Hemis, the Ripened Corn Katsina

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Traditionally, Katsina dolls were used as teaching tools. They are carved representations of the Spirit messengers of the universe. The Katsinas come to the Hopi and Pueblo peoples in the form of clouds which bring life –giving rain to the people and their crops. They appear in the villages around the winter solstice and stay until the monsoon season begins in July.

 

Katsinas represent different aspects of life. The dolls are given to young girls to help them learn about their future responsibilities as women…They are carved by initiated men out of cottonwood roots.

 

Currently my favorite Katsina is the Jemez or Ripened Corn Katsina.

 

In the little book A Guide to Hopi Katsina Carvings that my companion Bruce sent to me as a gift Hemis is a Katsina inspired by the Jemez people who live in Northern New Mexico. Hemis brings in the first harvest of whole ripe corn plants at the Feast of Niman. This Katsina carries gifts tied to cornstalks.

 

The Katsinas enter the plaza at sunrise forming double lines and wearing imaginative and most creative tablitas as part of their masks they dance with the corn maidens in a beautiful and complex manner.

 

Niman lasts sixteen days, with all of the ceremonies taking place in the kivas except for the final day. Then the Katchinas appear in public for the last time before returning to their mountain abodes. The People ask the Katsinas not to forget them, and to continue to appear as more rain.

 

At this Turning of the Wheel celebrated by all Indigenous peoples, I give thanks to the Katsinas for bringing the much needed rain to Abiquiu, New Mexico – a place that holds me close to Her Heart.

 

The photograph of the Ripened Corn Katsina is taken from the little book I have. The artist is Leo Lacapa.

Black -chinned Hummingbird

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One of the joyous aspects of coming to the desert is that I know that I will be seeing Black –chinned hummingbirds again. This small emerald green-backed hummingbird of the west with no brilliant colors on his throat except a thin strip of iridescent purple bordering his black chin has to be one of my favorites. Because it is so difficult to see the rich deep purple band on the males I am always on the look out for it. I have a feeder just outside my east window and in the morning when the light is right I can usually glimpse a brilliant flash of deep purple.

This year the hummingbirds arrived in Abiquiu during the middle of April from Mexico, (or the Gulf coast) just a few days too early because we had a cold spell with temperatures in the low twenties, and one morning a blanket of snow covered the desert floor.

My neighbor found a dead male Black chinned hummingbird on his feeder early that winter morning. As soon as I heard this news I requested that the bird be brought to me, because I knew that hummingbirds have developed an ability to survive cold temperatures by drastically lowering their heartbeats and going into a state of torpor. Unfortunately this bird was dead having already been placed in a freezer.

Frequently, these birds can be revived if held in the palm of one’s hand; once movement is detected it is possible to feed them sugar water with an eye dropper by forcing open the birds’ beak and dribbling drops into the side of the hummingbird’s mouth. Be very careful if you do decide to do this because hummingbirds, like all birds, run the risk of choking. The fluid can kill them. Afterwards the bird can be placed in a small softly lined box to recover completely and then set free.

It is a good idea to put hummingbird feeders out about a week before the first Ruby  throated and Black –chinned hummingbirds arrive because there are so few natural sources for food available. Here in Abiquiu, I will be placing a feeder out by the beginning of the second week in April. Most folks are aware that hummingbird populations have been stabilized because so many people love to feed them.

These birds are strictly migratory wintering in Mexico or along the Gulf coast.

Female Black- chinned hummingbirds are larger than males and have brilliant green backs and pale whitish gray throats. Most females arrive later than the males.

Courtship displays begin soon afterwards with the males sky-diving around the females, flashing their neon throats, or hovering in front of their potential mates and flying back and forth in front of them. These behaviors are always accompanied by whirring sounds.

Hummingbird nests are extraordinary structures that are built by the females. They are shaped like tiny cups and made of grasses, plant fibers, spider webs, and lined with plant down. The outside of the nest is camouflaged with lichens, dead leaves or other debris. The female lays two tiny eggs that are incubated by her for two weeks. She feeds the nestlings by sticking her bill into their mouths and regurgitating tiny insects, nectar, and sugar water. The nestlings fledge at three weeks. The female has two broods a year.

