Gourd Dance Overview

By Roy Cook

This dance and these songs originated with the Kiowa tribe in the Black Hills of South Dakota in the 1700s. For a period of time, they were not presented in public but in the early 1950s there was a revival of this popular tradition.

Members of Tia Piah Society (Kiowa warrior society) were still alive who remembered the old days and the old songs. They passed those on and re-established the society as a veterans’ organization. As time has gone on it has developed into an important part of the Pow Wow circuit and has engendered an intertribal social dance — the gourd dance. Primarily a dance for veterans and their families, this dance is found throughout the various nations in the United States.

When a young man had distinguished himself enough to be considered a man he might be taken in by one of the six warrior societies. Three of these societies still exist today: The Tia Piah Society (within this also existed the Koitsenko or the ten bravest warriors).

Members of this society were the protectors of the tribe. Referred to by other tribes as dog soldiers, these men were willing to lose their lives in defense of the people. They dance with a gourd and a fan. Their emblems are the bandoleer made of silver and mescal beads and a blanket made of red and blue trade cloth.


The Kiowa have passed this society on to other organization and tribes as an intertribal veterans dance. Kiowa elders in 1975 officially recognized Golden State Gourd Society, at an Orange county location. Randy Edmonds is a past President of the Golden State Gourd Society and is still dancing!

According to the story, a Kiowa warrior, the lone survivor of a battle, is trying to find his way back to the tribe. On his way, he hears music and finds Red Wolf, singing and dancing and holding a fan in one paw and a rattle in the other. Red Wolf feeds the warrior and tells him to take the songs back to the tribe. If you listen closely you will hear the call of the wolf as the songs end.

Today, most dancers must be members of a gourd society. Many are Warrior Military Veterans of many conflicts. They wear a bandoleer of metal beads and mescal seeds. Over their shoulders, they drape a wool blanket, red on one end, blue on the other. Many are decorated with war ribbons and unit patches. In one hand, they hold a fan of feathers, and in the other a gourd rattle, sometimes a metal can or saltshaker rattle.

Most construction techniques used in making gourd rattles for the Kiowa Tia Piah Society (a hereditary warrior society) are examined.

As a member of the Golden State Gourd Society (an urban based group of Intertribal gourd dancers which can trace its foundation to the Kiowa nation), this writer has been privileged to observe firsthand many of the current customs. Gourd rattles in their various forms are some of the oldest musical instruments found on the Plains. Currently gourds are made from traditional bottle gourds, small tin cans, aluminum saltshakers, and metal tea balls.

Hard-shell bottle gourds (Largenaria siceraria) have been used throughout the world for centuries. They make excellent water carriers and can easily be shaped into numerous useful implements. Perhaps the oldest musical instrument found on the plains was a gourd with the seeds dried inside of it. The construction technology is basic and the available materials are shaped with the available technology.

The modern gourd rattle is composed of two major parts: a wooden rod and some sort of hollow container. The hollow container (the gourd or metal container) is pierced so that the rod can extend entirely through it. The rod is slightly conical at the top end so that the gourd cannot be pushed past a selected point. Once filled with beans, seeds, shot or beads, the gourd is tied into position to the rod. Various decorations are added including peyote beading of the handle and the tightly fitted leather top section. Also, traditionally there is a twine twisted leather braid on the handle and feathers or horsehair at the top.

Many fine Native American Oklahoma and western USA artists are producing gourds for use in the gourd dance societies. The popularity of ornamental gourds for decoration and of hand crafted gourds for dancing has made it difficult for the artists to keep up with the demand for their work. The quality of the beadwork and of artistic designs applied to a gourd adds much to its value, but essentially and musically, the instruments are so designed as to please the ears of the individual dancer.


Southern Plains gourd dance items; Eagle feather fan, gourd stitched handle, hackle trim. Mescal bead bandoleer. Velvet sash with gourd stitch and channette fringe end decoration. Aluminum shaker rattle, wood handle, glass seed bead gourd stitch.
Red/blue wool broadcloth blanket, ribbon edging.

gourddance005Southern plains male Gourd regalia /web stitch beaded end decoration; velvet sash and channette fringe .

Joe Chastnah, Commanche, Oklahoma.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa author and poet, N. Scott Momaday, describes the Kiowa Gourd Dance, and how it feels to dance with his fellow Kiowas in the sacred circle of the dance arena:

The sun descends upon the trees. The heat is hypnotic . . ..
It is as if I am asleep. Then the drums break, the voices of the singers gather to the beat, the rattles shake all around–mine among them. I stand and move again, slowly, toward the center
of the universe in time, in time, more and more closely in time.

There have been times when I have wondered what the dance is and what it means–and what I am inside of it. And there have been times when I have known. Always, there comes a moment when the dance takes hold of me, becomes itself the most meaningful and appropriate expression of my being. And always, afterward, there is rejoicing among us. We have made our prayer, and we have made good our humanity in the process.

