The Forty-Nine

Nico Wind

Nico Wind

with Nico Wind

Arlie Neskahi :
The powwow is over for the night. Many of the people have folded up their lawn chairs and are heading back to their family’s campsite, maybe to a camper, or a teepee, a van or a car, for a good rest. Tomorrow will be another day of dance and music, friendship and contests, good food, tradition and respect. The once squawking loudspeaker system falls silent.


Northern Cree
Let’s 49
Round Dance Jam
Canyon Records

But not everyone at the powwow is ready for sleep. Now’s the time for the Forty-nine. That’s the name for social dances, usually taking place after the powwow is over, sometimes until the rays of the morning sun are just peeking over the horizon. In a secluded spot somewhere in or near the camp, couples and young singles will gather, maybe around a fire. A drum might appear. If there’s no drum, a cardboard box, or even the hood of a car will do. I myself have dented a few hoods in my lifetime.

Nico Wind has more about Forty-nines in today’s Tribal Rhythms.

Nico Wind:
Forty-nines are social dances that may use steps borrowed from other traditional dances. The songs use melodic rhythmic syllables called vocables and often words in English. The central themes are usually romance, heartbreak and promised love. Couples hold on to one another and “share blankets.” Singles look to “snag a partner” as they dance under the stars.

A couple of different stories tell about how Forty-nines got that name. Maybe a group of Indians working at a wild west show heard a carnival barker encouraging people to see the Cancan Girls of 1849. So the Indian performers, not wanting to be outdone, decided to start their own dance, calling it “The “49.”

Bill Koomsa, Sr., a Kiowa elder, remembered hearing the term Forty-nine around 1924. It was featured in a movie that showed locally amidst a lot of fanfare, called “In the Days of 49.” One night, as the people were dancing, Koomsa recalled someone driving up, pointing to the dancers, and yelling, “In the days of 49!” so the name stuck – the 49 dance.

Or a Cheyenne story tells of 50 young men who were sent off to fight in World War II, and when 49 men returned, a song was sung in their honor. and so the name Forty-nine.

Five Kiowa “49” Dance Songs
Traditional Kiowa Songs
Canyon records, 1998

The Forty-nine is similar to other traditional dances, such as the round dance, but instead of facing inward and moving sideways in a circle, dancers in the old days moved forward. Sometimes they placed their left hand on the left shoulder of the dancer in front of them. These days, the Southern Kiowa Forty-nine Dancers may link arms and form a circle around a campfire. There are also northern style songs that are sung in a higher pitch and usually include hand drums. These songs also center on the themes of flirting and “hooking up.” The Forty-nine is all about coming together to be close and sharing good feelings.

While the Forty-nine is intended to be a romantic dance, it also has a sense of humor. The song about a one-eyed Ford jokes around about the condition of many cars on the reservations – like the car in Sherman Alexie’s movie, Smoke Signals, that only drives backwards.

One-eyed Ford is a good example of how lyrics in a popular song change over time. One early version promises, “I’ll take you to the dance, sweetheart, in my new Model-T Ford!” An earlier generation sang a similar melody, with the singer telling his sweetheart that he’d take her home in his manufactured wagon. Some even older versions used the words “take you home on my best pony!”

One-Eyed Ford
(Round Dance Songs with English Lyrics, Indian Sounds IS 1004, used by permission – Millard Clark, Tom Ware)
CD from book – Moving Within the Circle: Contemporary Native American Music and Dance, Produced and Compiled by Bryan Burton, World Music Press, P. O. Box 2565, Danbury, CT 06813-2565,

You might hear such vocables as “be bop a lu la” in a forty-nine song. Or how about this earnestly romantic lyric: “Way, hey ya, hey ya. Oh, yes, I love you, honey dear. I don’t care if you’ve been married 15 times, I’ll get you yet! I miss my sweetheart, I miss my sweetheart. she’s in jail! Way, ya hey ya, hey ya.”

Arlie Neskahi
Recorded live at Wisdom of the Elders studio

While romance and humor are an integral part of the Forty-nine, it’s young people that keep this music going and growing.

Joanne Shenandoah with A. Paul Ortego After the 49
Loving Ways
Canyon Records

Today, you can hear the influence of country, rock or hip-hop in a forty-nine song. And though the Forty-nine has been around for decades, it’s really about being young. After all, it takes a lot of stamina to forty-nine all night long!

Tribal Rhythms is produced by our music director, Nico Wind and written by Anne Morin.

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