The Turtle Dance


Today my friends and I attended the Turtle Dance at Okay Owingey ( San Juan pueblo). This is the first dance that celebrates the return of the Light.


Oddly, and no doubt due to the influence of Patriarchy the dance is done by men, not women, who have been associated with Turtle for millennia.


The men wear elaborate headdresses adorned with eagle feathers on one side, a hand –painted half “flower” gourd on the other. Many of these gourds are adorned with the morning glory, a symbol of the summer and the harvest to come. Even the skunk – furred moccasins worn by all to symbolize water also denote the return of the summer people because some are yellow to mark the return of the sun. The white kilts are exquisitely decorated with meaningful symbols, mountains, clouds, thunder are examples, and the sound of bells accompanies the men’s chanting as the group moves from plaza to plaza ending their last set at the kiva. All wear turtle shell rattles on their legs. The torsos of the men are covered in clay.

The men dance in long lines with the black and white clad clowns with fantastic striped “ears” moving through the crowd talking, reprimanding, and making humorous remarks. All the men carry sprigs of spruce, a universal symbol of life. There are private jokes and laughter between the men. Much is left in mystery to an outsider like me, but this air of unknowing is pleasurable. It is only right that secrets are kept from the public eye. I feel that it is a gift to attend these most sacred Pueblo ceremonies at all. The dance is hypnotic and I found myself relaxing into a light trance, for which I was particularly grateful for because my body is so exhausted.


The scariest figures are the whippers wrapped in coyote fur and other animal skins, faces covered, slits for eyes who carry whips that strike the ground ominously. Some men are called to enter the open spaces to be whipped, others choose to enter on their own. After these whippings the men shake hands, and others in the crowd throw corn pollen. The sense I have is that there is both correction and blessing associated with this complex ritual. The whippers have been in the kivas for 10 ten days and at the end of the dance we watch these frightening supernaturals return to their mountain homes for another year.

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