American Songs and Dances
The Hé-de Wa-chi - An Omaha Festival of Joy
INTRODUCTORY NOTE.—For centuries the home of the Omaha
tribe has been in the region now known as the State of Nebraska,
north of the city which bears their name. There they dwelt in
permanent villages, surrounded by their garden plots of corn,
beans, squashes, etc. From these villages every year in June
all the tribes except the sick and infirm went forth to follow
the buffalo herds in order to obtain their supply of meat and
pelts. As this tribal hunt was essential to the needs of the
life of the people, it was a very serious affair, initiated with
religious ceremonies and conducted under strict rules enforced
by duly appointed officers. It was at the close of this great
tribal hunt, when food and clothing had been secured, while Summer
lingered and the leaves had not yet begun to fall, so that brightness
was still over the land, that this Festival of Joy took place.
Like all Indian ceremonies, the Hé-de Wa-chi embodied
a teaching that was for the welfare of the tribe, a teaching
drawn from nature and dramatically enacted by the people. The
Omaha tribe was made up of ten distinct groups, each one having
its own name, a set of names for those born within the group,
and certain religious symbols and ceremonies committed to its
care. By tribal rites and regulations these ten distinct groups
were welded together to form the tribe, whose strength and prosperity
depended upon internal harmony and unity.
The Hé-de Wa-chi taught the people what this unity really
stood for. The central object of the ceremony was a tree, which
was the symbol of the tribe; its branches were as the different
groups composing the tribe, the twigs that made up the branches
were as the individuals that formed the groups.
The Omaha had special ceremonies for the preparation of the
central object. They cut a tree, left a tuft of branches at the
top and painted the trunk in alternate bands of red and black.
The red bands represented day, the black, night; the decoration
as a whole stood for the continuity of life. This pole was planted
in a broad open space. As the melodious Call to the Ceremony
echoed over the land, the people gathered from their tents. Each
one of the ten groups took its respective place and all the groups
formed a wide circle about the tree. Every one, down to the little
children, carried a twig with leaves. These they held aloft as
they made their rhythmic, ceremonial approaches to the tree,
and afterward danced about the sacred symbol.
It was a wonderful and a beautiful scene that took place on
the prairies years ago, when hundreds of Omahas moved to the
rhythm of the sacred songs, waving the green sprays as they danced
up to the symbolic tree and circled about it with thanksgiving
and joy. It was thus they exemplified tribal unity, wherein every
one was a part of the living whole.
This ancient Native American ceremony should live anew with
us wherever we gather to enjoy the delights of nature in goodly
Directions.—It may be difficult to prepare a young
tree for the central pole after the manner of the Omaha; if so,
a space around a single tree can be made to serve. Bands of red
and black muslin or paper should be put about the tree trunk;
these are to symbolize the days and nights enjoyed during the
camp life. The members of the camp should be divided into groups
and each group have a name and a color. Small branches should
be gathered, equal in number to those who will take part in the
dance. If actual branches are not available, wands can be used;
to these fluttering decorations of green paper should be attached,
also a streamer the color of the group. Each group should be
assigned a place in the wide circle that is to be made about
When all are ready the following Call should be sung. The Indian
words are retained, as they are easy to pronounce and fit the
meaning, and are adapted to the long echoing cadences of the
Native American Song No. 1
Zha-wa i-ba i-ba e-he,
Zha-wa i-ba i-ba ha e-he.
[Words: Zha-wa = to rejoice; i-ba = come; ha = vowel prolongation
of the syllable ba; e-he = I bid you. "I bid you come to rejoice."]
This English translation of the native words does not convey
the stirring appeal of the Omaha: "To rejoice! Come! I bid you." The
stress of the music of the Call is on "Zha-wa," to rejoice; the
notes which carry the words "e-he," "I bid you," seem to float
afar as if to reach the most distant member of the tribe with
the summons. The cadence of the Call echoes itself, as the second
line is like the first, only lower in tones.
When all of the camp have gathered in response to the Call,
each group must stand in its appointed place and every member
hold a decorated wand. Four beats of the drum are now to be given;
the beats must not be loud or rapid. When the reverberations
of the drum cease, absolute quiet must be maintained, each one's
wand must hang downward from his right hand, while the following
chant is given, sung by the leaders of the groups. The words
are by John B. Tabb, the music is arranged from the Omaha invocation.
