The Deer Dance

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A waning crescent moon hung in the sky with a few steel blue clouds as a few people gathered in front of the hill at San Lldefonso Pueblo waiting for the deer to appear at dawn. The air was cold and the wind was still asleep. Suddenly, the drums began to beat insistently as the singers and drum players turned to face the hill. The drums were calling the deer down from the mountains…and sure enough antlers peeked over the horizon as the deer people made their descent amidst loud calls and whoops. A group of chanting, drumming men were just a few feet away from me. The women, dressed in colorful fringed blankets and white moccasins, their shiny black hair swaying along with focused movements, scattered sacred cornmeal on the ground in front of the drummers and singers. One by one the women came and then crossed quickly over to the other side to welcome the deer people. There were four of them that appeared, two fawns and two adults whose bodies were bent forward, almost like the well known flute player (kokopelli), to accommodate their two sticks for front feet. The fawns had only one stick and copied their elder’s behavior. The deer people were dancing inside a circle that closed around them. Some men had evergreens in their hands and other held rattles. Many of the men wore only a kilt, their bare chests covered with clay; paying homage to the earth. All carried bows and arrows, for this was the hunt. A cacophony of bells on the men’s belts intensified the beat and the Tewa songs seemed to fill the air. I felt rooted to the bare ground, all my senses seemed to be in synchrony with music that seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. My eyes burned with tears that I had trouble holding back. Time ceased to be when the spirit of the dance claimed me and I was shocked when I noticed that dawn had transitioned into a beautiful morning with heat from the sun streaming down from the sky. The dancers moved to the front of the church briefly acknowledging the (folk) Catholicism that was practiced in all the pueblos. Just as quickly as it started the first deer dance was over and the participants disappeared into the kiva to finish their dances in private…Dancing is the primary form of prayer for all Indigenous peoples.

After breakfast a second round of dances began. The first dance to open the second round was either a Comanche or Apache dance that took place on the other plaza opposite the one where the deer dance ended. Again, rainbow ribbons and bright colors shone in the sun. A number of magnificent eagle feathered war bonnets were visible on the heads of the men. Others had faces painted black, and still others wore clay on their chests, arms and legs. There were no women dancing, and the sharp yells or calls punctuated the many drums that were beating in time to the dancers feet. The stunning regalia was a feast for hungry eyes and I was left with a vision of dancing moccasins, and the music of the bells.

Suddenly a second round of deer dancing began in the other plaza and it was hard to decide which plaza to go too! This time the women joined the men and all carried turkey feathers. Some dancers including children had turkey tail feathers attached to their regalia. The women looked like exotic birds with their brightly colored shawls and feathers, many of which were scarlet red and blue – the feathers of the parrot. Small children were part of the dance and I noted how skilled these small feet danced! The men wore, what looked like, skunk fur on their moccasins to repel the witches who had come up from the underworld along with the People so long ago and were always lurking nearby, unseen.

This time only two deer people were present and these were the two deer children. Men, women, adolescents, and children participated in this dance that moved around the plaza in a great circle around the two deer and the evergreen tree that represented the forest. I noticed two more trees laying against the adobe walls in a corner that would probably be used when the hunt intensified. Again the drumming, the singing voices, the intricate dancing stopped time. My eyes couldn’t keep up with what I was seeing. At times the circle tightened around the deer people and then moved outwards. At the end of this round the deer children, or fawns, were whisked away before the remaining dancers disappeared into the kiva.

A second round also occurred at the other plaza. This all male dance seemed to spiral inward and then outward at first and I was reminded of Avanyu, the Horned Serpent who is the spirit of water and of life to the Tewa. From where I stood I was never able to determine the shape of this dance because it seemed to change directions so many times. Once again bows and arrows were commonplace, and on some headdresses the horns of the buffalo were visible, as were the blackened faces that I believe represent the men who were captured or killed in raids. The energy of this dance seemed more warlike, and many of the men carried staffs with flags of different designs, including the yellow and red sun flag of New Mexico. Before I knew it this dance too was ending and the dancers and drummers disappeared into the second kiva to finish the dance in private. Both kivas were squarish or rectangular in shape, although an unused round kiva still sat in the plaza.

The wind was starting to bite and the sun was high in a cobalt blue sky. Although there would be another round of four dances after lunch my friend Bruce and I were ready to go. I was on an emotional high!

The deer are sacred to almost all Native American tribes and I believed that what we had witnessed was an enactment of the hunt, which begins with fasting and prayer and culminates in a re-enactment in which the deer will eventually voluntarily sacrifice themselves as food for the people because they have been honored and respected by the men who hunt then. There is a covenant between the two that makes the hunt and the kill a mutual decision made by both deer and men.

These dances that occur in the various pueblos are usually the culmination of private fasting and other rituals that outsiders know nothing about. And this is how it should be because these Indigenous people embody an ancient oral tradition that remains unbroken only because its secrets are kept. I feel privileged to be a witness to Native traditions/dances that remind me that my own Passamaquoddy roots may have been severed, but Tewa Peoples have survived in spite of incredible odds. Today they are teaching the Tewa language to their children as well as encouraging them to participate in the dances when they are 3 -4 years old.

I learned this morning from the tribes lawyer that women are now allowed to take part in the decision making process of Lldefonso Pueblo, although historically the Tewa, including those of this pueblo, are patrilineal or patriarchal which means that most power historically stayed with the men. These people have demonstrated that they know how to adapt to whatever challenges and changes that come their way. This flexibility has allowed the pueblos to not only remain intact but to thrive; (their villages are beautiful) especially now with the much needed help from the casinos, casinos that I once voted against in Maine.

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