Today, there are several popular intertribal dances at the powwow, each with their own style of dance, style of outfit, and specific songs with each category. For men, the categories include Men’s Traditional, Grass Dance, and Fancy Dance; for women, Women’s Traditional, Jingle Dress, and Fancy Shawl. A new category of dance for men is the Chicken Dance.
Many young people know very little about where these dances originated. For example, the Chicken Dance is usually attributed to the Crow. For the Crow, it was, and still is, a sacred dance. But in recent years, it has evolved into a popular intertribal dance category.
The Bwaasiniimidin (Grass Dance) has been around for many years. It is a pan-Indian dance category that is performed as contest and traditional powwows. Both the Men’s Traditional and Grass dance categories can trace their origins to a single source – the Omaha and Ponca Hethushka societies in the southern Plains.
This short essay is an attempt to tell a history of Bwaasiniimidin and its dispersion among the Anishinaabeg. I’ve chosen to use the term - Bwaasiniimidin – as given by Michael A. Rynkiewich in his study, Chippewa Powwows.
War Dance and Warrior Traditions of the Anishinaabeg
There are several origin stories for the Bwaasiniimidin. In one version, it is said that dancers would go out early in the morning and dance on the grass, creating a flattened area for the community powwow to be held later in the day. In another version, the yarn worn by grass dancers is said to represent grass swaying in the wind. These are stories shared by many tribes, including the Anishinaabeg. Powwow MC’s often recite the stories when introducing the grass dance category.
But the origins of the Bwaasiniimidin go back to a time when there were significant changes occurring in tribal social structures. The changes in southern Plains warrior societies would affect similar warrior structures in northern tribes. A commonality shared among many North American warrior groups was the War Dance and Scalp Dance.
Among the Anishinaabeg, war dances “were held every night from the time of the assembling of the warriors to their departure. At these dances the leading warriors related their deeds of valor, enacted former exploits, and sang their personal war songs.”
Upon their return, the warriors celebrated their victories in the scalp dance. The scalps “were presented to wives or mothers of men who had been killed by the enemy…the scalps were put in hoops set on poles.” The women would dance with the scalp hoops in the scalp dance, although the warrior(s) who captured the scalp would dance with it to recount his exploit in a victory dance.
Chippewa Scalp Dance, Paul Rindisbacher, 1826
Anishinaabeg warriors who displayed bravery and prowess in battle were honored with specific feathers and war badges, which, in turn, became a part of their regalia worn in war dances.
Notched feathers indicated the killing and scalping of an enemy warrior; Unnotched feathers designated warriors who had scalped enemy warriors who had been killed by other warriors. Feathers were also awarded to warriors who had assisted in the scalping. Dots of rabbit fur indicated the number of bullets the warrior had in his gun at the time of the scalping.
Certain insignia were awarded to warriors who had touched the enemy. Skunk skins and fur were worn on arm badges or on the legs to indicate the manner of touching the enemy.
Spiritual helpers protected Anishinaabeg warriors. These spiritual helpers were painted on their war drums, etched on war clubs, beaded, quillled or painted on their personal weaponry.
Animals also provided protection for warriors. Weasels were worn on shirts because weasels were considered to be hunters and warriors. Kingfishers were worn around the neck because the kingfisher harassed stronger and larger birds than them, and when larger birds approached them, the kingfisher would rush out and meet them. If a kingfisher skin wasn’t available, one was made out of cloth and medicine was placed inside it. 
Eagle feathers awarded to Anishinaabe Ogichidaag for war exploits,
Bureau of American Ethnology
Ogichidaa war badge,
Bureau of American Ethnology
Anishinaabe war club and warrior’s hand drum,
Bureau of American Ethnology
Ogichidaa war charm,
Bureau of American Ethnology
Ogichidaa war shirt with weasel skins,
Bureau of American Ethnology
Both the war dance and the scalp dance were non-secular dances – they weren’t social dances. However, changes began in the late 1840s and early 1850s that would bring the non-secular dances into the social dance. This new social dance complex – called the powwow – has its beginnings in the southern Plains.