Watching a Black- chinned hummingbird feed in natural surroundings is fun. To catch small insects the hummers may grab them in mid –air and sometimes take them from spider webs!

Black – chinned hummingbirds can be found in semi – arid country, river groves, suburbs, mountains and hills throughout the west. Unfortunately they are at risk because of climate change, so lets appreciate them while we still have them.

Postscript:

This will be my last entry before returning to Maine. I will be leaving on the Summer Solstice and be making a 4 -5 day trip. Just this month a hummingbird sat under the Fire Moon as I took the picture. It seems fitting that my last article would be about these wondrous little birds that I love so much….

Memorial Day – A Reflection on War

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I believe that there is a collective need on the part of women and men to stop supporting those who have served in the military, men who have killed and maimed millions of human beings, men, and now some women, who always fight on foreign soil killing innocent people and calling these acts of unspeakable violence “collateral damage.” Men who are then lauded as our country’s “Heroes.”

It is important to note that in our very Patriarchal culture, war is still the ultimate solution to the world’s problems. Might is right, and we Americans worship the dynamic of “power over” and the “mighty economy” at the cost of countless human lives.

The idea that war has been obsolete since the creation of the atomic bomb almost a century ago is deliberately and blindly ignored. We continue to strengthen our military at a huge financial cost to every American citizen. We talk peace and create wars. Or we participate in “conflicts” in the name of “democracy,” a form of imperialism. We have become a nation of warmongers.

Every spring, during the beautiful month of May we come around to Memorial Day Weekend when most families celebrate the death of millions with picnics, parties and camping trips.

Many also genuinely grieve deeply the loss of their sons, daughters, nephews, uncles, fathers and grandfathers, and surely some of them wonder if sacrificing their often adolescent children to war in the name of “patriotism” was really worth it after all.

These are the people my heart aches for. For I too have lost family members to warfare, and find it impossible to dismiss these tragic deaths as necessary in order to save our country from “enemies,” who are human beings, just like us. We project evil onto other races, religions etc., while closing our eyes to our own. We refuse to examine our individual or collective capacity for human evil.

We don’t see many older men racing to the nearest recruiting station to volunteer to become a part of the military. We sacrifice our young people instead. On Memorial Day weekend we sentimentalize those who died “in service to their country” modeling this sacrificial behavior to adolescents who are idealistic and whose brains are not fully developed and thus and not yet capable of distinguishing the various shades of gray from black and white thinking. Many young people are recruited in high school because they do not know what direction to take in their lives, or because someone has inculcated in the adults around them the idea that serving their country “will make a man (woman?) out of them” or keep them off the streets  and away from drugs. We romanticize war through all forms of media. We wave flags frantically trying to out do one another, to prove what? That our dead are more important than those we kill?

We should be ashamed of ourselves and our collective behavior.

Wars are not inevitable.

 Unfortunately, in the United States (as well as elsewhere) men and women are both inculcated into patriarchy, a position that automatically privileges men over women at home, in the workplace, in politics, and in the religious practices of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Men are not born into power and control over others; they are taught to be this way, either by their caregivers, wives/partners, community, religious practices, government, or by the culture as a whole. Just as women are taught subservience.

Patriarchy supports an unequal power structure between men and women that can lead to physical mental emotional, and spiritual abuse. And we know that abuse of women is at an all time high. It is not by accident that 52 percent of American women voted for a president who is a misogynist. How else do these women justify how powerless they feel, or how much they hate themselves or other women?

Healthy women (and men) can help stop male violence at many levels. We can refuse to support those who are warmongers, we can refuse to stay in unhealthy relationships, we can refuse to allow our sons and daughters to be sacrificed to the military. We can stop sentimentalizing our losses by refusing to participate in Memorial Day activities.

At the risk of being called sexist I believe that women in particular are in a position to mediate the culture’s -either or – kill or be killed, – thinking about the inevitability of war. It is scientifically factual to state that women are better able to see both sides of an issue because women have the capacity to use both sides of their brains at the same time. Men as a group have a tendency to see an issue in absolutes – as in seeing a truth as right or wrong.

