Doings & Happenings: Notes on a Performance of the Seneca Indian Eagle Dance, with the Scenario for Gift Event III, Based on Its Orders

 Seneca Prophet Handsome Lake Preaching in the Longhouse.  Watercolor.  Ernest S
Seneca Prophet Handsome Lake Preaching in the Longhouse. Watercolor. Ernest Smith. 1936.

[Reprinted from the original edition of Technicians of the Sacred (1968) but removed from the revised edition (1985) still in print. Scheduled to reappear in Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, co-edited with Heriberto Yépez, in 2013.]

JANUARY 21st 1967. NOTES TAKEN AT A PERFORMANCE OF THE EAGLE DANCE, COLDSPRING LONGHOUSE, STEAMBURG, NEW YORK. AN EVENT FOR ORATORS, DANCERS, MUSICIANS & POETS. BLESSING & CURING. A PART OF THE WINTER “DOINGS.”

Musicians (water-drum & horn-rattle) move to places on bench.
Two gourd-rattles, two feather-sticks passed around to two boy-dancers.

                Rapping of long (orator’s) stick (branch) to announce each new speaker.
                Whoop precedes start of music.
                Music stops. Stick raps.
                Orator speaks. (Thanking & prayer to begin it.)

                Old man (Ed Currey), third to speak, puts tub (wash-basin) of saltine crackers near stove. Empty cracker boxes or paper bags are placed near participants & recipients (sponsors) for deposit of crackers. Music up. Two boys dance out to center, crouching, shake feather-sticks & rattles, bob heads toward each other & in sidewise motion. Return to their stools. The music stops. New speaker “orates,” then takes handfuls of crackers & distributes several to each participant, the (three) sponsors, & a few others (named by the sponsors?)

                Whoop. Music. Dance. (Each dance ends with a sound: hmmmmmmmmm or whheeeeeeee.) New speaker. Raps with the stick before speaking. More crackers. Deposit or mouthing of crackers. Whoop. Music. Dance. Rap. Speaker. Etc. This is the over-all pattern, never rigid – toward an actual openness, prescribed as well? Ways of handling the stick vary. Speaker raps for his own oration; sometimes (properly?) slides stick to next speaker; sometimes “announcer” (m.c.) brings it around; shorter & longer orations; hard raps, light raps, staccato, etc. Laughter, etc. At one point new crackers are added to basin; they overflow as next speaker passes them out; they fall on the floor. Occasional punctuation of speeches by light drum-tap. Often at end. Distribution (except for main participants) seems erratic. A speaker forgets to pass crackers. Reminded with laughter. Boy-dancers walk out during one oration. Buzzing of voices, etc. Some joking about deposit of crackers into boxes. Dancers, seated & facing, hold a mute conversation. (Feather-stick in front of face like boy with the flamenco fan in Cordoba.) Two men enter with large cauldron of water for women preparing (corn) soup at the side. People drifting in & out. Time passes. Sounds of Seneca I cannot understand. Three teen-aged girls are laughing in the back. Nobody rushes. Everyone will speak.

                After the first woman orator distributes the last of the crackers, the empty tub is turned over in front of the stove. A male speaker (who may have opened things to start with, i.e., the one I’m calling the “announcer”) speaks without preliminary dancing – followed by music, dance, etc. New speaker (woman) raps. Speaks. (Some participants now drinking coffee.) She finishes, distributes something small to the three “sponsors.” Music, etc. New woman speaker. Avery Jimerson (horn-rattle) goes out, Dick Johnny John (drum) walks to the side for cigarette. Speaker distributes fruit (apples) to the three sponsors. New woman speaker without music (Salina Johnny John) distributes bananas. Still no music. New woman speaker. Gives coins to the dancers, the musicians, the “announcer,” the whooper.

                Ed Currey raps, speaks. Distributes packs of cigarettes. Whoop. Music. Dance. Sticks & gourds are set down on the floor. The “announcer” collects them. Ed Currey speaks again. Voice moving as in prayer. Announcer distributes pinches from tobacco bowl to various participants & individuals around the room who accept it or refuse.

GIFT EVENT III: A CELEBRATION FOR POETS, MUSICIANS & DANCERS, BASED ON THE ORDERS OF THE SENECA INDIAN EAGLE DANCE & PERFORMED AT THE JUDSON DANCE THEATER, JUDSON MEMORIAL CHURCH, NEW YORK CITY, MARCH 21ST & 22ND. A PART OF SPRING "HAPPENINGS."

