Program 101: Tribal Rhythms

Nico Wind

Nico Wind

The Gourd Dance

Nico Wind shares the origin and relevant music segues from the Kiowa Gourd Dance Society including the story of a warrior’s encounter with a red wolf. She tells the story of how the warrior was taught songs and dance and instructed to use them to honor Kiowa warriors for bravery and deeds in battle.


 

Nico Wind:
Once, long ago, in an area between the headwaters of the Yellowstone River and the Black Hills of South Dakota, a Kiowa warrior became separated from his people.

Music:
Koomsa Tribal Singers
Gourd Dance Starting Song & 2 Gourd Dance Songs
Kiowa Gourd Dance Songs, Vol. 2
Canyon Records

Weak and near his final hour, he followed the sound of beautiful singing up a hill until he discovered a Red Wolf standing on his hind legs, carrying a gourd, and singing haunting melodies. The Red Wolf offered food and water to the warrior. And while regaining his strength, he listened to the instructions of the spirit creature that had saved his life.

The warrior was instructed to take these songs and the dances back to his people as a gift. As long as they upheld and followed their Kiowa traditions in a good way, the songs and the dances could be used to honor warriors for bravery and deeds in battle. “And,” counseled the Red Wolf, “in return, always remember me by singing a wolf howl at the end of each song.” Thus, the Red Wolf’s request is honored to this day at the end of all Gourd Dance songs.

Many tribes participate in the Gourd Dance today and several tribes claim the dance as part of their culture. This story is the Kiowa legend of its origin. The songs are carried by several Kiowa warrior societies. The Kiowa name for the Gourd Dance means “not afraid to die.”

In the late 19th century, the government outlawed and nearly eliminated the Gourd Dance. It was mostly the effort of one man that kept the tradition alive. Bill Koomsa, Sr. revived the Gourd Clan in 1941. And though it was forbidden to do so, he and a few other courageous people began piecing together and then practicing eight of the traditional Gourd Dance songs as they remembered them. These songs, descendents of those earlier pieces, were recorded by Canyon Records in the mid-seventies.

Singers of the Kiowa Gourd Clan have the responsibility of maintaining and keeping the songs alive. Initial membership was made up of warriors and rough riders whose duty was to police and protect their camps. Induction into the Gourd Society is a high honor. In modern times, individuals have been honored with inclusion in the Gourd Society for their achievements on behalf of Native peoples. Today membership includes doctors, attorneys, educators and even a Pulitzer Prize winner, N. Scott Momaday.

Music:
Koomsa Tribal Singers
Gourd Dance Starting Song & 2 Gourd Dance Songs
Kiowa Gourd Dance Songs, Vol. 2
Canyon Records

The Gourd Dance begins with a starting song. The singers set the cadence by tapping the rim of the drum. As they begin singing, the gourd dancers begin to catch the rhythm with their gourds. The drum and gourds blend in unison.

Music:
Koomsa Tribal Singers
Gourd Dance Starting Song & 2 Gourd Dance Songs
Kiowa Gourd Dance Songs, Vol. 2
Canyon Records

Kiowa Gourd Clan

Kiowa Gourd Clan

After the fourth start, the song is interrupted with a hard beat of the drum, followed by the wolf call. The singers immediately resume the starting song for four more rounds. The drumming then picks up and the dancers rise to their feet and begin the dance.

There are many gourd dance songs. The tradition of honoring those who distinguish themselves with a special song has brought us a wealth of music. And as Native people continue to strive and achieve, new songs will be created in their honor. Still, one element remains the same in all Gourd Dance songs, the howl you hear at the end honoring Red Wolf!

Neskahi:
The story of the Gourd Dance was produced by Nico Wind. This is Wisdom of the Elders. I’m Arlie Neskahi.

Special thanks to Dennis W. Zotigh for his invaluable assistance with this feature:

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa, Santee Dakota, San Juan Pueblo) American Indian Research Historian Oklahoma Historical Society and Cultural Advisor National Museum of the American Indian

Learn more about the music and artists featured on Tribal Rhythms at Canyon Records.