We need healthy, independent women to speak out against the atrocities of war in spite of being called ‘radical’ or ‘feminist’ or crazy. Women are in a position to be able to see beyond the cultural belief in “the inevitability of war” more clearly than men can because of the way they think.

Indian Paintbrush or Grandmother’s Hair

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When I first saw the flower as we sped down a major highway I could hardly believe my eyes. But that tell tale flash of crimson had to belong to the Indian Paintbrush I shrieked to my companion, although I had not seen one in twenty years. I was thrilled. We turned the car around to see if we could spot the flower again. Sure enough, there it was growing in a sparse desert –like area along the side of the New Mexican highway. The next day my friend went back and photographed it, much to my delight.

Also called “Grandmother’s Hair” or Prairie Fire Castilleja is a wildflower that belongs to the Figwort (or snapdragon) family. There are a number of species and all are native to North America. Indian Paintbrush can be annual, biennial or perennial depending on the species.

Growing one to two feet high the flowers are borne in dense bracketed spikes. The flowers are insignificant and are hidden beneath the red tipped leaves. It is the leaves or bracts that are colored various shades of crimson, or flaming orange with yellow depending on the species. The bristle -like inflorescences look as if they have been dipped in paint. Indian Paintbrush grows in both moist areas and dry areas, open prairie, and at the edge of forests. The plant prefers sunny areas. These plants grow in Alaska, California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. The plants also prefer cooler mountainous climates (up to 10,000 feet) and may be found in the Andes and other parts of South America. They are often found near some kind of water seepage. The flowers begin to bloom in the spring and can last well into summer.

Indian Paintbrush has the ability to grow and survive in serpentine soils. For the geologist, serpentine is a mineral class. These rocks are composed mainly of iron magnesium silicate, with impurities of chromium, nickel and other toxic metallic elements. Because of this unusual chemical makeup, soils may be infertile because of their high magnesium to calcium ratio. Many species of plants are not equipped to handle such stressful amounts of high magnesium, low calcium and in general the overabundance of metals.

Indian Paintbrush also soaks up the alkaline mineral *selenium in the soil in toxic amounts (creating hair loss and brittle nails among other things), so although the plant can be eaten it is necessary to know something about the soil content that the plant is growing in before ingesting it. The nectar of the plant is very sweet and it is the flowers that are most often eaten in salads.

Indian Paintbrush is also known as a root parasite. The plant has small tubes called “haustoria” that insert themselves into the tissues of other plant roots, like sagebrush, to obtain necessary nutrients. However, Indian paintbrush can also make some of its own food, so technically it is a semi – parasite. These plants must also have access to water and they rely on other nearby plants to obtain sufficient water for themselves.

This wild plant is very difficult to grow by seed because it must be planted with a host, another native plant or seedling, in order to survive. Unfortunately, seedlings do not transplant well.

Various Indigenous Peoples used the flowering parts of the plant as paintbrushes. Some Native peoples like the Chippewa use the plant to treat rheumatism and to make their hair glossy. Both applications are useful due to the selenium content.

There is a Blackfoot Indian myth about a maiden who fell in love with a prisoner and escaped with him. When she became lonely for her family she took a piece of bark and drew a picture of her home on it with her blood and left the bark on the ground. A beautiful plant with a bush like end grew out of the soil It was dyed crimson red with the maiden’s blood and named “Indian Paintbrush” by the young girl’s people.

The last time I saw Indian Paintbrush it was in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson early in the spring (March). I had been walking up an arroyo that was still seeping snow from the Rincon Mountains when I saw clusters of these magnificent flowers each with a slightly different coloring, but unlike this New Mexican variety these flowers were a brilliant burnt orange fading into a buttery yellow. I would recognize this plant anywhere!

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Photo Credits: Bruce Nelson

 

*Selenium is an essential trace mineral that is important for many bodily processes, including cognitive function, and a healthy immune system. It is present in human tissue, mostly in skeletal muscle. Dietary sources include eggs, brown rice, some fish and meats. The amount of selenium in food often depends on the selenium concentration of the soil and water where farmers grew or raised the food. Another curious fact about selenium is that it can also produce electricity directly from sunlight and is used in solar cells.

A Moonflower Named Datura

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Above: Photo of Datura seedlings taken today – they are locked inside a bird cage to keep them away from my free -flying dove who loves to eat greens

 

I first grew Datura many years ago after returning from the Arizona desert with seed. One afternoon I was walking in an arroyo and heard a rattling sound. I was startled and Investigated its source. A spiked pod popped open scattering seeds around my feet. I thought this behavior might have been some sort of sign suggesting that I should grow this plant! I gingerly pocketed a few ripe pods and brought them back East in the spring.

 

I planted the seeds in the sun, and a few twin leafed plantlets developed into low growing shrubs that flowered towards the end of the summer. The frost took the flowers and plant before any pods developed.

 

The only thing I knew about wild Datura (Datura stramonium) at the time was that it contained poisonous alkaloids – atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine – and that the entire plant was toxic although it had the most beautiful fragrant white trumpet – like flowers whose edges were sometimes tinged in violet.

 

A couple of years later I noticed that seed catalogues began carrying Brugmansia, plants which are closely related to Datura (the former being more tree –like with drooping trumpets that are apparently as fragrant as the bush –like Datura). Both plants can be grown in large pots, and today there are many magnificent cultivars to choose from (although I doubt any develop seed pods). Brugmanisa contains the same alkaloids as its relative. I was intrigued when I first saw these pendulous plants in catalogues but never tried to grow them believing that our season was too short to have flowers develop seed pods because that had been my personal experience. I am a dedicated seed saver, collecting ripe seeds in the fall from year to year.

 

Datura seeds remain viable for at least 20 years or more and if pods are harvested, a few can be planted the next spring and the remainder kept for the future.

 

In March I planted Datura seeds for a second time, this time in the house. I hoped that I could germinate the seeds early enough to produce plants with flowers that formed seed pods. Germinating the seeds was no small undertaking! I placed them in a wet paper towel, inside an open plastic bag and left them in a sunny window. I checked them every day and in about 10 days the first roots appeared. I planted the tiny rootlets in pots.

Currently, I have small plants with true leaves that are watered frequently and have access to strong light all day. In June I will start to acclimate the plants to the outdoors in Maine. Datura is sensitive to frost and I live in a north – facing valley where frost lingers on, sometimes into June. I plan to grow some in a pot and transplant other plants in the ground and see what happens. Obviously, I enjoy experimenting!

 

Datura has many common names besides moonflower. It is also called thornapple, devil’s snare, devilweed, and locoweed. The latter names probably refer to the results of ingesting this plant. Datura produces delirium if it doesn’t kill you. Although Native peoples have learned how to detoxify the plant so it can produce visions, the uninitiated die, so beware.

 

In Ayurveda Datura has been used to treat asthma symptoms. The leaves can be smoked in a pipe. In Ethiopia Datura is apparently used to “open the mind” to being more receptive to learning and creative imaginative thinking. In European medicinal journals there are references to Datura being boiled to treat burns. The Zuni used it as a paste to render a person unconscious so that bones could be set. Many tribes in the Americas – the Cherokee, Algonquin, Navajo, to name a few, use the plant for visioning.

 

It is important to note that the dosage required for visioning is only slightly less toxic than the dose used by sorcerers to kill people. Even more confusing is the fact that some plants contain more toxins than others, even though they may look the same.

 

The Chumash of California call January “the month of Datura” suggesting that Datura was ingested at this time of year because the effects of this perennial plant were less lethal during the winter and perhaps because it was part of some winter ritual.  Like many other tribes, the primary reasons Datura was used by the Chumash was to see into “the true nature of reality” and/or to establish contact with one’s animal/plant guardian(s). The Chumash approached the plant respectfully calling her “Grandmother.”

 

Sources differ on where the plant first originated. Some say Datura is native to this continent, others suggest the origin of this plant is unknown but either way it can be found growing in all parts of the world where the climate is moderate or tropical. The highest concentration of Datura is found in Tunisia, South Africa.

 

Datura prefers rich calcareous soil according to most sources but I think any organic plant mix will work. The Datura that I have seen growing seem to spring up in waste places and dry arroyos in deserts where limestone is present. For this reason I think that I am going to add crushed egg – shells to my plants to help put calcium carbonate into the mix.

