Dancing Breath: Ceremonial Performance Practice, Environment, and Personhood in a Muskogee Creek Community

This dissertation presents an ethnography utilizing a multispecies perspective of the “busk” ritual cycle as performed by the southeastern Muskogee Creek American Indian community, Pvlvcekolv (Apalachicola). Humans construct humanity and personhood partially via interactions with other-than-human persons, such as animals, plants, and objects. I examine ritualized interactions between humans and others-than-human in a southeastern Indigenous “natureculture,” exploring the intersections of ontology, personhood, and performance practice. Pvlvcekolv, an animistic Florida-based tribal town with a ceremonial Fire that pre-dates European Contact, maintains a centuries-old ritual tradition, the busk. Sometimes known as “Green Corn Ceremonialism,” many Native communities share this tradition, including Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole, Yuchi, and other Creek peoples historically and in the present day. Performing the songs, dances, and ritual actions of the busk places participants into dialogue with other-than-human persons. Participants thank, propitiate, and communicate and transform with these beings. Busk performance articulates worldview and actuates inter-species relationality.

Ethnomusicological studies often ignore movement/dance in favor of sound/music. Especially in Indigenous contexts, however, excluding the corporeal privileges a Euro-Americentric construction that splits sonic and physical activities into separate categories. I develop a method of performance analysis that addresses both modalities using Pvlvcekolv’s ethnophilosophy. With this analytical model, I investigate meanings that arise in Pvlvcekolv’s busk performance practice. I explore the Turtle and Bench Dances as forms of Indigenous library/archive/museum/storehouse (LAMS) science. These dances facilitate participants’ interactions with, and corporeal accessioning of, history and ritual. I also contrast the life histories of object persons accessioned in LAMS with the lives and experiences of their cousins in use in ceremony, treating another facet of Pvlvcekolv’s Native LAMS practice. Several animal dances, such as the Feather and Buffalo Dances, place performers into dialogue with animal persons. Through ritual, humans and other beings merge, further developing their interrelationships. Pvlvcekolv community members regularly interact with plants, conversing with, and, in turn, hearing plant speech and song. I push at boundaries surrounding “voice,” developing a definition that can apply equally to humans and others-than-human in an animistic cosmology. I conclude with breath and silence, the media through which all beings interrelate in Pvlvcekolv’s cosmology. Based on over a decade of collaborative ethnographic research, observation-participation, and LAMS research, this dissertation proposes that ritual performance practice articulates relationality between beings, maintaining inter-species relationships in this southeastern Indigenous natureculture.