Around the time of the winter solstice I attended one of the most sacred dances of the year for the pueblo people, The Turtle Dance. San Juan Pueblo has many plazas and the sun was warm when we arrived around 3 PM under an azure sky. The dancing had been going on all day and I had a chance to see for the first time how Casino money could be used to help Native people. All the adobe houses have been re-plastered (not one trailer) and when we arrived the men were just coming out of the newly rebuilt kiva after a fifteen – minute break to begin the last set of dances.
The Turtle Dance occurs the day after Christmas every year. Its purpose is to welcome back the sun. This is an all male dance with about 100 participants. Each man wore bells and turtle rattles on his moccasins to mimic the sound of the rain that was as important as the sun was for the people to grow and harvest their crops successfully. Each donned a kilt with crimson sashes, had a neck handkerchief decorated with roses around his shoulders and wore no other clothing. It was cold! Many of the moccasins were made of skunk fur. The men had rubbed gray earthern clay into their upper torsos. Each man had cedar boughs attached to his arms, some with beaded bands and there were two diagonal stripes painted on each dancer’s face. But the most astonishing thing was the headdresses that each dancer wore. Eagle and turkey feathers were placed in a horizontal line on one side of the headdress along with cedar boughs. On the same horizontal plane and as part of the headdress on the other side, a split gourd faced outward, and each was painted with a blue morning glory (these flowers love the morning sun), or some other design that symbolized to that person the sun’s return. I recognized the Zuni and Hopi sun faces. The intricate designs and rainbow colors used to paint the symbols on the inside of the gourds took my breath away. In addition to the dancers and clowns there were a couple of supernaturals dressed in hides and covered in coyote fur, their faces completely masked (one black, the other white) except for sinister looking slits (for eyes), and both carried whips that they struck the ground with at different times. These masked figures chose more men from the crowd who were given a cedar branch and were dusted with cornmeal before shaking hands with the supernatural and joining the long line of dancers. Once a man was chosen he couldn’t refuse; he had become one of the dancers.
The clowns had black and white striped double peaked hats complete with cornstalks or sprigs of cedar and had painted double bands of striped horizontal white and gray clay on their stomachs and backs. They also wore cotton or wool kilts. In their hands all the men (dancers, and clowns) carried the sacred cedar branches and shook gourd rattles filled with seeds as they chanted. Brilliant colors defined this regalia and every man followed every other in one long line of men who reversed directions in a moment when the chant signaled that it was time. I was reminded of a sinuous serpent moving slowly side to side. Between the colors, the chanting, the gentle harassment of the crowd by the clowns, the men danced in one place to their own haunting voices, turning first one way and then another. Different chants were sung at different plazas. The effect of this single line dancing and chanting left me close to tears, although I didn’t understand why because I couldn’t understand a word that was being sung. The men were chanting in the Tewa language. As a group the dancers, clowns, and supernaturals moved from one plaza to another giving thanks for the return of the sun. The multitude of pueblo people who were watching their ceremony were all wrapped in gorgeous handmade blankets with extraordinary designs.
The sun was setting and the cold penetrated my three layers of socks as I sat down against one of the smooth adobe walls. I did this deliberately so I couldn’t see the dancers because I wanted to listen to the chanting. Without realizing it I began swaying back and forth with the music, which was having a hypnotic effect on me. At dusk when the dancers all disappeared almost instantly, the grotesque coyote covered, frightening black/white masked supernatural forces with their whips left the Oh Kay Owingeh for another year…
I was grateful to have been asked to attend this ceremony because according to the pueblo tradition each person that witnesses the joyful return of the sun becomes a prayer.
San Juan Pueblo
When I researched the Turtle Dance I discovered that this dance marks the end of the old year and the beginning of the next. The dance is named for the turtle who is believed to be the first hibernating being to move after the year has turned. Thus, the turtle symbolizes the beginning of each yearly cycle.
During the dance, which lasts all day, four songs are sung in the Tewa language (three times in each plaza) and each song is sung four times. The songs acknowledge and honor the four directions (beginning with the north, west, south with east coming last), the new dawn, the young men and women and the coming of the holy people. This dance celebrates renewal and the regeneration of the continuing process of creation.
What follows is an example of the songs:
“Away to the north the holy people are running about, gathering from every direction. They come with their rain bearing powers, and still they come….
Away to the west the holy people are running about, gathering from every direction. They come with their evergreens and medicinal and plant bearing powers, and still they come…” (Alfonso Ortiz translation)
Postscript: Because I come from the northeast where the turtle symbolizes “Mother Earth” I was forcibly struck by the fact that this first dance of the year was done by men rather than women. When I spoke with author Sabra Moore about this anomaly (from my point of view) I asked her if the pueblo people of this region adhered to a patriarchal standard which might account for the dance being done by men instead of women. She thought I might have a point.
History: Since ancient times the San Juan people have divided the physical world into three parts. The first part is comprised of the village and adjoining areas, which belong to the women and are marked by four sacred objects indicating the directions north, south, east, and west. The second part is made up of the mesas (pronounced MAY-sas; a Spanish word meaning “tables”). Mesas are large hills with steep sides and flat tops. They surround San Juan Pueblo and are open to men, women, and children, but they are under male authority. The third part of the physical world is the outside world (beyond the mesas). Belonging solely to the men of the tribe, the outside world is the place where they hunt, defend their people when necessary, and seek spiritual guidance.