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War Dance

Face painting of war dancers

Figure 4
Face painting of war dancers
a. Coon
b. Lightning

In the war dance1 (R. GucuuwiGaocan, Gu, where, cuuwi, men, braves, Gaocan, dance), the men bunch around the drum and move dancing around the dance floor. They carry a tomahawk or a scalp on a stick, and wear the typical war bonnet of eagle feathers fastened to a strip of cloth. On the face is painted the characteristic mark of the dancer’s supernatural partner Coon, Fox, Lightning.2 (Fig. 4.) The women, wearing their buckskin dress, stand together, on the outside, moving slightly.

If a feather falls out of the bonnet of a dancer or off the decorations of his person, some senior with war experience has to pick up the feather and “tell an old story of some place where they had a fight and won it.3 At the end of the story everybody who has a drumstick beats once on the drum, then the dance goes on.


  1. Said by Absentee Shawnee to have been borrowed about 1888 from the Caddo they visited. The Caddo borrowed this “bunched” or “round” dance from Winnebago, say Shawnee. “The Caddo went up to the Winnebago and caught all these songs of the Winnebago scalp dance and brought them back” (Voegelin). 

  2. Tattooing, universal in the Southeast, was formerly practiced. Men tattooed themselves with birds and animals or, half the body, with zigzag lines [?to represent lightning]. Women used geometrical designs (Joutel, 349, 363). The fact that the Frenchman whom Joutel found living in a Caddoan group just like a “savage” was tattoed suggests that he had been. 

  3. In the modern iruska ceremonial of the Pawnee a dance chief says, “You dancers must be careful with the things you are wearing for if you drop anything, one of those old men will have to take it up and tell of his deeds. Then you must pay” (Murie, 627). 

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