The Gourd Dance is a type of Native American celebration dance and ceremony. It is believed that the dance originated with the Kiowa tribe. Gourd dances are often held to coincide with a pow-wow, although the Gourd Dance has its own unique dance and history. Gourd Dancing may precede the pow-wow or it can be a separate event, not directly connected with a pow-wow.
A Kiowa story recounts the tale of a young man who had been separated from the rest of the tribe. Hungry and dehydrated after many days of travel, the young man approached a hill and heard an unusual kind of singing coming from the other side. There he saw a red wolf singing and dancing on its hind legs. The man listened to the songs all afternoon and through the night and when morning came, the wolf spoke to him and told him to take the dance and songs back to the Kiowa people. The "howl" at the end of each gourd dance song is a tribute to the red wolf. The Kiowa Gourd Dance was once part of the Kiowa Sun Dance ceremony.
Other tribes including the Comanche and Cheyenne also have stories about the gourd dance. The Cheyenne believe that the Cheyenne tribe is the source of the gourd dance tradition and have elaborate oral tradition accounting for it. The ambiguity of origins of the dance may be because the gourd is simply a rattle. There are many types of rattles used by many different American Indian tribes, on many different occasions. It is possible that the "gourd" rattle designates a particular social organization of the dance, rather than simply the kind of rattle used. The modern gourd dance does indicate Kiowa influence pertaining both to the social etiquette and especially the songs. In the Southern Plains the gourd dance is dominated by Kiowa presence.
Decline, revival, and organizations within the Kiowa Tribe
Beginning in 1890 the United States government began to actively enforce bans on Kiowa cultural ceremonials and the Gourd Dance was out of normal practice by the late 1930s.
In 1957 the Kiowa Director for the American Indian Exposition, Fred Tsoodle, called upon singers Bill Koomsa and William Tanedooah who remembered the Gourd Dance songs. Also called were Clyde Ahtape, Harry Hall Zotigh, Fred Botone, Oliver Tanedooah, and Abel Big Bow in Kiowa Gourd Dance dress to dance to the songs for a special tribal presentation at that year's festivities. Two years later inspired by the presentation several Kiowa men reorganized the Kiowa Gourd Dance Society and formally established the organization on January 30, 1957 and voted on the name "Kiowa Gourd Dance". Within the next decade the organization split into three unrelated branches: the establishing group (now called Kiowa Gourd Clan), Tiah-Piah Society of Oklahoma (established in 1962), and the Tia-piah Society of Carnegie (now known as the Kiowa TiaPiah Society). All three societies hold their annual ceremonials on and around July 4, due to the Gourd Dance at one time being a part of the Sun Dance ceremonials usually held in mid-summer.
The variations on the word "Tia-Piah" used in the names of Kiowa Gourd Dance organizations comes from Jài:fè:gàu (Tdeinpei-gah), one of the eight Kiowa warrior societies. Perhaps because of the military connotations of the term the Gourd Dance has often been mistaken for a "veteran's dance". However, leaders of all three of the earliest Kiowa-established gourd dance organizations agree that this is not a requirement to become a member of the societies. Dances from two of the other presently-existing societies, Pòlá:hyòp ("Pah-Lye-Up" or "Rabbit Society") and Óhòmà:gàu ("Ohomah" or "War Dance Society"), are incorporated into the Kiowa summer ceremonials before and after the gourd dance sessions.
The Gourd Dance originated with the Kiowa tribe, and is a man's dance. Women participate by dancing in place behind their male counterparts and outside the perimeter formed by the men. The dance in the Kiowa Language is called "Ti-ah pi-ah" which means "ready to go, ready to die".
The Kiowa consider this dance as their dance since it was given to them by "Red Wolf". It has spread to many other tribes and societies, most of which do not have the blessing of the Kiowa Elders. Some gourd societies do not distinguish race as a criterion, and even non-Indians can and are inducted into their gourd societies, the Kiowa gourd dance society however only inducts Indians of half blood or more. Many participants may be older men, and the dance is less energetic and less physically demanding than most pow-wow dances. Some of the Gourd Dances that are held go on all afternoon and on into the evening when it finally cools off enough so that more energetic Intertribal dances can begin. Some Tribal dances feature only Gourd Dancing.
The gourd or rattle, which is traditionally made from a gourd or a large 2–3-inch-diameter (51–76 mm) aluminum can. The gourd rattle can have peyote stitch beadwork on the handle. The gourd sash is tied around the waist. Either a gourd blanket or a vest may be worn over the shoulders. The vest or blanket has two colors: red and blue, with the blue being worn over the right shoulder and the red being worn over the left to symbolize the heart.
Music and choreography
Like pow-wow dancing, Gourd Dancing is performed in a circular arena. The drum can be placed on the side or in the center of the arena. The dancers take their place around the perimeter of the area. During most of the song, the dancers dance in place, lifting their feet in time to the drumbeats, and shaking their rattles from side to side. At certain points in the singing, the drum beat changes to harder beats. At this point, the dancers will dance in place. when it changes to softer beats the dancers will dance a short distance from their spots.
Typically, the dance begins in the afternoon, and the opening song (referred to as a "Calling Song") is sung first. The head singer will determine how many songs are sung in a set. Usually the slower paced songs are sung in the beginning and progressively faster songs are sung as the gourd dance progresses. When the gourd dance draws to a close, a fast song known as the "Charlie Brown song" is usually the last to be performed, but it is not the "official" closing song. Sometimes buffalo songs will be sung after Charlie Brown.