The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXII. Non-English Writings II

§ 21. The Hako Ritual

It is this suggested relation between literary form and the land which produced it, which gives point to a choice of the Hako ceremony of the Pawnees for analysis. Also, thanks to Alice Fletcher, it is the best studied of Amerind rituals. The word Hako refers to the pulsating voice of the drum, the voice not only of the singers but the voice of all things, the corn, the eagle, the feathered stems, everything that partakes of the sacred function.

The requisites of the Hako were such that only the well-todo and important members of the tribe could assume responsibility for its performance. Two groups were required, who must not be of the same clan, and might even be of different tribes, for it was essentially a social drama, designed to insure friendship and peace between social groups, and to benefit society as a whole by bringing children to individuals.

Ritualistic in structure, the Hako exhibits a compactness and progressive unity that could be studied to advantage by modern writers of community masques and pageants. Miss Fletcher’s analysis of the ceremony as a whole is so masterly that it would be as unfair to her as to the reader to abridge it. But there are some features that distinguish it as a literary production, which must be mentioned. Each movement is complete in itself, but indispensable. There is a closer relation between the emotional episodes and the rhythm, a finer web of words. Progressive stanza structure characterizes every movement. The verse forms are dramatically logical and rhythmically descriptive, the action leading and largely determining the form. To a very remarkable degree the verse contours conform to the contours of the country traversed, either actually or imaginatively, throughout the performance.

It is probable that this correspondence of form is unconscious on the part of the Pawnee authors, for, as with most folk-drama, many minds must have gone to the making of it. The Pawnees and cognate tribes who use the Hako have lived so long exposed to the influence of the open country about the Platte River that their songs unconsciously take the shape of its long undulations. Miss Fletcher has not always been successful in preserving the poetic quality of the songs, but their rhythms are most faithfully worked out, as in the following, one of a series of songs describing the journey of the Father group to the group called The Children:

  • Dark against the sky yonder distant line
  • Runs before, trees we see, long the line of trees
  • Bending, swaying in the breeze,
  • which accurately represents the jog trot of journey across the rolling prairie. A little later comes the crowding of ponies on the river bank:
  • Behold upon the river’s bank we stand,
  • River we must cross.
  • Oh Kawas come, to thee we call,
  • Oh come and thy permission give
  • Into the stream to wade and forward go.
  • Finally, on the other side, after stanzas representing every stage of the crossing, there is the flick of the ponies’ tails as the wind dries them.

  • Hither winds, come to us, touch where water
  • O’er us flowed when we waded,
  • Come, O winds, come!
  • Again, as the visiting party draws up from the lowlands about the river, we have this finely descriptive rhythm:

  • The mesa see, it’s flat top like a straight line cuts across the sky,
  • It blocks our path, and we must climb, the mesa climb.
  • What work in any language more obviously illustrates the influence of environment on literary form? Other examples there are of much subtler and more discriminating rhythms, but they only announce themselves after long intimacy with the land in which they develop. The homogeneity of the Amerind race makes it possible to detect environmental influences with a precision not possible among the mixed races of Europe.