The Last Dance (11/19/2021)

I am not sure of the words to describe my feelings after reading an article titled “The Last Dance” from the Fall 1953 issue of the National Future Farmer. Perhaps sad or poignant fit. Better yet, I will let you read the article and come up with your own words.

The Last Dance
By R. W. Harris
Vo-Ag Instructor, Browning (Montana)

The colorful pageant of the Buffalo Grass Dance will be given for the last time at Kansas City in October [1953] by the Blackfoot Indian boys. It is almost certain that there will never be another demonstration by the Browning, Montana Chapter since most of the boys are cutting their braids and are growing away from the Tribal rituals and customs.

Figure 1. A scene from the Buffalo Grass Dance in 1953.
Source: 1953 FFA Convention Proceedings.

The present dancers are too young to remember when the dance was a true religious ceremony. In this dance the Blackfoot Tribe gave thanksgiving to the gods each spring for the return of an abundant crop of grass for the buffalo—a crop which insured the Tribe’s winter supply of meat and warm hides.

The Grass Dance, as presented by the Browning FFA Chapter, requires 12 boys. Six take the part of old chiefs, including a principal chief, and six take the part of young warrior dancers. One of the young warriors is a solo dancer and another the drummer and singer for the ceremony. All the costumes worn are authentic —some newly made for the warriors.

Figure 2. A Young Warrior appears before the tribe elders. Source – National Future Farmer, Fall, 1953.

The chiefs’ costumes are heirlooms borrowed from the Museum of the Plains Indians at Browning or from old members of the Tribe. The dance requires a good many other properties, too, including three full-sized teepees, drums, and Tribal gear.

Figure 3. A Browning FFA member wearing authentic Native American regalia.
Source: National Future Farmer, Fall 1953

The Indian boys take pride in the “old ways,” but their present-day achievements place Browning Chapter alongside any FFA group in Montana. In the early days of the Vo-Ag Department, progress was slow and the work done was very elementary. But the Blackfoot boys from the nearby Indian Reservation are becoming good ranchers. This is remarkable since the boys’ grandparents and often even their parents were a nomadic people with little interest in agriculture. Less than 50 years ago these ancestors were living in teepees or rough cabins and still talking Piegan.

A fact that speaks well for the future of these Indian boys is that many of the pure bloods are now not only reaching high school level but are continuing up to graduation. In 1951, for the first time, two pure blood boys from the Vo-Ag Department, Eugene Running Wolf and Bob Madman, went on to agricultural college. Two more plan college courses this fall. They are Earl Old Person and Aaron Shoots First.

The members’ projects are built around the principal products of the Blackfoot Reservation: beef, sheep, and wheat. Browning Chapter is the only one in the state which claims two Star State Farmers. Winslow Devereaux won the award in 1946 and the 1952 winner was Ron Norman.

As time goes on, the vo-ag program is becoming more and more like that in any other good school. The school district has recently provided the VoAg Department with one of the largest and most complete ag buildings in Montana. It includes classrooms, laboratory, greenhouse, two shops, paint room, office, and locker room, as well as various tool and other service rooms.

Changing from the old Tribal ways to the ways of the white rancher are, of course, sometimes difficult. But the members of the Browning Chapter, as proved by an active program and many FFA awards, are making the change with flying colors.

***End of Article ***

So, what words describe your feelings as your read this article? I am all for progress and moving forward. However, we should not forget our roots. Let’s explore the backstory behind this article. As Paul Harvey would say – now for the rest of the story.

The Browning FFA chapter was one of the 26 original FFA chapters chartered in Montana in 1930. The town of Browning is on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Northern Montana. The reservation is one of the largest in America with 1.5 million acres. Canada is to the north and Glacier National Park is to the west.

Figure 4. The Blackfeet Indiana Reservation. Source – Google Maps

Performing the Buffalo Grass Dance in 1953 (FFA’s Silver Anniversary) at the national FFA Convention was not their first performance at the National FFA Convention. The History of Montana FFA document reports (p. 8):

In 1946 the Browning Chapter danced at the National Convention. Traveling 1,600 miles by bus from Browning to Kansas City, the Indian Future Farmers from Browning took with them three tepees, tepee poles and priceless Indian costumes of many kinds. The large audience in the Municipal Auditorium, which seated 16,000, was awed to silence throughout the magnificent and impressive Indian ceremony. To the tune of tom toms and Indian chanting, and with spectacular lighting effects, colorful headdresses and costumes, the Browning Indian Future Farmers went through a performance of giving thanks to the “Great Spirit” for a plentiful supply of buffalo grass which would make the buffalo fat.

The Browning Future Farmers were very much in demand during the week in Kansas City. Performances were put on for a large school of handicapped youngsters, before civic organizations, and over the radio.

Figure 5. The Browning FFA Chapter in 1951. Note the names, several were mentioned in “The Last Dance” article. Source: Browning High School Yearbook.

In 1953, the Browning Chapter was invited by special request to take part in the 25th National Convention anniversary celebration in Kansas City. Once again, the performance was well-received. The dance was reported about in newspapers across the country. The Kansas City Star featured a huge photograph of the Dance in their October 15 edition. The following is an excerpt from a newspaper in Hawaii.

Figure 6. From the Hawaii Tribune-Herald (Hilo), November 18, 1953

FFA Advisor Harris was correct in titling his article “The Last Dance.” In 1961 the Browning High School agriculture program was closed. However, the department was reopened in 1976 only to close again about five years ago. Last month the Browning FFA was rechartered. So perhaps, it was not the Last Dance for the Browning FFA. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they performed the Buffalo Grass Dance at the 100th FFA Convention?

Concluding Remarks

The Buffalo Grass Dance performed by the members of the Browning FFA was a Thanksgiving Dance. The Native Americans were thankful for the grass which in turn nurtured the buffalo. They were thanking their gods for this bounty.

As we honor Native American Heritage Month, we also need to give thanks for our bounty. We need to thank the Native Americans for their contributions to the development of agricultural crops that we will enjoy this coming week.

Even though the last couple of years have been hard for many folks, we still have a lot to be thankful for as Americans. At this Thanksgiving season, we need to be thankful that we have an ample food supply and have the opportunity to educate young people about agriculture. We have the awesome privilege to inspire and motivate our future agriculturalists.

About fifteen years ago the Montana FFA started the FFA/American Indian program. According to the current FFA Executive Secretary in Montana, Jim Rose “It is a program offered to any chapter who develops a presentation regarding an aspect of American Indian Heritage/Culture. The presentations have covered a variety of topics over the years. Foods, natural medicines, drum presentations, etc. Our state officer parents typically judge the presentations and determine the winner. It usually has 3-5 chapters participate each year.” What a neat idea. The Browning FFA participated in this program in the past and won the competition in 2008, 2010, and 2012.

In 1931, Charles B. Mathis, Jr., President of the Athens, Kentucky FFA Chapter wrote the following poem in the August issue of the Agricultural Education Magazine. I think his words, especially the last stanza, are echoed and embodied in the Buffalo Grass Dance.  We need to be thankful for farmers and agriculturalists.

Have a great Thanksgiving.