The Whistle Owners

Published January 22, 2021 by tindertender

In the old Grass Dance Society of the Dakota, two men held the office of Whistle Owners. These officers kept the Singers under their control. The whistle was their badge of office. The whistles were flute-like instruments, about thirty inches long, with the outer end carved to represent a crane with an open beak. The use of the word “reed” in the term for whistle shows an ancient origin for the instrument, as the earliest museum pieces are made out of wood. Since reeds grew in water, they were associated with the Water Spirit.

The species of wood used in the later construction of these whistles was cedar. This wood was chosen because lightning from the Thunders was said to never strike this tree; therefore, if a whistle was not constructed of cedar, the Whistle Owner would be in grave danger.

The whistles were originally blown as part of an ancient rain ceremony. When the
Whistle Owners sounded their whistles in the Grass Dance, they were attracting the
Thunders—the patron of the society, to their ceremonial dance.

The adversaries of the Thunders are the Water Spirits, whose voice is a whistling sound, as loud as a train whistle. By blowing the wooden whistles, they were fooling the Thunders into producing the desired rain and attacking the Water Spirit in a storm. The whistles were never used during the winter as it would bring on a hail or snow storm.

Control of the Singers

Each member of the Grass Dance Society had a designated seating location defined by their rank, or the duty they were to perform. The Whistle Owners sat on each side of the drum, which was located in the northeast section of the dancing area. They were given supervisory control of the Singers; their function was to keep the Singers performing to the best of their abilities. As was the requirement of old, all of the officers in the society were required to donate to the poor at a designated time in the dance.

If the Singers sang a pleasing song, the Whistle Owners blew their whistles over the drum just as the Singers were ending their song; this action signaled the Head Singer to start another verse. The tune of the whistle was a long, drawn-out sound which required full lung power until the breath expired. This was a request to the Singers to repeat their pleasing song.

They could only blow four times to make the Singers sing that number of verses.
Furthermore, they could only blow their whistles for eight different songs, four for each Whistle Owner, so as not to tire the Singers during a dance. If there was more than one drum present, the Whistle Owners only blew over their own drum. They could blow once or twice or more, as they chose.

If the Whistle Owners blew their whistles late, that is, after the song leader had started the lead line, then the Whistle Owners would be fined by the Singers. If in their enthusiasm the Whistle Owner lost count and blew his whistle five times, the Singers immediately would stop singing and call the Announcer to the drum; he in turn would call the Whip Owners to bring the offending Whistle Owner before the Leaders to be heavily fined (usually the giving up of a horse).

On the other hand, if the Singers placed a “tail” on the song after the fourth whistle blow, this was considered a mistake and the Singers were fined. If the Singers continued to sing after the fifth blow, or sang another verse without the whistle being blown, then the Singers were fined.

If the Singers were sluggish in their performance, or made a mistake in their drumming or singing, the Whistle Owners made them sing until they corrected their mistake. The Singers would then be fined. Thus, there was a balance of power between the Singers and the Whistle Owners.

The drum could never be left alone. When not in use, it was taken from its stand, turned on its side and covered up. The Drum Keeper/Leader must attend to this. If the Whistle Owners discovered that the drum was not on its side, or that the Drum Keeper was not watching it, the Whistle Owners would blow over the drum and capture it as though it were an enemy warrior.

The Singers then had to pay a heavy fine to ransom their drum. ln extreme cases the drum was kept until the next dance and then returned if a sufficient number of gifts were donated.

Another punishment used by the Whistle Owners was to have the Announcer inform
the members that they were going to “Charge the Drum.” By this announcement the Whistle Owners would try to place a whistle on the drumhead, thus defeating the Singers.

The Singers could stop the charge by immediately changing the song as soon as the charge was detected, thereby saving themselves from being fined. As soon as the announcement was made, the Singers chose one of their number to watch the Whistle Owners as they danced

This selected Singer had to keep another song in his mind, and be ready to start, as
the “charge” could occur at anytime before the conclusion of the dance. If the chosen Singer became distracted, or “lost” the song, one of the Whistle Owners charged over to the drum and touched the drumhead with his whistle. The Singers then had to pay a fine. If a selected Singer was on guard, and detected the “charge,” he could start a different tune, and thus save the drum from a fine or confiscation. These “games” were intended to cause the members to practice the watchfulness and cunning required of warriors.

The common imposition of fines in the Grass Dance Society was with a view toward promoting generosity. If the Singers had no way of paying a fine, the Whistle Man put his whistle on the drumhead. The Singers could not sing while the whistle was on the drum. This rule was enacted on occasion during the Great Depression of the 1930s when funds were in short supply. In better times the Singers’ relatives paid the fine and the singing was allowed to continue.

My informants said that the office of Whistle Owner fell out of use nearly a century ago. They could not remember anyone who had held the office. Kenny Merrick, Sr. told me that he was given the society whistle by Frank Bullhead, who was the Whistle Man on the Standing Rock Reservation. This whistle has now been passed to Kenny’s son, who lives in
a distant state. Sanders Bearstail, Jr. was the Whistle Owner for the Antelope (Grass Dance) Society on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation for many years until he passed away; I do not know who has taken his place. No prominent officer in the Grass Dance can be self appointed. Presently, one must be sanctioned officially to be viewed as an officer by his tribe, or as the elders told me, these people would be considered as “playing Indian.”

Today, the Whistle Man, as he is called today, usually pays for his office by dropping money on a drumhead as he is finishing his fourth and final charge. This payment also demonstrates his appreciation for the Singers’ performance. Singers are no longer “punished.” 


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