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Making the shakers for stomp dances the old-fashion way 8-07

OKMULGEE, Okla. (AP) – When the summer heat turns brutal, scores of stomp dancers across the region look to their local dance grounds and annual ceremonials that celebrate the abundance of nature.

Finding a credible maker of box turtle-shell shakers is a necessity. Making the matched legwear for traditional stomp dancers is an art that has been preserved by makers such as Richard Beaver, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation tribal member who has been fashioning turtle-shell shakers for five years.
The shell sets that Beaver makes are strapped onto the legs of female stomp dancers for Green Corn ceremonies.

“My grandma taught how to go about it, but I picked up more from this person or that one when I kept doing it,” he said. “But once you go along, you start developing your own process that still follows what you were taught.”

Several tribes, such as members of the Five Civilized Tribes and the Caddo, practice the stomp dance on grounds erected after they were moved from traditional homelands in the southeastern United States in the early 1800s.

University of Oklahoma anthropologist Rhonda Fair said the relocated tribes maintained their identity through the stomp dance in an area that was once home to only Southern Plains tribes.

“It’s symbolically a connection back to where they (the tribes) came from,” she said. “They never forgot it.”

Fair said that throughout Oklahoma, dozens of stomp dance grounds burst with activity at Green Corn time, usually in the middle of summer.

Meanwhile, much has changed in stomp dance dress over the generations. At one time, the rhythmic sound that is now created by river rocks sealed into box turtle shells was made by using strands of deer hooves strung together. The hooves hitting against each other created the sound.

“That’s what I’m told,” Beaver said. “But when they got to Oklahoma, there were not enough deer hooves to do that with, and somewhere along the way, it became rocks inside shells.”

Beaver can make sets of adult and child-size shakers in about a week, he said. Although some of his shaker sets are sold in the tribe’s gift shop, it’s also word-of-mouth that drums up his commerce. The finished shakers are works of art.

“It’s hard to find enough turtles; last year, they were scarce and this year there are more of them,” he said. “You don’t take anything for granted.”

The use of box turtle shells for ceremonial purposes is allowed by the state Department of Wildlife, assistant chief of law enforcement Jim Edwards said.

“It’s a nongame species with no season,” he said. “We don’t have a hang-up with it since they are being used in this manner.”

Scouting for the right box turtles to use is also a gamble. Although he will look for turtles near Henryetta and Okemah, Beaver also comes across them along the road on any given day.

“The small ones are hard to find,” he said. “And to match them in close sizes on the sets is not easy.”

A child’s set will take about 10 turtle shells, and an adult set might take 16. Beaver has made an average of six sets a year, he said.

In his goal to fashion a pair of turtle shakers, he reminds himself that life is sacred and must be acknowledged even if he uses only what he needs.

“I know it sounds funny, but I talk to the turtles while I’m doing this,” he said. “I tell them that they are helping me feed my family and that they are helping me and that I am grateful.”

Beaver’s shells will sit in an ant bed facing east for several days so they can be picked clean. After he drills holes in them, the shells will be filled with tiny river rocks before being sealed and strapped to used boot tops or leather with laces on each side.

The shells are then strapped onto the female dancers’ legs and worn with ribboned skirts.

There’s an oral tradition that only the female turtles should be used.

A woman might go through three sets of shells in her lifetime, Beaver’s wife, Betty Beaver, said.

“Times are changing” in the stomp dance, she said. “Today people work and go off to find work and may move away from the grounds that they grew up near.”

Information from: Tulsa World,