                Adaptation by Jerome Rothenberg
                Choreography by Carol Ritter
                Music by Philip Corner

                Jackson Mac Low
                Dick Higgins
                Susan Sherman
                Clayton Eshleman
                Robert David Cohen
                Hannah Weiner
                Carol Bergé
                George Kimball
                Eleanor Antin
                David Antin
                Paul Blackburn
                Jerome Rothenberg (poets)

                Christopher Beck
                Nannette Sievert
                Bernard Spriggs
                Margaret Williams (dancers)

                Ferdinando Buonanno
                Billy Fisher
                Cyrelle Forman
                Bill Friedman
                Edward Goldstein
                Malcolm Goldstein
                Maud Haimson
                Susan Hartung
                Alison Knowles
                Carol Marcy
                Max Neuhaus
                Carol Reck
                David Reck
                Steve Reich
                Carolee Schneemann
                James Tenney (musicians)

        1. As the audience is taking seats, “poor man music”* is performed. This is the music throughout.

        2. The first poet (who thereafter acts as m.c.) raps for silence with a sounding stick.+ The music stops. He reads a greeting-poem. The music starts again, & he empties several boxes of crackers± into a large wash-basin at center of the performance area & arranges simple gifts on the stage-apron for later distribution. Empty boxes or paper bags are given to the dancers for deposit of crackers & gifts.

        3. The second poet (Jackson Mac Low) receives the sounding-stick from the m.c. & raps for silence. He reads a (thanking)-poem of his own.¹ The music starts up again as he distributes crackers to the dancers & any other performers he can reach. (Distribution may also be extended to the audience.)* After the distribution, the dancers perform an extended piece to the “poor man music.”

        4. When the first dance is over, the m.c. hands the stick to the third poet (Dick Higgins), & the same series of actions (rapping-for-silence, reading, music up, distribution of crackers, dance, etc.) is repeated. This goes on (with the dance segments getting successively shorter) through the dance that follows the reading by the fifth poet (Clayton Eshleman) – by which time the basin should be empty of crackers. Before handing the stick to the sixth poet, the m.c. turns the basin over.

        5. From the sixth poet on, gifts are distributed in place of crackers, but there is no dancing. The music continues as before, except when poets have rapped for silence & are reading. This goes on until the next-to-the-last reader (Paul Blackburn), whose gift distribution is followed by a brief dance segment.

        6. The m.c. now raps for silence & reads a poem of his own choice. To accompaniment of the “poor man music,” he distributes the final gifts,+ after which all performers do their pieces simultaneously.± As soon as each poet or dancer finishes, he or she leaves the performance area. When all the poets & dancers have left, the music stops.

Sequence of poems. (Except for the first piece, which is the introductory poem to the adapter’s Technicians of the Sacred, there was no attempt to be Indian or to read poems on Indian themes; indeed, the point of the event, as it related to its source, was that the carry-over was not in content or in costume but in structure: a way of being heard):

1. Greeting-poem, read by J.R.; 2. First Friendship Poem by Jackson Mac Low; 3. Selection from Six Considerations of the Angel by Dick Higgins; 4. The Meeting by Susan Sherman; 5. Walk I (1st night), Walk III (2nd night) by Clayton Eshleman; 6. Lines Written in Dejection by Robert David Cohen; 7. Persons indicated present their compliments by Hannah Weiner; 8. Song for Beginning by Carol Bergé; 9. Poem (untitled) by George Kimball; 10. Poem for My Mother by Eleanor Antin; 11. Poem for Eleanor (1st night), 4 Games for Eleanor (2nd night) by David Antin; 12. Het up & take yr teeth with you by Paul Blackburn; 13. The Orators II by Jerome Rothenberg.

. . . . . . . .

Be me who
Blesses.

Suffer. Destroy.

Be certain.

Merge a particular picture
Blossom. & open
This surface to clouds.
Be orators.

SOME END NOTES TO THE PROCEEDING

* [“Poor man” because the sounds are those a person can make with his or her own body or simple extensions thereof. In Corner’s words]:
                “The simplest materials
                and the things your own body is
                                                and does
– claps, slaps, stamps, rubbing and scratching: body – all
                parts, and clothing if any
voices, and all the sounds your voice and breath and
                                   throat may make
             /except words.”

[The rhythms follow the pulsebeat, faster or slower but with its regularity – beats within the group, starting apart, meeting, changing, entering & re-entering, meeting elsewhere, etc.]

* In this case, a broomstick (red) was used. (The Senecas use a broom-handle to announce entry of the “huskface” masked dancers in another winter event.) The wash-basin was also a red plastic.

* The saltine crackers of the Seneca source were almost unanimously overridden in favor of graham crackers (Nabisco).

* The first three poems were designated by the adapter; the rest were of each poet’s own choice.

* The act of finding-each-other (between participants & audience) was the principal departure from the Seneca source. The event continued to change under this impulse, from a situation where community is taken for granted to one where the activity may finally create it.

* In the actual performance the other poets joined the m.c. in the final act-of-giving. On the second night toy flutes & other sound-producing articles were included among the gifts, to give the audience a further means of participation.

* While simultaneities turn up in the ceremonies of many cultures, there is no specific Seneca precedent in the Eagle Dance. The Seneca husk-face ceremonies, however, often involve several simultaneous dances by the masked beggar-clowns – usually while a round-dance is also in progress. The device has developed independently in modern “happenings” or in the poetry, e.g., of Jackson Mac Low & others.