In 1909, cowboy and countryman Randall Kemp wrote a detailed description of a “half-breed” dance that he witnessed years earlier on the Colville Reservation in Washington state. An interesting description, this account shows the distant reach of Metis culture far to the west of the original prairie origins. A summary of his account is as follows:
The desire to attend a dance of this description had been uppermost with me for a long time. I longed to take it all in, write it up and allow the readers of some widely circulated journal to know just how it was in reality. It was the month of July that a companion and myself were camped at Okanogan Smith's ranch…
A messenger arrived at the ranch and brings the welcome tidings that the dance, a surprise party would go on. Everybody was invited, a splendid time was expected and if we desired to enjoy the fun all we had to do was saddle our horses, mount and go. It scarcely appeared an instant until we were on our way, bounding over the prairie-like river bottom toward the scene of the festivities.
I had ridden fifty miles that day to see what was to be seen and was determined to take it all in. In due time we arrived at the Ingraham ranch, dismounted and, after promising each other to say nothing to our families about our interests in the affair, we were ushered into the room where the company were assembled."
"It appears at this time almost impossible to describe the scene that met our eyes. A low room about twenty feet square, around the sides of which were rough benches on which sat persons of the different sexes, of, it appeared to me, every shade imaginable, from the pure white man and woman to the blackest Indian, interspersed with mixed blood of all shades of copper. All ages, too, were represented. The room was a perfect babel of sounds. Some were conversing in English, some in the Indian tongue, others were carrying on their conversations in Chinook, and in one corner two Chinamen, who had come down from Rock creek, were having a war of words, apparently, in their native language.
Sitting on a chair placed on the top of a common table in another corner was a bald-headed man busily engaged in tuning an antiquated looking fiddle. "Hudson's Bay," remarked my companion, pointing toward the musician. I did not know at this time the meaning of these two words in that connection, but afterward I thoroughly understood the meaning of Hudson's Bay fiddler, and, if the reader is patient, will endeavor to describe this backwoods disciple of Paganini. A Hudson's Bay fiddler is one of the old fur company's employees with a taste for music which is only brought to the surface by an energetic use of the bow. They are as necessary adjuncts to a half-breed dance as the half-breeds themselves. They can generally play but imperfectly a few old-style tunes. If a string on the instrument breaks, and there is not another within 100 miles, does the dance cease on account of the lack of music? No! Mr. Hudson's Bay fastens on a tow string, a piece of barb wire from the nearest fence, anything that will make a noise when stretched, and the fun goes on.
"Take your pardners for a quadrille," yelled old Hudson's Bay, as he drew the bow across the tightened strings of the fiddle, which appeared to be tuned to his satisfaction. Instantly the hum of voices ceased, and there was a hurrying of feet on the puncheon floor. The first thing that I knew I was bowing and extending my left arm to the first purely Native American lady I saw. There was no need of introduction. She accepted me as a partner, and we took our places in one of the sets that were forming. "All ready," shouted old Hudson's Bay as he tucked the fiddle under his chin. "Jeemeny whiz! Here's room for another". A young fellow took a plaited rawhide rope from his belt, and dexterously lassoed a comely looking half-breed girl at the other side of the room and brought her to him by pulling the lariat hand over hand. Thus we were standing in waiting for the dance to go on. I turned to my lady so as to carefully study her features as well as make-up, but was startled by the hoarse voice of old Hudson's Bay with the request to "say-loot your pardners. On With the Dance”. Then the dance commenced in real earnest.
I do not know the name of the tune that old Hudson's Bay ground out of the fiddle, and I was too modest to inquire. What it lacked in melody was made up in energy and vim by the dancers. The rubber soles of Mr. Pete's rubber boots touched the ceiling at times, while the clatter of Mr. Sam's hob-nailed underpinning was not much unlike the thumping of stamps in a quartz mill. The ladies, with their moccasined feet, skipped nimbly about, while I, in the excitement occasioned by the newness of everything, soon noticed that I had neglected to remove the heavy pair of Mexican spurs from my top riding boots."
Kemp, Randall H. (1909) A Half Breed Dance and Other Far West Stories: Mining Camp, Indian and Hudson Bay Tales Based on the Experiences of the Author. Spokane: Inland Printing.
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities