Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
April 22, 2000 - Issue 08

The Rabbit Dance
Mohawk (Kanienkahageh) Legend

Long ago, a group of hunters were out looking for game. They had seen no sign of animals, but they went slowly and carefully through the forest, knowing that at any moment they might find something. Just ahead of them was a clearing. The leader of the hunters held his hand for the other to pause. He thought he had seen something. All of the men dropped down on their stomachs and crept to the clearing's edge to see what they could see. What they saw amazed them. There, in the center of the clearing, was the biggest rabbit any of them had ever seen. It seemed to be as big as a small bear!!

One of the hunters slowly began to raise his bow. A rabbit as large as that one would be food enough for the entire village. But, the leader of the men held out his hand and made a small motion that the man with the bow understood. He lowered his weapon. Something unusual was happening. It was best to just watch and see what would happen next.

The rabbit lifted its head and looked toward the men. Even though they were well hidden on the right side of the clearing, it seemed as if that giant rabbit could see them. But, the rabbit didn't take flight. Instead, it just nodded it's head. Then, it lifted one of its feet and thumped the ground. As soon as it did so, other rabbits began to come into the clearing. They came from all directions and, like their chief, paid no attention to the hunters.

Now the big rabbit began to thump its foot against the ground in a different way.




It was the sound of a drum beating. the rabbits all around made a big circle and began to dance. They danced and danced. They danced in couples and moved in and out and back and forth. It was a very good dance that the rabbits did. The hunters who were watching found themselves tapping the earth with their hands in the same beat as the big rabbit's foot.

Then, suddenly, the big rabbit stopped thumping the earth. All of the rabbits stopped dancing. BA-BUM! The chief of the rabbits thumped the earth one final time. It leaped high into the air, right over the men's heads, and it was gone. All of the other rabbits ran in every direction out of the clearing, and they were gone, too.

The men were astonished by what they had seen. None of them had ever seen anything at all like this. None of them had ever heard or seen such a dance. It was all they could talk about as they went back into the village. All thought of hunting was now gone from their minds.

When they reached the village, they went straight to the longhouse where the head of the Clan Mothers lived. She was a very wise woman and knew a great deal about animals. They told her the story. She listened closely. When they were done telling the story, she picked up a water drum and handed it to the leader of the hunters.

"Play that rhythm which the Rabbit Chief played," she said.

The leader of the men did as she asked. he played the rhythm of the rabbits dance.

"That is a good sound," said the Clan Mother. "Now show me the dance which the rabbit people showed you."

The hunters then did the dance while their leader played the drum. The Clan Mother listened closely and watched. When they were done, she smiled at them.

"I understand what has happened," she said. "The Rabbit People know that we rely on them. We hunt them for food and clothing. The Rabbit Chief has given us this special dance so that we can honor its people for all they give to the human beings. If we play their song and do their dance, then they will know we are grateful for all they continue to give us. We much call this new song The Rabbit Dance and we must do it, men and women together, to honor the Rabbit People."

So it was that a new social dance was given to the Iroquois people. To this day, the Rabbit Dance is done to thank the Rabbit People for all they have given, not only food and clothing, but also a fine dance that makes the people glad.

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The Deer Dance
( Yaqui-Southwest legend )

There was a man who lived in the country far away from any village. He made his living as a hunter, but he was always very respectful of the animals he hunted. This man's name was Walking Man. He always kept his eyes and ears open to everything around him, for he know how special the wilderness was. It was to the wilderness that people went in their dreams, to the place they called Seye Wailo. That name meant many things. It meant the Home of all the Animals. It meant the home of the Deer. It meant the Place Where Flowers Live. It was said that the best songs always came to people from Seye Wailo.

One day, as Walking Man was out, he heard a sound from a hilltop. It was like a sound he had heard before at the time of year when the deer are mating. It was the clattering of antlers. He knew that the bucks would fight in this way during the mating time, striking their antlers together. But, it was not that time of year and this sound was different. It was a softer sound and its rhythm was like that of a song. He went to look, but he could see nothing.

