The Grass Dance and Ankle Bells

From the accounts of early settlers and newcomers to America, from Judith Tick’s Music in the USA : A Documentary Companion we know that Native Americans used drums, flutes, canes, and rattles in their music.1 I have been to the Mahkato Association’s Pow Wow in Mankato, MN a few times and there was a certain instrument that was not only decorative to the attire, or regalia, of the Native American dancers but to the rhythm and beat of the music. Many of the dancers wore bells on their ankles to add an element to the dance or what is called the “Grand Entry”.

The ankle bells appear in the Grass Dance that has been passed down and is still performed and preserved today by many tribes originating from the Great Plains region.  According to the descendents of Omaha-Ponca and Dakota-Sioux tribes, this dance is so integral to these tribes today because “in an attempt to stabilize during a period of rapid cultural conversions by the United States government, it became important to both preserve and spread dances—including the merging of many tribal dances that formed what we now know as grass dance—to preserve indigenous unity.”2

3. Ojibwa Ankle Bells c.1900-1950

The bells in the Grass Dance, and other dances like the Grand Entry, help keep the rhythm with the beat of the music.2 These bells were often fastened to sheep skin and then tied to the ankle. These ankle bells can now today help represent the merge of tribes during a difficult time and the effort that has gone into preserving dances. The bells that appeared in the Pow Wow in Mankato are a part of an annual event that remembers and aims to reconcile the 38 lives that were lost as a conclusion to the Dakota War in 1862.

  1. Tick, Judith, and Paul E. Beaudoin. Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion. Oxford University Press, 2008.
  2. ICT Staff. “Origins of the Grass Dance.” Indian Country Media Network. April 06, 2011. Accessed February 19, 2018. https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/origins-of-the-grass-dance/.
  3. Peterson, Alfred. “Ojibwe ankle bells · Digital Public Library of America.” DPLA: Digital Public Library of America. Accessed February 19, 2018. https://dp.la/item/2ffa4bc517c99d0c0c2ab8d6cfe11a29?back_uri=https%3A%2F%2Fdp.la%2Fsearch%3Futf8%3D%25E2%259C%2593%26q%3D%2522ankle%2Bbells%2522&next=3&previous=1.
  4. Mahkato Wacipi. Accessed February 19, 2018. http://mahkatowacipi.org/index.php.

1 thought on “The Grass Dance and Ankle Bells

  1. Thanks for this informative post! I love learning about new instruments, and this one is fascinating. Did you find any information on how far back the ankle bells go? I wonder whether they were more closely related to gourd rattles before mass-produced metal bells became available after contact with European settlers.

    I appreciate your ability to bring in course readings (the Tick is a great resource to cite) and to explain your interest in the topic through a personal anecdote. One thing to watch out for moving forward is that it looks like you found one primary source through DPLA, but didn’t locate a second one through the American Indians and the West database. Make sure you locate more than one primary source when the assignment calls for it, and don’t forget to add tags when you’re done writing your post. Keep up the good work!

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