasses, and giving a similar shiver to the nerves. And after a third wail in another key, the statue like figures moved and
formed two diagonal lines opposite to each other, their backs to opposite angles of the square. One by one, they then approached the huge bowls in which the black drink was boiling, and, in rotation, dipped a gourd, and took, with a most reverential expression, a long, deep draught each. The next part of the ceremony with them was somewhat curious; but the rapt expression of the worshippers took away the effect which such an evolution would be apt to
produce on a fastidious stomach if connected with an uninterested head. In short, these dignitaries, without moving a muscle of the face, or a joint of the body, after a few seconds, and with great solemnity, ejected what had been swallowed upon the ground. It seemed as if given forth in the spirit of a libation among the ancients. The chiefs having afterwards tasted, each replacing the gourd, and returning to his stand before the next came forward, they
all went to their seats, and two old men approached and handed round gourds full to the other parties present who had remained stationary. The looks on each side were as full of solemn awe as I have ever seen at any Christian ceremony; and certainly the awe was more universal than usually pervades our churches.
This done, a chief made a speech, but without rising. It was listened to with profound attention, and in one place, at a pause, called forth a very unanimous and emphatic shout of approbation, a long sound, seemingly of two syllables, but uttered by all in the same breath. I asked a professed linkister what the speech was about; but he was either indifferent or ignorant, for he only replied that it was an appeal to them not to forsake their ancient
ceremonies, but to remain faithful in their fulfillment to the last, and that it wound up with a sort of explanatory dissertation upon the forms which were to follow.
One chief then walked round, and, in short, abrupt sentences, seemed to give directions; whereupon some whitened, entire gourds, with long handles, and apparently filled with pebbles, were produced; and men took their stations with them on mats, while those who had been seated all arose, and formed in circles around the fire, led by a chief, and always beginning their movement towards the left. The gourds were shaken; there arose a sort of low sustained
chant as the procession went on; and it was musical enough, but every few seconds, at regular intervals, a sound was thrown in by all the dancers, in chorus, like the sharp, quick, shrill yelp of a dog. The dance seemed to bear reference to the fires in the center. Every time they came to a particular part of the square, first the head chief turned and uplifted his hands over the flame, as if invoking a benediction, and all the people followed his example
in rotation. The dance was very unlike anything I ever saw before. The dancers never crossed their feet, but first gave two taps each with the heel and toe of one foot, then of the other, making a step forward as each foot was tapped on the earth; their bodies all the while stately and erect, and each, with a feather fan, their universal and indispensable companion, fanning himself, and keeping time with his fan as he went on. The dance was quickened, at a
signal, till it became nearly a measured run, and the cries of the dancers were varied to suit the motion, when, suddenly, all together uttered a long, shrill whoop, and stopped short, some few remaining as guards about the sacred square, but most of the throng forthwith rushing down a steep, narrow ravine, canopied with foliage, to the river, into which they plunged; and the stream was black on every side with their heads as they swam about, playing all
sorts of antics; the younger ones diving to fetch up pieces of silver money which the visitors flung into the water, to put their dexterity to the test.
Returning to the sacred square, they went through other dances around the fire, varying in figure and accompaniment. All were generally led by some aged chief, who uttered a low, broken sound, to which the others responded in chorus. Sometimes the leader, as he went around, would ejaculate a feeble, tremulous exclamation, like alleluliah, alleluliah, laying the stress upon the last syllable, to which all would respond in perfect accord, and with a deep,
sonorous bass, 'alleluliah,' and the same alternation continued to the close, which was invariably sudden, and after a long general whoop.
Each dance seemed to have a special form and significance; one in particular, where the dancers unstacked the tall canes with feathers suspended from them, each taking one from the mast sustaining it; and this one, I was told, meant to immortalize triumphs won at ball plays. The feathered canes are seized as markers of points gained by the bearers in the ball play, which is the main trial of strength and skill among rival clans of the same tribe, in
friendship, and even between tribe and tribe, when in harmony. The effect of these canes and feathers, as they glanced around, with an exulting chorus, was very inspiriting, and the celebrants became almost wild with their delight as it drew near its climax, ending their closing whoop with a general laugh of triumphant recollection.
Other dances were represented as alluding to conquests over bears and panthers, and even the buffalo, which last memorial is remarkable enough, having among them survived all traces of the buffalo itself. But, excepting these vague hints, I could not find any bystander capable of giving me a further explanation of any point on which I inquired, than that it was 'an old custom;' or, if they wished to be more explicit, with a self satisfied air, they would
gravely remark that it was 'the green corn dance,' which I knew as well as they. Could I have been instructed even in their phrases and speeches, I might have made valuable conjectures. But even their language, on these occasions, seems, by their own admission, beyond the learning of the 'linkisters.' It is a poetical, mystical idiom, varying essentially from that of trading and of familiar intercommunication, and utterly incomprehensible to the literal
minds of mere trafficking explainers. Even were it otherwise, the persons hovering upon the frontier most ingenuously own, when pressed for interpretations of Indian customs, that they care nothing for the Indians excepting to get their lands, and that they really consider all study concerning them as egregious folly, save only that of finding out how much cotton their grounds will yield, and in what way the greatest speculations can be accomplished with
the smallest capital.
The last of the ceremonies of the day consisted of a sort of trial of fortitude upon the young.
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