The Anishinaabe warrior complex was not as highly structured as the Plains warrior societies. Anishinaabe war leaders were “distinguished for sound judgement and steadiness of purpose.” The war leader had four men who assisted him; these men were called Oshkaabewisag. War ceremonies were performed on the four days preceding the departure of a war expedition. During these ceremonies, war dances were performed and war songs were sung.
Plains warrior societies were structured along the lines of a military organization. Because warfare – with enemy tribes and the U.S. military – was a constant factor in the lives of Plains tribes, efficient warrior societies were developed to respond to threats to the tribe and villages.
Plains warrior societies were highly organized with a hierarchy of officials who had specific roles and functions within the societies. Ceremonies were elaborate and complex. One of the distinguishing features of these societies were the four officers who wore crow belts – “feather bustles symbolizing crows flocking over a battlefield.”
The diminishment of warfare and the establishment of reservations ended the need for warrior societies. However, since warrior societies were such an integral part of Plains tribal life, the societies adapted to changes and developed into drum and dance societies.
One of the most prominent and influential dance societies was the Hethushka of the Omaha and Ponca. “By the mid-1880s, the Hethushka developed as a secular version of the war dance…each [society had] their own songs, singers, and dancers. Hethushka dancers wore their warrior regalia, including roaches, scalps of opponents, and feather belts or bustles…as the dance became non-secularized, eagle feathers replaced crow feathers and braided sweetgrass replaced scalps.”
The dance spread throughout the Plains through barter and exchange. Various names were given to the dance – Hot Dance, Chicken Dance, Crow Dance. The most popular term was the War Dance. The regalia for war dancers not only included a bustle on the backside, but also small bustles were often worn on the arms. This would eventually develop into the Fancy Dance or Fancy Feather Dance.
Among Oklahoma tribes, the dance developed into the Southern Straight Dance. The most distinguishing feature of Southern Straight dancers was the absence of the bustle. This was because the U.S. government mandated the dancers to turn in their bustles because the government believed the use of feathers from dead birds would spread disease. The bustles were put into piles and burned.
The dance spread northward to northern Plains tribes and Woodland tribes. “Even though the particular traits accepted by each tribe varied, each ceremonial association being organized differently, the theme of war as well as a particular type of drumming, singing, and dancing persisted as common traits.” The Lakota/Dakota called it the Omaha Dance, in reference to its point of origin, or the Grass Dance, in reference to the braided sweetgrass that had replaced scalps.
Northern Plains dancers who had adapted the dance incorporated their own warrior regalia. From the time of its inception among the northern Plains in the 1870s to the early 1900s, there were no particular regalia that distinguished northern Plains grass dancers. There is no clear, distinguishable point when the northern style grass dance separated into two specific dance styles. Judging from photographs, the best estimate is the separation occurred in the 1930s-1940s. The grass dance formally developed into a style dance in which the regalia emphasized the war shirt. The weasel skins formerly worn on war shirts were replaced with yarn; yarn was also used on the dancer’s leggings. Bustled grass dancers who maintain the wearing of eagle feather bustles were invariably referred to as War Dancers. By the 1960s, this term would be replaced with the dance style that it is known by today – Men’s Traditional Dance.
Hidatsa grass dancers,
Edward Goodbird, 1914
Development of the Bwaasiniimidin among the Anishinaabe
The dispersion of the Bwaasiniimidin among the Anishinaabe occurred at Red Lake in the 1860s. The dance was given the Red Lake Anishinaabe as a gift to establish peace between the Dakota and Ojibwe.
Thereafter, powwows became an integral part of Red Lake life with annual powwows at the town of Red Lake and Obaashing (Ponemah). Red Lakers referred to the dance as the Sioux Dance, in reference to the tribe from whom they had obtained the dance. Upon the acceptance of the dance, the Red Lake band had the right to pass the dance to other Anishinaabe bands.