The next morning Walking Man rose before the sun came up and went back to that hilltop. He sat quietly on a fallen tree and waited as the sun rose. He began to hear that sound again, and he looked carefully. There, not far from him were two big deer. They had huge antlers and, as they stood facing each other, they rattled their antlers together. Near them was a young deer. As Walking Man watched, he saw that young deer lift its head and lower it. It ran from side to side, leaping up and down. It seemed happy as it did this. Walking Man knew what he was seeing. He was seeing the deer do their own special dance. Though he had his weapons with him, he did not try to kill them. He watched them dance for a long time.

When Walking Man went down that hill, he had a thought in his mind. There were songs coming into his mind. When he rose the next morning, he went out to walk and as he walked he found a newborn fawn where its mother had left it hidden among the flowers. He made a song for that fawn. Then, he went to the village and gathered some of his friends.

"I am going to make songs for the deer," he said.

He took two sticks and put notches on one of them so that he could make the sound of the deer's antlers. He showed one of the boys in the village how the young deer danced and had the boy dance that way as they played the deer song and sang.

So it was that the Deer Dance came to the Yaqui people, a gift from the deer, a gift from Seye Wailo.

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Deer Dance

Did You Know????

Music, dance and celebration are sometimes seen by people of European heritage as being limited to human beings. Native American people don't see it this way, at all. The rabbit, for one, is thought of as a great dancer and one who loves to have a good time.

Rabbit Dance:

It's often said by the People of the Longhouse, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), that we learn many things from the animals. This story of 'The Rabbit Dance is one example. It comes from the Mohawk (Kanienkahageh or "People of the Flint") Nation of the Haudenosaunee. By watching the animals closely, the hunters came home with something special. The relationship between Native American people and the animals that they had to hunt for survival was very different from that between a modern sportsman who hunts only for his pleasure and his prey. In story after story among the Haudenosaunee, a hunter goes out and comes back not with game, but with a lesson learned from the animals themselves.

Circle Dance:

Each time the animals offer the gift of survival to the people, a circle of giving and receiving is begun. This circle is complete when the gift is returned to the people. There are many traditional ways that move in this circle. In the tradition of the Abenaki Indians of the East, the "People of the Dawn," the hunter prepares for the hunt by asking permission of the animal and Creation. If this is done in a respectful, reverential way, it is believed, the animal will present itself to the hunter. All of the animal is used without wasting anything, which would be respectful. A gift of the animal's bones is then returned to the place where the animal was found and a prayer of thanks is said. Circle dances are commonly done to celebrate the gift, to remind people of their connection with all of life, to strengthen the community, and to celebrate the giving circle and the circles of life.

Deer Dance:

The second story reminds us that today the Deer Dance remains strong among the Yaqui people. It is closely connected with being a Yaqui. The Yaqui people believe that everything in the world of the desert is alive and in communication with everything else. They also know that the desert world is a place of flowers. There are few places in North America where flowers leap into life with such beauty and intensity as in the Arizona desert during the time of the spring rains. The desert truly is the "Flower World" and all of the Deer Songs of the Yaqui people speak of and give praise to this flower-covered world that is the desert. It is a world that may seem dead, but the smallest drops of rain awaken it to life again and the deer go among the new flowers....dancing.

Now, reread the stories and without peeking answer these questions:

  1. In "The Rabbit Dance," when the big rabbit is first spotted, one of the hunters raises his bow to shoot. Then the leader makes a motion and the hunter lowers his bow. What does the leader "say" with this motion?
  2. Back in the village, the head of the Clan Mothers listens to the song and watches the Rabbit Dance. Why does she say that the Rabbit Chief gave the song and dance to the Iroquois people?
  3. In the Yaqui story "The Deer Dance," Walking Man waits on a fallen tree and watches the deer dance. Then, on the way down the hill, songs come into his mind. Where do these songs come from?
  4. What is the importance of the circle of giving and receiving in our relationship with the animals? How do Native Americans honor this circle in their lives?
  5. What other animals do you know of, besides deer and rabbits, that celebrate with song, dance and play?
  6. Why do animals celebrate?

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