You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

The horse dance stick makeover is finally finished! I think I worked on it for almost two years, on and off.

A very long time ago, I was gifted with a horse dance stick. It may be one of the first accessories I had for my regalia. As it was given to me, it was quite primitive, being decorated with cloth bands, metal tacks, a buckskin collar and some buckskin around the handle area. It has always been my practice to make those things which are given to me my own, by embellishing them further. And then I honor them by dancing them around the circle at least once.

Originally, I embellished the dance stick by adding a strip of horsehair to represent the mane and adding deer hoof rattles around the buckskin collar. And I used it in the first few powwows I attended. But a horse dance stick is actually a Plains type of accessory. Before long, I acquired a dance staff that was more appropriate for my Eastern Woodlands regalia, which I have carried ever since.

A few years ago, I was inspired to give the horse dance stick a makeover. I wanted to decorate it with a gourd (peyote) stitch design which would replace the cloth bands, which were somewhat faded. And the deer hoof rattles had mostly broken off. So, quite some time later, I have finally completed the project.

I chose to use the gourd stitch to remind myself how to do it. I am much more accomplished with the brick (Comanche) stitch; I was introduced to that many years ago because it is easier to add and subtract beads from on odd shaped pieces. But the handle area of the dance stick is fairly uniform, so that wasn’t going to be an issue and I hadn’t practiced the gourd stitch for years.

This is one of those pieces that did not turn out as nice as I had hoped. The design did not end up looking like what I mapped out on the grid paper; it is obviously distorted. I’m not sure if it is because I didn’t start the gourd stitch correctly; I can’t see how the bead placement differs, but I wasn’t about to start over just to find out. I also admit that I could not follow my own design pattern; that has never been a problem previously, but this one apparently required better attention to design than I could muster.

I was inspired to replace the deer hoof rattles with horse hair tassels made with cartridge casings. The horse hair in the tassels is from one of my own horses who had died, so they honor him. If you are familiar with the Plains traditions, you understand why this is appropriate. I would have liked to use an older rifle casing, perhaps from a .45-70, but I don’t know anyone who owns one of those so I used a modern (.30-30) rifle casing.

Later this year, I will dance the stick around the circle. But I wanted to take this opportunity to relate a humorous story about a different horse dance stick.

There is a certain hobbyist group that comes to my town each year to present an exhibition for the general public. They drum and dance and offer educational insights into Native culture. They generally represent the Eastern Woodlands culture. I try to make a habit of going to their exhibition in order to see what they have to say each year.

And so it was, this past summer, that when I arrived before the presentation and perused the items they were displaying on their artifact table, I spotted a very nice, yet unadorned, horse dance stick. It was quite nice, in that the hoof representation on the end of the stick was fully three-dimensional (you can see that mine is more two-dimensional), and apparently old, in that the hoof representation had already cracked because the wood had dried out since the artifact was originally crafted. I could not recall seeing this particular artifact in previous years, so I was curious to hear the explanation that would be given when it was displayed for the public.

The explanation that was offered defied credulity. Besides misidentifying the artifact (and the tribal culture from which it came) completely, an explanation of its use was offered which was an amalgam of misapplied factoids and outright fabrication. But I know where the presenter gathered all of that from; I had some of the same “teachers” in times past. She had heard that information in some form and somehow cobbled together the explanation she delivered.

Which points up a glaring problem present in all hobbyist groups: thoroughly uneducated educators. I suppose there could be a hobbyist group somewhere that acquires knowledge and keeps it to themselves, sharing it among themselves but never attempting to divulge it to the outside public. But I have not encountered a group yet that didn’t feel compelled at some point to have a public face, through a powwow or exhibition.

If each individual in the group had thoroughly educated themselves on at least one aspect of the tribal culture they presume to represent and stuck to what they know well, this might not be such a bad thing. But that is a concept doomed to failure, even if that was the original intent.

The viewing public is, by definition, less educated than the presenter. Ostensibly, they came to the presentation because they wanted to be educated. It must be presumed that, generally, the viewing public has only a rudimentary knowledge of the material being presented, yet they are eager to gather as much information as they can to bolster that knowledge.

Consequently, they will ask questions across the spectrum of their curiosity. They will ask questions about any bit of information they have internalized from every source they can remember. Unfortunately, it is the tendency of the presenters to attempt to answer all of those questions, hazarding a guess where necessary, usually without qualifying the certainty of the answer.

But even worse, generally, is the knowledge pool from which the guess will be drawn. Most intertribal groups mix and match their information on Native culture, using what I call the “Chinese menu” approach.

Perhaps there are not many actual Chinese restaurants left. There seem to be many more Asian buffets these days, so perhaps the metaphor is unfamiliar in current times. But there was a time when a Chinese meal was ordered by selecting an entrée from one column of the menu with side dishes listed in an adjoining column. Thus, there was an expression that became a part of the common vernacular, “One from Column A and two from Column B”.

