The Grass Dance

Louis Garcia

A member of the Grass Dance Warrior Society was called Heyuŝka (Hay-you’ Shka) in Dakota, a word that could be traced to its origin in the Omaha and Ponca language. The Omaha used the word Hethu’shka. The Iowa and Osage used Ilon’shka, Pawnee - Iru’shka, on and on it goes.

The Yankton Dakota obtained the society from the Omaha Hca or Real Omaha, meaning the Ponca in 1870 according to the Wounded Bear Winter Count. Other sources say it was the Hocunk (Winnebago) who taught the Yanktons; at any rate the Omaha, Northern Ponca and Hocunk all live in eastern Nebraska just south of the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota. From the Yankton the Grass Dance Society traveled west to Rosebud and Pine Ridge, and north to Lake Traverse and Spirit Lake.

The Dakota became the teachers, spreading the society all over the woodland, plains, and plateau regions. The dance was taught to the Ojibwa, Cree, Mandan-Hidatsa, Arikara, Assiniboin, Crow, Shoshone, Blackfeet, Atsina, and so on.

The society was called Peji Wacipi or Grass Dance because the members carried braids of sweet grass attached to their belt. These grass braids were used to stuff in wet moccasins. The dried grass was also used to start a signal fire while on a war expedition especially during the winter.

The purpose of the society was to serve the people, set an example to the young men to have steadfast valor in war and generosity in peace. The patron deity of war is Wakinyan (the Holy Flyer), commonly called The Thunder Bird. All their prayers and songs were directed to The Thunders. The society was divided into two divisions. One was composed of older men who defended the camp called Pezi Tanka or Big Grass; the other was composed of young men who engaged in offensive warfare called Peji Teca or New Grass.

This Omaha Ĥca society was completely different from the other Dakota warrior clubs in many aspects. The use of a large drum, their songs, dance step, feather bustles, and their use of the Wapeŝa or porcupine and deer tail headdress are just some of the differences. None of the other societies used such regalia.

Because the date 1870 is a known fact, and from interviews with Tribal members at the turn of the century, anthropologists believed the dance to be ‘modern’. However new evidence has been brought to light showing the society is at least 50 years older than the 1870 date. In fact the Dakota may have learned a new version of an ancient warrior organization hundreds of years old.

The big unanswered question is the music. Why is there a northern and southern style of singing and drumming ? The modern Oklahoma Straight Dance (War Dance) and the northern pow-wow both originated with the Ponca.

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

Be sure to follow Devils Lake Journal on our twitter page, @devilslakenews, and like us on Facebook!