Hallmarks of the Dance

A Wasco tradition depicted in paints and beadwork

A little dark-haired girl stands wide-eyed and watches as Wasco dancers on horseback sweep into view.

A teenage girl sits astride an appaloosa, shy, aware she is the focus of an ancient ceremony. She wears a striped blanket and atop her head sits a woven basket hat adorned with a single eagle feather.

Astride a buckskin appaloosa rides a young man. In his hair are five eagle feathers. He carries a staff adorned with white feathers.

The girl on the horse is the daughter of a chief.

He brings horses and gifts.

Their families and their friends are there in witness.

If the girl accepts the staff from his hand, he has won his bride.

It is difficult to recall all the old ways. For a people who have left their land and taken another, it is harder to pass traditions down from one generation to the next. But the little dark-haired girl, this moment she does not forget.

Four Phases of Life

Aurolyn Renee Stwyer was that wide-eyed little girl in 1962. She is a Wasco Tribal member—one of about 2000 that call home the Warm Springs Reservation, south of the Columbia River, and west of the Deschutes River. What she witnessed as a child was a traditional ceremony known as the proposal dance.

“There are four phases of life,” Stwyer explains, “the child, the teen, the adult and the elder.” For a daughter of the tribe, the proposal dance signified the transition from teen to adult. For a son, it was the moment he agreed to carry on the tradition, to take the mantle of adulthood, to care for a wife, to start a family. The elders agreed such a moment should be important and enshrined it in ceremony.

Four decades after Stwyer saw the dance, at a time when the tradition had all but slipped away, she transformed her memory into a work of art—a unique painting on an elk hide titled The Proposal. It is displayed at the gallery she owns, the Red Skye Trading Post, on the Warm Springs Reservation, where she sells her own art and the works of other artists.

From the time she was very small, Stwyer has also performed traditional Native dance. Her favorites are the jingle dance and fancy dance, which she has presented at pow-wows across the United States and Canada. From 2005 to 2011 she was a champion dancer at the Pendleton Round-Up in the swan dance competition. She has performed the Lord’s Prayer in Native sign language and participated in the Parade of Nations representing the Tribes of Warm Springs at the opening of the National Museum of American Indians in Washington, D.C. Increasingly, she is asked to speak to groups about Indian entrepreneurism.

Whether it is through art, or performance or advocacy, Stwyer believes her most important work is passing on the traditions of the Wasco.

Story in Art

A few years ago, Stwyer realized that one of the important cultural traditions of her ancestors was about to pass away. She grappled with the concept of preserving tradition, and an idea for a work of art took shape. She thought about the sentiment, the beauty, and the spiritual process of love, trust and generosity that she felt was represented in the proposal dance. She thought about modern marriage proposals, which, metaphorically, are not that far removed from the historic ceremony. There was a thread through time, but the details were fading. If the elements of the original ritual were to be preserved, it was up to the little Wasco girl to paint it.

On her eighteenth birthday, Stwyer’s grandfather had presented her with a tanned elk hide, its hair preserved. “When I received my Indian name, Na K’ishayat, at the age of 18, the hide was a gift from my grandfather, my dad’s dad, Herbert Stwyer. He was our longhouse ceremonial leader. I had it stored and I actually forgot about it.”

The memory returned, as such things do, when she thought of painting the proposal dance. This would become the canvas for her new work of art.

She recalled what her grandfather had told her about the hide, speaking in the language of their people. The elk came from the Simnasho area in the northern part of the Reservation. Most elk are taken in the fall and this was no different. “He explained how all parts of the animal were used. The teeth, the antlers. One of the most treasured parts was the hide.” The hair on it is thick, as the animal was ready for winter. “It was tanned by my late grandmother,” Stwyer says.

Very few still practice the art of painting on skins. “Our people painted on the rock and in the caves, and on tanned skins and rawhide,” she says. But the old ways of mixing natural paints have slipped from common use and are preserved in the memories of a few. Stwyer began with acrylic paints, then blended in the natural pigments from huckleberries and other materials.

From her mind’s eye, the figures began to take shape. There are nine horses because nine, to the Wasco, means change.

“In a rite of passage, there is always change. It is like the underbelly of the monster. We don’t know what is coming.”

