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June 2023
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Wichita Music: "The History of the Tribe"


Handgame Big Drum

(Editor's Note: This story is Part One of a two-part series on traditional Wichita singing.)


Wichita songs are a key component of events such as the Wichita Annual Dance, the Visitation with the Pawnee, and the Kititkiti'sh Little Sisters New Year's celebration.Wichita Tribal Newshad the chance to visit with three Wichita singers about the importance of Wichita songs. These singers are Stuart Owings, Jimmy Reeder and the tribe's cultural planner, Gary McAdams.


Importance of the Songs

For Reeder, the importance of Wichita songs is based, in part, on how it makes him feel.


"To this day, it's very important," Reeder said. "It's something inside your heart and your spirit that comes up. It's gratifying to hear those songs and the beat of that drum."


Similarly, one of the ways that McAdams views the importance of Wichita singing is due to the songs being spiritual in their origin.


"God put it in their mind, this particular tune and these particular words," McAdams said. "Even when they compose a song, and they don't have any words in it, there's still a meaning there. They felt a certain way when they composed that song, even though they put no words in it. With the sound and everything, there was a meaning…everything comes from God. That song, dance or any kind of knowledge. It's all from God."


Owings emphasized the importance of Wichita singing as "the history of the tribe, the history and the culture," he said, with some songs being so old that fluent speakers that he knew could not translate them. One of these people was his mother, Faye Miller Owings, who referred to these songs as "unknown language."


Grasslodge Aug 10 2017


Origin of the Songs

There are many who refer to many Native songs-especially newer songs-as being composed. However, for Owings, he was taught by elders that these songs came into being many years ago and that they find someone who will bring them out to be sung.


"People say, 'I composed it,'" Owings said about songs. "I don't use 'compose.' I say, 'It came to me.' My uncle used to say, when he came up with a song that he would make, maybe someone, sometime, long years ago, somebody might have sung this song. These songs are floating around. Then, all of a sudden, it comes into you. It finds a body, and it goes into them. Then they come out with the song. The tune comes in, the words come in, and they all fit together."


Owings also said that many songs come about due to hearing tunes in the natural world.


"You get them from wind," Owings said. "You get them from birds, through how the wind's blowing through trees, that type of thing. Those kind of sounds would be interpreted into a tune, you might say. They call them 'straight songs'-no words. Other people would say they're just sounds. That's what they are, but that makes up the tune."


Both McAdams and Reeder shared stories about the origin of the Wichita Flag Song as used by Frank Swift. McAdams recalled a story he read in the field notes of Karl Schmitt, where the Flag Song came to Swift in a dream. It was sung to him by John Thomas, who had already passed away by that time.


Reeder's story about the Flag Song, as told to him by his mother, is similar to what Owings shared. According to Reeder, Swift heard the rustling of a leaf on a bush outside of the home. "She explained this little leaf was twirling on that bush," Reeder said. "Mom said he got that Flag Song from that little twirl in the wind, from whatever sound it made."


According to the three singers, the types of Wichita songs include war dance, veterans songs, Young Dog Dance, Big Wolf songs, Ghost Dance, Drum Dance and handgame. Other songs would be Rain Songs, church hymns and lullabies.


Dances at Camp Creek

One of the strongest memories for McAdams growing up was at one of the Camp Creek dances.

"When they would sing war dance songs, a lot of these older women would get up and dance," McAdams said. "Not out there in the arena, but they would get up right where they were sitting. They would dance and mostly would sing along. What struck me was the way they danced, the way they sung, and just their manner. I got the feeling that those songs meant a whole lot to them."


Owings said that the dances on Camp Creek were popular not only for Wichita families and tribes in the area but also for Pawnee relatives. The locations for dances that Owings identified after dances were no longer held at Camp Creek include the homes of Roland Stephenson, Bill Campbell, and the home of McAdams's mother, Elva Mae McAdams.


Singing Today…

Currently, there aren't as many public opportunities to sing Wichita songs as there were in the Camp Creek days. At present, these times include the Pawnee Visitation, Wichita Annual Dance, various handgames, and the singing classes offered through the Wichita Cultural Education Program.


Owings emphasized the need to learn the songs, "to keep them going."


"If you're not going to learn them, where are you going to get your songs from? You can have a dance, but what are you going to do?"


(Part II will focus on past Wichita singers, the relationship with Pawnee songs, and the efforts of the Wichita Young Man Society to learn the songs.)