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The Life & Times of the Turkey Dance

Jingle dance, grass dance, buckskin. Fancy dance, traditional, duck-and-dive. Pow wows serve up a panoply of dances—but they are only part of the full story of native dance. The Caddo Turkey Dance is one of the culturally rich dances that endures away from intertribal gatherings, away from competition. It’s a social dance at its most sociable. Though it is performed largely by women until the final dance, Caddo groups will happily lead turkey dance songs outside of Caddo country. It is on the dusty plains near Binger, Oklahoma that the dance thrives.

“During the summer, there’s a turkey dance anytime somebody says we’re going to have a dance,” said Cecile Carter, Caddo historian and author of Caddo Indians: Where We Come From. (Your best bet for catching a turkey dance is at the annual late-summer Murrow Dance in Binger.) “And the first song lyric is, ‘Come on, you turkeys, come together—we’re going to dance.’?”

Indeed, coming together has been the essence of the turkey dance from its beginnings. Centuries ago, when men from tribes that now make up the Caddo returned from long journeys—war parties, long hunts, et al.—they would send a runner ahead to let the women and remaining villagers know they were on their way home. As the women prepared feasts and donned finery, a song-maker would listen to the runner’s tales of the journey’s victories and acts of bravery. He would then compose songs that recounted those tales, and honor the returning men by performing them. Even today, only women dance the turkey dance—except for the very last song, when the dancers grab a man for a partner, thereby symbolizing the warriors’ return. Some of these songs are so old that nobody can really determine their age; we do know that in 1687, a survivor of La Salle’s failed French colony wrote about witnessing a dance welcoming the return of a Caddo party.

The current dance features several of the surviving turkey dance songs. In every Caddo dance gathering, the turkey dance comes first. The number one rule: It must be finished before sundown. “In the old days if they were having a dance and were wearing anything shiny, it would be caught in the firelight and give away their location to possible enemies,” Carter said. Over time, tribes that once may have been a threat became friendly, and songs that described skirmishes with those tribes were eliminated from the turkey dance repertoire.

In a switch from the men’s homecoming origins of the dance, today the reverse is likely to be true: Male drummers pound out the rhythm of that first song—“Come on, you turkeys, come together, we’re going to dance”—and women dancers make their way toward the arena. After they are gathered, the song cycle begins. There is a core of songs that is usually included in a turkey dance, beginning with a circle dance with lyrics about “kick, kick, kicking” the ground. The women dance on the balls of their feet, keeping time with the drum, kicking up dirt as a turkey would. Next is “Come on, you Hasinais”—Hasinais being one of the smaller tribes that eventually merged into Caddo nation—which then leads into songs that call on various Caddo groups.

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The beat then changes to indicate that dancers should begin a side step that mimics turkey hens looking for grains in the dirt. In addition to paying homage to the dance’s namesake, this song represents the gathering of food for the journey upon which the song’s honorees had embarked. Another change in beat indicates that the dancers are to reassemble in a circle, then swarm the drummers and singers in the middle. “It’s like turkey hens moving in close to the gobblers,” said Carter. At one time, dancers would then snatch a hat or scarf off a drummer and run away with it, making the man pay a small forfeit to get it back. The forfeit would also serve as acceptance of partnership for the last dance sequence (“I haven’t seen that for many years, though,” Carter said). For the finale, men and women pair up in homecoming victory, and the pairs dance in triumph until the last rays of the sun fade away.

“Turkey dance songs are essentially a history of our victories. It’s a social, celebratory dance, but it’s also like a victory dance,” Carter said. “All the songs were composed to tell us about important events.” Several of the turkey dance songs still in use are in a Caddo dialect that’s now entirely lost, even to the remaining fluent speakers of the Caddo language.

Regalia consist of Caddo women’s traditional wear: bright, solid ankle-length prairie dresses, covered with a half-apron. Atop the dancer’s head may be a dush-toh, an hourglass-shaped hairpiece decorated with silver and beadwork, with ribbon streamers that flow from the bottom of the hourglass to the skirt’s hem. The dush-toh allows each dancer to express her creativity and individuality; the tiny bells often found at the end of a dush-toh’s streamer ensure that the group has a solidarity that goes beyond the visuals of the dance. “When you’re dancing, those ribbons sway with the rhythm, and you’ve got the sound of the bells. It makes for a very colorful sight, all those different colors and ribbons,” said Carter.

The role of legend is present but minimal: A hunter was walking through a wooded area and heard what he took to be a turkey singing. He followed the sound and found a group of gobblers in the center of a ring of turkey hens. The hunter watched the pattern, then went back to the village and described what he had seen and heard—and that was the beginning of the turkey dance. The turkey dance also turns up in another Caddo legend, this time with turkeys dancing around Wild-Cat, who is playing dead in order to snatch and eat one of them.

The turkey dance is also a living history. It symbolizes not only battles and hunts of the past but traits still valued in Caddo culture. The tightened dance circle and hasty retreat mid-dance acknowledge the ability to peacefully retreat from danger and conflict, and the song honoring the gathering of food shows the value of community. “When these songs were written, gathering was pretty well a communal thing—it wasn’t just a matter of each woman taking care of her man,” Carter said. Today, women teach one another the dance; little girls will follow an aunt or cousin into the dance circle and over the years will learn the strenuous, intricate steps.

“The dance gives us a feeling of unity for your family, your family’s family, for the entire family of Caddo people,” Carter said. “As long as we have turkey dance songs, we have something for the young ones to learn. When I was in my teens, I asked a woman very dear to me why she had such a wonderful look on her face when she would dance to turkey dance songs. She said, ‘It’s because I think of all the ones who are gone—and how they fought and how they died. How they made us survive.’?”