The Corn Dance

A story told at the spring planting ritual

One of the articles in Art And Ceremony In Sustainable Culture (IC#5)
Originally published in Spring 1984 on page 37
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute


The following story is an integral part of a yearly ritual that is important in holding together the loose community in eastern Washington where Rico Reed lives. Every spring, as the planting rush nears its climax, they hold their "Corn Dance," which begins around a large carefully arranged bonfire. Before that fire is lit, Rico tells this tale:

LONG LONG AGO, THE EARTH stood straight on its axis. Each place on the earth had the same length day, day after day after day. All the plant and animal kingdoms adjusted to their own place and prospered. There was no corn dance. There was no corn.

The first people found things easy. Each tribe lived in a village of close cooperation so they could be safe from the wild beasts and so they could form strong hunting teams or gathering expeditions. By and by the people developed tools, established agriculture and made weapons. While these things made jobs get done with less work, allowed for larger cities and extended their hunting range, they also made for a great change between the people.

People found that survival had grown so easy that they no longer needed to get along with their neighbors. Some found they had much time to listen to Coyote, the trickster, and the thoughts he put in their heads led to many problems between the people. Some looked for ways to hoard more than they needed of the wealth the Earth Mother gave the village. Others even found ways of taking what their neighbors had worked to produce. And people even began trying to win friendship by deception.

Soon it came to be that just as the length of the days knew no change, so too the quarrelsomeness of the people was the same, day after day after day. The din of angry voices grew to where the Great Spirit was awakened from meditation. He looked down on the earth that he had created in perfect symmetry and he saw what had become of his people. He beheld how unable they were to keep peace and love in their hearts when they didn’t need each other. He saw the conniving schemes of Coyote being accepted by those who listened to him instead of the beauty and harmony in all creation. The Great Spirit was angry and thought about destroying it all to start over. But then he reasoned that perhaps this creature man is not suited to such a perfect earth. Yet perhaps man would learn to get along and to strive for perfection if a less perfect earth required it. So reaching out with one hand the Great Spirit shoved the axis of the earth to one side.

Now as the earth continues in its course around the sun, first one end, then the other faced the sun. First one end then the other faced the cold long nights. And on the surface where the people lived, the days suddenly began to get shorter. Soon the people began to notice and some amongst them cautioned that the Great Spirit was angry with them and that they had better quit their quarreling and prepare for a long night. Some indeed did and others continued their old ways. And the first winter came.

Game was scarce, food stores grew short, and many people died. Those remaining prayed for a return to longer days and vowed to appreciate Earth Mother more. Never had the people seen the land locked in snow and ice. The short days continued day after day after day. The cold north wind invaded far to the south. Just as the people were about to give up hope they noticed the sun began to rise a little farther to the East. The sun was returning and the north wind began to retreat!

When the snow began to melt into the ground, the hardy herbs began to rise. The people ate them eagerly and looked to see what had survived of their food stores. They saw that of the things they could find or grow to store against the return of winter, corn took less space for each day’s ration and it seemed to hold the most sunshine for it was not only yellow and red colored – it also warmed a hungry body.

After many years of changing seasons the people saw that in the time of each season they had to be preparing for the next season, for after Spring came the Summer and after Summer came the Fall and Fall brought Winter each year, year after year after year. So the people learned to cooperate again and to be a part of these changes. The Corn Dance at planting time became the celebration of the renewal of the earth and of the renewal of the people’s harmony with the Earth Mother. In this season of growing plenty we gather together to give freely of all our bodies’ energy in trust that the Earth and our community will renew us in the year to come.

Tonight we kindle a fire in honor of each of the four directions. They will burn together as one, and each of us will come forward to feed it in token for the energy we give to each other. With our offering to the fire let us offer a prayer. Let us who each march to the beat of a different drum, cause our drums to beat in harmony on this night.

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