It is my contention that New Age spirituality is assembled in the same manner, so it could be equally appropriate to characterize the cultural information appropriated by most intertribal groups as “New Age Nativeness”. The formulation proceeds somewhat like the following:

An individual selects the culture they wish to represent and learns a rudimentary amount about that culture from whatever sources they can discover, written or oral. But then they encounter an idea from a different culture that sounds interesting or attractive, so they append it to their knowledge and practice. As additional divergent concepts are encountered and appended, the original knowledge becomes increasingly adulterated and unrecognizable as accurate or authentic. Nevertheless, it is passed on to other less educated individuals as accurate and authentic.

Thus, I attended a presentation on a medicine wheel garden once which typified exactly that phenomenon. It was presented at a powwow that purported to be a Woodlands powwow (representative of the nations which comprise the Eastern Woodlands cultural group). No mention was made of the historic fact that medicine wheels did not figure prominently in Woodlands culture; they are more a feature of Plains culture. The information presented was an amalgam of medicine wheel lore from several Plains cultures. The presentation included a sort of guided visualization of the four directions with accompanying symbolism. And the presenter concluded her presentation with “Nemaste”.

I walked away from that presentation thinking to myself: “I wonder how many people think they just learned an Indian word?” Hopefully, most people recognized it for what it was and didn’t consciously connect it with the remainder of the information presented. Nonetheless, for those who didn’t, there was no one to tell them that “Nemaste” is an East Indian word; not an American Indian word.

If we are going to attempt to educate the public, we had best be certain that we are delivering the information accurately and that we can cite the source from which we acquired that information. We are doing a disservice to the public and failing to represent Native culture properly and respectfully when we fabricate information. Nothing could mark a wannabe in a more negative light.

Sometimes I Still Surprise Myself

I didn’t formerly view myself as artistic. I was never impressed by what I created in art class in my formative years. Consequently, I have always undertaken new projects in making regalia or artifacts with no small amount of trepidation. And yet, over the years, I have surprised myself over and over with how well my artistic attempts turn out (not every time, however).

In a recent article in Indian Country Today, a Native pipe maker was quoted as saying that we should ask the stone what kind of pipe is inside of it. I had heard this from a Lakota acquaintance who is also a pipe maker. And now I can say that I have experienced this for myself.

Many years ago, my wife purchased two pipes from a friend of ours which he had crafted. One was made from a deer antler, which I still use as a personal pipe, and the other was made from clay, which she claimed for herself. Some years ago, her pipe was misplaced and, when it reappeared recently, the clay bowl had broken where the wooden stem joined it.

An attempt to repair the bowl was unsuccessful and I was inspired to carve a new bowl from pipestone (catlinite). Somewhere along the journey, I had acquired a box of catlinite chunks, so I selected one that would contain the broken bowl, with the intent of merely replicating the broken bowl. The stone had other ideas. It became clear to me, through means I will not attempt to articulate, that there was a turtle inside that catlinite chunk. The turtle has meaning to my wife and the project was intended to be a birthday surprise for her, so this seemed appropriate to me.

In a previous conversation with that Lakota pipe maker, he had explained to me that he makes pipes in a traditional manner, using only hand tools. I had made a few very simple pipes for myself previously, but had used power tools for most of the process. So I asked my acquaintance if it would be acceptable to rough out the design with a power tool and finish with hand tools. He said that I should use whatever was necessary to do the job.

I have never lost the trepidation. I have learned the value of “measure much, cut once”. My profession as a farrier has taught me that you can always remove more hoof, but you cannot glue it back on. I downloaded a picture of a painted turtle and sketched a design on the catlinite block. I carefully removed what pieces I could with a band saw (using a metal cutting blade). I carefully drilled the hole for the stem without encroaching on where I anticipated that the bowl would be. Then I began to remove material with a rotary tool.

When the design was roughed in enough to see the outline of the turtle, I switched to files to finish the project. One of my hoof rasps was appropriate to flatten the lip of the bowl; I used a small flat file and needle files for the remainder of the design. And somewhat to my surprise, a reasonable facsimile of a box turtle emerged from the stone.

To be honest, I credit Spirit with guiding my hands. I did quite a bit of praying while I worked. When I went to drill the final hole into the pipe bowl, it was placed exactly right; both the depth of the bowl and the center of the stem hole met perfectly.

My only regret is that I did not use an appropriately sized boring tool to make the bowl; I could not craft a perfectly round hole with the rotary tool, try as I may. I suppose that the traditionally appropriate tool would be a bow drill with a flint or chert “bit”, but flint knapping is not in my skill set at the moment!

If I had intentions of continuing to carve pipes, I would acquire a pair of D-type carbide cutting burrs in 1/2″ and 3/4″ to craft perfect bowls. I had used a 1/2″ ball burr on the previous pipe bowls but I could not locate it this time; and I needed a 3/4″ burr to replicate the dimensions of the original bowl anyhow.