Native American Song No. 2
All that springeth from the sod,
Tendeth upward unto God;
All that cometh from the skies,
Urging it anon to rise.
This chant takes the place of the prayer sung at this point
of the ceremony by the Omaha Keepers of the Tribal Sacred Pipes.
The prayer in the original has no words, vocables only are used,
for the music is what carries the appeal to Wakon'da (God).
At the close of the chant two strokes of the drum should be
given. Then the leaders should sing the first line of the following
song; all the camp respond at the beginning of the second measure,
and the song follows. This music is the dance song of the ceremony
when all the Omaha tribe made four rhythmic advances toward the
sacred tree, stopping at the close of each advance. The song
was sung four times, once for each forward movement.
Native American Song No. 3
APPROACH TO THE TREE
Leaders: Ev'ry one lift up the branch!
Response by all: Up it goes!
Song by all:
Dancing, singing, we like leaves sway to and fro.
Happy leaves! Dancing leaves!
Swinging as the breezes blow,
So will we ever be
Blithe and joyous as we go.
"Hi-o!" is the call given by the leaders for the dancers to
pause. When this call is heard, all the branches must be at once
lowered and every person stand still. After a brief pause the
leaders will again sing the command, "Ev'ry one lift up the branch!" then
comes the response, "Up it goes!" The song immediately follows,
all the wands held high and waving in rhythm to the melody while
the second advance is made. Each one of these advances should
be but a few steps, on account of the limitations of space. The
dancing steps, the rhythmic movements of the body and the swaying
wands should give an undulating line suggestive of waving branches.
The available space on the grounds should be calculated so as
to permit the four approaches accompanied by the dance-song to
reach a point near the tree, yet far enough to permit the forming
of two circles of dancers around its base. At this point the
company should divide into two parts, one part to form an inner
circle and the other to form an outer circle. These two circles
are now to dance around the tree, one to go from right to left,
the other from left to right. At this time the leaders tie their
wands to the trunk of the tree, but all the others retain their
wands while they dance in these concentric circles. All should
sing the dance-song, keeping time with the feet and waving the
wands to the rhythm of the music. As the dance goes on, the time
can be accelerated and the circles become wider and narrower,
but in all these movements the rhythm of song and dance must
never be broken—for the rhythm stands for the binding force
of a common, social and loving life.
Native American Song No. 4
DANCE AROUND THE TREE
Dance the leaves in sunlight,
Dance the leaves in dark night,
Leaves ever, ever dance on the tree,
High we lift the green branch,
Dance and wave our green branch,
Each one is a green branch of the tree,
Now we all return them,
Bind them to the tree stem,
While we sing the glad word, Unity!
Strong our hearts in daylight,
Strong our hearts in still night,
Thus the Hé-de Wa-chi bids us be,
This dance-song can be repeated as often as desired. When at
last the leaders wish it to stop they must give the call, "Hi-o!" as
they did for the pause in the Dance of Approach to the Tree.
When this signal is given, the members should toss their wands
at the foot of the tree from the place where they had stopped
In the ancient Omaha ceremony the people had the vast expanse
of the prairie at their disposal, yet each tribal group kept
its appointed place, not only during the dance, wherein they
made four approaches toward the sacred tree, but when all the
groups formed into two great circles the tribal order of their
relative positions was still preserved. The two circles were
made up according to sex. The women and girls danced in one direction
next to the pole; the men and boys formed the outer circle and
danced in the opposite direction. This dance was the occasion
of much hilarity and fun. Old and young danced with vigor, and
great was the delight of the tribe as it spun around the emblematic
tree, carrying branches. At the close of the dance all tossed
the branches at the foot of the pole, leaving a mound of green
on the widespreading plain.
If boys and girls take part, as they should, in this ceremony,
let the girls form the inner circle and the boys the outer circle
as they dance about the tree in true Omaha fashion.
In real Indian life every vocation has its accompaniment of
song, no matter how homely may be the employment. So, keeping
faith with that ancient American custom, let the camp be put
in order after the ceremony while all sing the following song,
which may be called the Clearing Up:
Native American Song No. 5
THE CLEARING UP
This scene, in which all should take part, can be made merry
as well as useful.