A member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan, Momaday perceives the dance as “a religious experience by and large natural and appropriate. It is an expression of the spirit” A Kiowa elder, Clifton Toneamah, commented to me that the Gourd Dance is sacred, and that participating in it is an expression of “Kiowaness,” because the “Kiowa are born to dance.”

The Second World War was a turning point for many Native Americans. The indigenous peoples who were drafted into the military served with great distinction. The military experience was a great revelation and society leveler. Thereby, to a degree, allowing native soldiers to be the equal of whites. Even to the point that they were allowed to drink alcohol at local bars – This may provoke many other value judgments but remember there were and are still laws against this in Indian Country until 1957 and some states Tribes are still dry. The military experience allowed the plains tribes a means to translate the old ways into appropriate modern traditions.

The warrior societies that had been set-aside during the allotment and assimilation period were reorganized. Fortunately, there were people left who still remembered the old ways and the old songs. Women again sang songs of victory (War mothers’ Songs) and men sang songs of brave deeds. The warrior societies found a logical and useful extension in serving veterans returning from the Second World War. Much like the non-Indian veterans organizations (e.g. Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion) these societies honored the returning soldiers.

Native Americans began writing new songs — songs of the deeds of the valiant soldiers, songs of mothers for there absent sons, songs of honor much like the old days. A new type of song emerged, the flag song that took the same place as the National Anthem.

Among the reorganized societies was the Tia Piah Society. Members of Tia Piah Society (Kiowa warrior society) were still alive who remembered the old days and the old songs. They passed those on and re-established the society as a veterans’ organization. As time has gone on it has developed into an important part of the Pow Wow circuit and has engendered an inter-tribal social dance — the gourd dance. Primarily a dance for veterans and their families, this dance is found throughout the various nations in the United States.

According to the Kiowa, this type of dance comes to us from Red Wolf (Ku-ee-Goodle-tey) who gave it is a gift to a brave young warrior. He asked the young warrior to pass it on to other brave men and to protect the people. The society was called Tdien-pei-gah (presently Tia Piah) which means skunk berries. There are several conflicting stories about the origin of this term, but no one is certain how it came to be applied to the gourd dancers.

The Kiowa Tia Piah Society holds its Annual during the Fourth of July South of Carnegie, Oklahoma. Members of the Kiowa Tia Piah Society and other groups that owe their existence to the Kiowa Tia Piah gather together to celebrate the dances of the society. The communication that occurs between the younger and older members of these two societies takes two basic forms. First, there is the formal interaction. This included the gathering of the boys with Grandfather Rabbit and their service at the Annual. Second, there is the informal interaction between younger people and older people throughout the gathering.

The Annual truly begins with a religious service preceding the actual dances. Native American Church members arrive early and prepare for honoring Doyem Daw-k’hee. This service is led by elders and asks blessings of Jesus and His Father upon the gathering and all the participants. It usually includes a smoke. This sets the tone of the entire gathering. Younger men attend the services and the young boys spend time with Grandfather Rabbit. In an informal way, families gather to renew friendships and discuss how the previous year has gone. During the informal gatherings, the elders are respectfully given places of honor, the younger folk listen attentively and join in discussion while the younger ones play together impromptu games.

During the following day, Gourd Dancing is done under the direction of the headmen of the Kiowa Tia Piah Society. It is easy to identify these four headmen as they each wear a distinctive turban made from otter fur and bring with them their lance. These four lances are then driven into the ground in a row inside the circle (dance arena) next to the drum that occupies the center of the arena. Each headman usually places his feather bonnet upon his lance after it has been driven into the ground. These lances serve as the symbol of their authority. A headman may choose to honor someone during a given dance session by inviting them to dance with their lance. If so, the lance is removed from the ground and grasped in the honoree’s right hand throughout the song. The society members will dance after the starting song. The headman directs the dancers — none may rise until he rises, none may enter the arena until he enters the arena.

The head dancer is always a man of some standing within the community. He is honored as are all those worthy of esteem. The members dance in a large circle around the central drum. This drum is the focus of the universe — the still point around which the world turns. The women dance behind the men in a larger circle. During the Gourd Dance sessions, the boys of the Rabbit Society serve as helpers. The Rabbit Society gathers every day under the tutelage of Grandfather Rabbit to learn more about the history of the society and how to be a human being. Grandfather Rabbit teaches these boys the history of the Kiowa through stories. The boys gather around him and willingly listen to his stories.

The Society takes a leisurely dinner break where friends and relatives take time to just talk. The children play, the young men meet the young women, the elders talk and tell stories and generally, everyone has a good time. Families put together dinner and invite their friends to come and partake in it — no one goes hungry and no one goes without someone to talk with. It is during this unstructured time that the young and old play together — always with respect and always having fun. It seems that the elders have almost as much fun watching the young ones play as the young ones have while playing. It is interesting to note that although each generation has been raised with different values in the majority culture, the common experiences of the annual gathering bond them together much more than is often the case in the majority culture. The young people often play hand held video games, something not thought of in the days of the elders. The elders do not seem to look down on this, but often have bought the games for the children. The generations bridge the age divisions created in the majority culture through this interaction during the annual gathering.