While doing some linguistic research among the Cherokee people I was privileged to attend several cultural events. One of these events was a traditional stompdance. (Another event was the Church in the Woods) I regret that I do not have pictures to share but the event takes place after dark, and while pictures aren't strictly forbidden, they would prefer there be no pictures.
The stompdance to those who participate is more than just a tip of the hat to the old ways. Those who participate truly believe in its spiritual significance and cosmic powers. It's more than an event, its a way of life
I was not among the Cherokee for very long, so any conclusions I have on the purpose of the stompdance would have to be seen as preliminary. While talking to people who participated some themes began emerging: healing, unity, and harmony. It seemed that performing this ritual somehow was restoring balance not only to an individual's soul, but also to the community and ultimately restoring harmony between man and nature.
This issue of harmony is a very common theme with folk religions around the world. Paul Hiebert brakes rituals down into three different categories: Rites of Transformation (ex. when a boy becomes a man), Rites of Re-Creation (ex. ritual after a natural disaster) and Rites of Renewal. About rites of renewal Hiebert says "they publicly affirm the existing social and cultural order, which becomes blurred and forgotten in ordinary life. In a sense, they are like housecleaning. As people live in their homes, the homes become dirty. Dust settles on the shelves, food is spilled on the floor, clothes are left lying on the chairs, and rugs are soiled. Periodically, the family stops and cleans things up. Rites of restoration act as SOCIAL and RELIGIOUS housecleaning rituals, restoring meaning and order to a world that is falling into chaos and meaninglessness." -Transforming Worldviews pg 98 (emphasis mine)
Basically by performing the stompdance they are remembering what things are important to them socially and religious things to keep things in the world from disintegrating.
The ritual begins with the fire being built in the center of the community. This is for more reason than just so everyone can see. The idea of centrality and harmony is more than just a symbol. By symbolically placing the fire in the center they are making harmony be. Approximately 15 from the fire the male leaders are seated under an arbor. Different men lead different chants, but whoever is leading this chant will stand before the other men. He then begins to chant something, which the other men reply by saying "whoa". From what I was told the song leader is basically saying the song will start and is calling them to action, and the other men are agreeing. They then get up and walk towards the fire.
They are met at the fire by the young ladies. They are all standing in a straight lines with the men facing the women. The song leader has a type of rattle in his hand. Traditionally this rattle is made with a stick, rocks, and a turtle shell...but they have modernized this some. The ladies all have rattles tied around their feet. Again these are traditionally made with turtle shells, but most of the girls have abandoned turtle shells for soup cans since they are louder and easier to come by. When it is time to start the song, the song leader lets out a cry and starts shaking his rattle. Everyone begins stomping at the beat of the rattle. They then proceed to march around the fire counterclockwise single file continuing to rattle and stomp in unison. This creates a very synchronized beat. The song leader will then yell out a chant which is repeated by all. The continue to go around and around the fire until the song is over, about 5-7 minutes. They then all go back to their seats.
After a break of about 2 minutes the whole process is repeated with a different song leader typically. They will continue to sing songs until sunrise. Yes, sunrise.
What Are They Talking About?
I was very curious to get my hands on the meaning of the songs. I sat and strained to hear what they were saying. After all, I was collecting language data. The problem I encountered while listening was that I couldn't pick out a single Cherokee word. No problem I thought, I'll just ask tomorrow what was being said.
When I asked later what the songs were about I was told that they didn't know. I found this fascinating. I asked again. They explained that the form of the language the song was in was too old for anyone to make heads or tails of it. When I asked why they didn't just write some new songs that went off like a turd in a punchbowl. "You don't do that" they said.
This is another typical thing in societies that have a strong emphasis on orality. It's hard for us to grasp sometimes, but in many societies around the world words are believed to have innate powers. To change the words is to render the ritual powerless. They will never change their songs, for to do so would make the ritual of no use or purpose.