Photographs from the early 1900s reveal that Ojibwe powwows incorporated older dance forms while integrating newer dance forms. There was an integration of the Woman's Dance (which would later develop into the Two-Step) and the Round Dance. These two dances were the original social dances of the Anishinaabeg. In general, men and women danced together at dance gatherings. Women danced in their ziibaaska`iganagoodayan (jingle dresses). Men, on the other hand, chose one of two different dance styles and the regalia associated with those styles. There was the War Dance regalia and dance associated with the Bwaasiniimidin, i.e., the "modern" form of the war dance. Other men chose to wear regalia associated with the Nandobaniishimowin. This was the traditional war dance complex that long preceded the Bwaasiniimidin. The regalia itself replaced the original medium of quillwork and incorporated the newly emerging medium of beads. Hence, men wore vests/yokes, leggings, aprons, and bandolier bags marked by Woodland floral motifs and designs. By the late 1920s-early 1930s, a more formal category developed - the men's grass dance with its attendant regalia that we associate the grass dance with today.
War Dance at Obaashing, 1910,
Minnesota Historical Society
Scalp Dance at White Earth, 1910
Minnesota Historical Society
Another dance in which both men and women participated in was the secular scalp dance. The dance was performed at Red Lake and White Earth powwows in the early 1900s. However, reservation authorities, under BIA policies, eventually banned the dance because of its association with war.
Like their northern Plains neighbors, dancers wore bustled or non-bustle regalia. The wearing of bustles, or eagle feather belts, predates the incorporation of the Bwaasiniimidin in Anishinaabe dance culture. A drawing by George Catlin clearly depicts Anishinaabe warriors wearing feathered bustles. The drawing is from a dance exhibit performed by the Anishinaabe for the Queen of England in 1856, an event that Catlin arranged and attended.
Ojibwe performing before Queen Victoria in London 1843,
The regalia of non-bustled Anishinaabe grass dancers were particularly distinguishable by the back breechcloth. These breechcloths were covered with chevron strips of various colors. Dancers also wore colored feather fluffs attached to their sleeves, chest, and their trousers. In addition, they wore two long beaded bands that hung over their shoulders and down the front of their shirts. This particular style of regalia became extremely popular among Red Lake dancers.
Another important change in dancing in the 1930s and 1940s was the merging of the various styles of dance. Grass dancers, war dancers, and jingle dress danced together. To this extent, the powwow, as it was termed, became a new kind of social dance among the Anishinaabeg.
The 1950s and early 1960s saw another significant change in grass dance regalia. This was the use of yarn. According to Louie Boyd, a renowned grass dancer, it is a fable that the yarn of a grass dancer’s outfit represents grass. “Grass dancers represent warriors. [Traditional] fringed war shirt and leggings form the basis of the grass dance outfit.”
The emergence of the contest powwow brought changes to the grass dance. Today, there are two categories for the grass dance – contemporary grass dance and old style grass dance.
According to Boyd, “Old style is slow and delivered. You go through maybe twenty beats of the drum to deliver movement on each side. You move your shoulders first, and then bring the movement down to your foot. Then you repeat the movements with the other side of your body. In the new style grass dance, everything is fast…the main difference between old and new is simplicity and complexity. Old style is simple, slow controlled movement. New style is fast, with complex foot and hip movements.”
Two old style grass dancers: Louie Boyd (Leech Lake Anishinaabe) and Johnny Smith (Red Lake Anishinaabe - Photo by Joe Marcel Thunder)
“The grass dance represents continuity and change in the powwow.” The continuity of the grass dance can be seen in its regalia. The old war shirts fringed with weasel skins that were worn by Anishinaabe warriors can be seen in the yarn of modern-day grass dancers. The regalia worn today connects us to our past.
But there have also been changes. grass dance outfits – especially those of contest dancers – have become more colorful and elaborate. For some dancers, ribbons have replaced yarn. And the new style of grass dance that Louie Boyd talks about is much more different than the old style of dancing. Although the new style became popular in the 1990s and basically overtook the old style, the old style dancers continued to dance their slow and controlled movements. Their forbearance paid off. Today the old style grass dance is recognized as a separate category at contest powwows. And it is the old style that represents the spirit of Bwaasiniimidin
The fables and misconceptions of the origins of the grass dance have diminished its history. But there are those Anishinaabe grass dancers, who are elders now, who remember its history and who help to remember that history. Through them, the grass dance provides us with a look into our past and helps to reaffirm our identities as Anishinaabe people.
© 2017, All Rights Reserved, Robert DesJarlait