Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Dramatic Representations Performed by Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Among many tribes ceremonies were dramatic in character. Every religious rite had its dramatic phases or episodes expressive of beliefs, emotions, or desires, but in certain instances the dramatic element dominated and became differentiated from the ceremony. In such cases there were masked and costumed actors with stage setting, effigies, and other properties, and events, historical or mythical, in the cultural history or life of the tribe were represented. The most elaborate of these exhibitions were those of the Pueblo peoples and the tribes of the N. W. coast.


In the large wooden dwellings of the N. W. myths and legends were dramatised. The performance took place at one end of the house, where concealed openings in the painted wall admitted the actors who personated gods and heroes, and there were devices to give realistic effect to strange and magical scenes. Songs and dances accompanied the dramatic presentation.

Some of the great tribal ceremonies of the inland peoples, while religious in initiative, were social in general character. They portrayed episodes in the past history of the tribe for the instruction of the younger generation. There were societies a part of whose function was to preserve the history of its membership. This was done by means of song and the drama­tic representation of the acts the song commemorated.


The Pawnee were remarkable for their skill in sleight-of-hand performances. Seeds were sown, plants grew, blossomed, and yielded fruit; spears were thrust through the body and many other surprising feats performed in the open lodge with no apparent means of concealment. During many dramatic representations, particularly those which took place in the open air, episodes were introduced in which a humorous turn was given to some current event in the tribe. Sometimes clowns appeared and by their antics relieved the tensity of the dramatic presentation. Among the Pueblo Indians these "delight-makers," as Bandelier translates the name of the Koshare of the Queres villagers, constitute a society which performs comedies in the intervals of the public dances.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., p. 132.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College