Green Corn Dance

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Green Corn Dance

Type of Holiday: Religious (various Native American), Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: Various
Where Celebrated: Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, and by Native American tribes throughout the United States
Symbols and Customs: Black Drink, Scratching

ORIGINS

The Green Corn Dance is a Native American religious rite. Not much is known about the historical development of this and other religious belief systems among Native Americans. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

The history of Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

Most North American Indian tribes had three major corn ceremonies: a planting ceremony, a harvest ceremony, and most important of all, a green corn ceremony. Held several weeks before the main harvest, when the ears of corn were nearly ripe, it was an annual rite of purification and renewal involving ceremonial dances addressed to the god who controlled the growth of corn or maize. Up until the time the Green Corn Dance took place, it was considered a crime against the gods to eat or even touch the newly ripened corn. Among the southern American Indians in the eighteenth century, it was a time for getting new clothes, new pots, and new household utensils. They would collect their worn-out clothing and, along with all the leftover grain and other provisions, make a huge pile and set it on fire.

Although the Green Corn Dance was at one time observed by the Indians of the Prairies and Southwest as well as by Eastern tribes, it has died out in many areas. Today it is usually associated with the Seminole Indians of Florida, who hold their Green Corn Dance in May. The Seminole dance is derived from the Creek ceremony known as the busk (from the Creek word boskita, meaning "to fast"), which marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year. Aside from its ceremonial purpose, the Green Corn Dance is the time when the Seminoles hold their annual council meetings. It is also a time when the sins of the old year are forgiven and members of the tribe repent for anything they've done wrong. Events that take place during the festival include ball games, stomp dances, and special rites for young male members of the tribe who have come of age during the preceding year.

Among the eastern Cherokee and Creek Indians, the Green Corn Dance has died out as a vegetation rite but survives as a curative ceremony. The Iroquois celebrate their Green Corn Dance for four days in early September, during which they perform various thanksgiving rites including the Great Feather Dance and the Corn Dance itself. Almost every pueblo in New Mexico holds a corn dance on its saint's day, the most elaborate being the Santo Domingo Pueblo (New Mexico) Green Corn Dance held on St. Dominic's Day in August. Koshares or holy clowns who represent the spirits of pueblo ancestors weave among the dancers, all of whom carry evergreens, symbolic of growth.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Black Drink

Drinking an emetic or purgative, which induces vomiting, was a standard part of the rites that comprised the Green Corn Dance. It was usually cassine, from which a special tea was made, or ilex vomitoria, made from the holly shrub that was found along the coast of Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida. The Indians believed that by drinking the so-called "Black Drink" on the evening of the festival's first day, they were purifying themselves physically and spiritually, emerging in a state of perfect innocence. The next day, they would eat the green corn, which they believed contained a divine spirit that must not be permitted to touch any common, unpurified food when it entered their stomachs. After fasting for an additional day, there would be a great feast.

There was a widespread belief that anyone who didn't take the Black Drink could not safely eat the new corn and would get sick during the year. The Indians also believed that the drink made them brave in war and cemented their bonds with one another.

Scratching

Ceremonial scratching was a common practice during the Green Corn Dance among the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Yuchi, and Catawba tribes. It took place just before the Feather Dance on the second day. Those participating in the ceremony would use various methods to inflict deep scratches on their bodies, particularly their backs. Among the Cherokees, a bamboo brier with stout thorns was used, while the Seminoles used snake fangs inserted into a wooden holder. Ceremonial scratching was a symbolic act believed to cleanse the body from impurities. At other times of the year, it was used to punish children and to relieve fatigue.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Penner, Lucille Recht. The Thanksgiving Book. New York: Hastings House, 1986.

WEB SITES

Oneida Nation of Wisconsin Museum museum.oneidanation.org/education/greenCorn.htm

Seminole Tribe of Florida www.seminoletribe.com/culture/dance.shtml
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This, for his many friends and his large family, was crisis enough, but his illness came just before the annual Green Corn Ceremony of the Polecat Ceremonial Ground.
Religious, cultural and governmental factor lessened the prevalence of the traditional Green Corn Ceremony and the sacred Corn Woman.