With his staff, the groom will indicate the girl of his choice. He is bringing presents for the family on a travois (the cargo pulled on a buckskin framework behind the horse). Inside the shuptakai (the Wasco word for a rawhide suitcase) could be a gift of wool, or of deer hides or (today) Pendleton blankets. Behind the groom rides a brother wearing a buffalo headdress, part of the community of witnesses.

On the bride’s side, her father—the chief—speaks for her while a younger brother, on a gray horse, absorbs the implications and weight of the ceremony. From the distance another brother, on a black and white Paint Horse, gallops in with gifts for the other family.

“We never speak on our own in a ceremony like this,” Stwyer says. “We have someone speak for us who is watching out for our spirit.”

Buried in symbolism on the elk hide canvas are 17 elements of four. The four phases of life. The four essences. The four elements of development. The four directions. The four colors: red, yellow, black and white.

“The fours are depicted in the songs we sing in our longhouses and ceremonies,” Stwyer said.

Four sacred salmon are arced above the scene, painted in wiwnu (pronounced weewanu), the natural huckleberry, representative of seasons and connectedness and the importance of fish to the tribe.

“There are four seasons: winter, spring, summer and fall,” Stwyer says. This proposal took place in the spring when the grass was green and tall and the horses were in fine shape.

“When we show the chief with his eagle-feather war-bonnet, it signifies many accomplishments. The young lady, she has one eagle feather. After the wedding ceremony, she will wear two eagle feathers to show she is married.”

Eagle feathers are symbols of power and authority. “The eagle flies highest. It has great vision and strong claws for his purpose,” Stwyer said.

Tradition and Community

Beneath the long grass, depicted in natural paints on the hide, Stwyer sewed a tapestry in beads, a haunting pattern of zigzags and arrows in parallel. A common theme in all her beadwork, it represents the equality in tribal community and in creation, every individual a part of the greater whole.

The Wascos lived in communities up and down the river—at the mouth of the Deschutes, at the mouth of the Hood River and across the Columbia at what is now Wishram, and down around Cascade Locks. They met at a place called Skush-pa, a hub in their tribal community. Here, they traded fresh salmon and dried salmon, huckleberries, camas root, baskets, clothing, shuptakai and beadwork.

Established on the banks of the great river of the West, they were wealthy in the currency of the day, wealthy in time and resources. And the women traded alongside the men.

“When the missionaries came across my people on the river, they found our community to be among the most equal among the sexes,” she said. “The missionaries described our women as haughty, doing business among the men.”

At home in Warm Springs, in the Red Skye Trading Post, set up along a trading route called Highway 26, Na K’ishayat has an answer to that centuries-old charge.

“I am the daughter of chiefs, I am the daughter of those women. It is in my DNA to be a businesswoman in this plaza today.”

In Stwyer’s store, paintings, shields and lances adorn the walls. Traditional dance costumes catch the eye, as do smaller items behind the glass. Stwyer’s masterpiece, The Proposal, a tradition preserved in paints and beadwork, stands today in the shop on a wooden framework. Stwyer is happy to show it off, but most of all, she wants her people to see it, especially any young man on an appaloosa who might just have his eye on a girl with an eagle feather in her hair.


The People that Gather at the Rock

The name Wasco comes from the word Wacq!o, which means “small bowl” and refers to a bowl-shaped rock from which the people drew water. “Wasco” came to refer to the people that gather at the rock.

The rock was originally located at Fifteen Mile Creek, which can be found east of Seufert Park, east of The Dalles. It has been called Wind Rock; the Wasco called it Skush-pa. Legend said that if the opening was stuffed with grass and mud, the wind would stop blowing.

The people were divided into three sub-tribes: The Dalles Wasco, the Hood River Wasco and the Cascades Indians or Watlala who lived downstream on both sides of the river.

Their language is Chinook and they are the easternmost of the Chinookan tribes. For food they harvested salmon and they gathered camas roots and, in the fall, huckleberries. When they wanted game meat, beads, furs and horses, they traded with their Warm Springs neighbors and the Nez Perce.

In 1855, the Wasco signed a treaty, which guaranteed them their historical fishing rights along the rivers and established the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation. Today about 2,000 Wascoes make their homes on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. They have close family and language ties with the Wishram in the Yakama Nation in Washington State.

During the rebuilding of Interstate 84, necessitated by the flooding of The Dalles Dam, the Wasco Rock was moved. A remnant of the rock, including the bowl itself, is preserved at The Dalles, behind the Shilo Inn.

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