Friday, January 6, 2017

California Native American Yosemite Religious Ceremonies and Dancing

California Native American Yosemite Religious Ceremonies and Dancing

The Indians of this region, in common with most, if not all, of the North American aborigines, were of a highly religious temperament, most devout in their beliefs and observances, and easily wrought upon by the priests or medicine men of their tribes. Elaborate ceremonies were carried out, in which all of the details were highly symbolical, and some of their curious and picturesque superstitions were responsible for acts of cruelty and vengeance, which in many cases were foreign to their natural disposition.


Dancing was an important part of all religious observances, and was practiced purely as a ceremonial, and never for pleasure or recreation. Both men and women took part, the men executing a peculiar shuffling step which involved a great deal of stamping upon the ground with their bare feet, and the women performing a curious sideways, swaying motion. Some of the dancers carried wands or arrows, and indulged in wild gesticulations. They usually circled slowly around a fire, and danced to the point of exhaustion, when others would immediately take their places. The ceremony was accompanied by the beating of rude drums, and by a monotonous chant, which was joined in by all the dancers.

The great occasions for dancing were before going to war, and when cremating the bodies of their dead. The war dance was probably the most elaborate in costume and other details, and of recent years the Indians have sometimes given public exhibitions of what purported to be war dances, but these performances, like everything else which they do from purely mercenary motives, are very poor imitations of the originals, and it is doubtful if they have ever allowed a genuine war dance to be witnessed by white men.


The various tribes in the vicinity of Yosemite Valley are accustomed to hold a great meeting or festival once a year, each tribe taking its turn as hosts, and the others sometimes coming from considerable distances. At these meetings there are dances and other ceremonials, and also a grand feast, for which extensive preparations are made. Another feature of the occasion is the presentation of gifts to the visiting tribes, consisting of money, blankets, clothing, baskets, bead-work, or other valuable articles. These presents, or their equivalent, no matter how small they may be, are always returned to the givers at the next annual festival, together with additional gifts, which, in turn, must be given back the following year, and so on.

At these gatherings an Indian is appointed to secure and keep on hand a good supply of wood for the camp fires, and every day he spreads a blanket on the ground and sits on it, and the other Indians throw money, clothing, or other contributions, into the blanket, to pay him and his assistants for their services. At other times this man acts as a messenger or news carrier—first spreading his blanket to collect his fees, and then starting off on his mission.