 

I only learned recently that if you give Datura half a day of sun it may grow into a bush about five feet tall but this source made a reference to the deserts of the southwest where the sun is very intense during the summer months, so I am going to put my plants in full sun when the time comes.

 

Evidently, the pods can be harvested when they are bright green by cutting the entire bush back, stripping off the leaves and hanging the stalk/seed pods in a warm place to dry. The Datura that I have grown has come from plucking the seed pods when the whole plant is withered and brown.

 

While Datura provides nectar for honeybees, hummingbirds, and other insects in the food chain, it has formed a partnership with the Hawk moth, an insect nearly as large as a human hand. Datura furnishes the moth with nectar as a food source and shelter for its eggs.  The plant serves leafy meals to the moth’s hungry larvae (called tomato hornworms), so much, in fact, that sometimes the plant must draw upon nutrients in its roots to re-grow its leaves after caterpillar foraging. But in return, Datura is pollinated by the moth, and the plant (actually an herb) produces fruits and seeds for another generation. This co- evolutionary relationship between the Hawk moth and Datura is called “mutualism.” ( Scientists find interdependence between plants and animals occurring routinely in nature. The “man against nature” paradigm is outdated). When I researched Hawk moths I learned that my Datura could definitely be pollinated because we have plenty of Hawk moths in the state of Maine.

Scientists also suggest that Datura seeds are eaten by birds that spread the seed through bird droppings, but I couldn’t find a source that mentioned what birds might be carriers or how they managed to deal with seed toxicity. I know that domestic animals can be adversely affected by ingesting the unpleasant smelling leaves of this plant.

 

The white and lavender-tinted, trumpet-shaped blossoms of Datura promise a fairyland of delicate beauty, moths, butterflies, long-tongued bees, hummingbirds and mystical moonlit nights.  It gives rise to some of the plant’s other names, for instance, Angel’s Trumpet, or Belladonna (beautiful lady).

 

The blossoms open at dawn and dusk and are intensely fragrant especially after it rains. During the early afternoon hours the flowers begin to wither from the heat of the sun. I personally find Datura flowers intoxicating, although I treat this plant with deep respect, remembering to wash my hands after I have touched the leaves or collected its pods.

 

An unknown poet has this to say about Datura:

Full moon

Tonight my Datura bush blooms
with thirty-three trumpets.

The moon glides past a tree
spreading its silver glow on open flowers.

Suddenly sacred trumpets fluoresce
and seem brighter than the moon itself…

It is worth growing these plants just to stand beside a flowering clump under a blossoming white moon breathing in their fragrance. Indescribable.

Seed Ceremony on Earth Day

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(Above) The seed basket I was given to place seed offering – curiously I have a little dog basket like this one at my home in Maine.

On Earth Day I attended a Genizaro/Tewa all day presentation called “Seeds of Hope and Healing” which espouses a way of thinking that acknowledges the sanctity and power of untreated seeds to create uncontaminated food for all people.

In the pamphlet given to each participant it states that “The New Mexico Food and Seed Alliance was formed in 2006 following the Seed Sovereignty Declaration in which farmers from tribal, Pueblo, acequia communities, and other farmers signed a declaration to defend seeds from genetic contamination.

 The name of these annual gatherings in three languages beginning with Tewa recognizes Indigenous peoples as seed savers and guardians of countless generations of seeds. It also recognizes that land- based people have borrowed from and added to these traditions with seeds and food traditions from around the world. The Indo –Hispanic people who are mestizo, or of mixed ancestry (Genizaros) have evolved a land-based culture after centuries of growing food in their respective villages…

 The seed exchange and gathering is an affirmation of the unity that is possible between cultures and this unity is necessary to defend seeds so that future generations can continue… to save seed and grow their own food.…

Four Northern Pueblos participated in the 12th Annual Owningeh Tah Pueblos y Semilles Gathering and Seed exchange: Abiquiu, Santa Clara, San Juan, and Taos. The group’s mission statement includes saving not only seeds but extends to protecting animals, fruit trees, and wild plants for the purpose of sustaining a way of life that has been in existence long before Europeans set foot in this country. It is only in this way that The People can continue to resist the global industrialized food system.

In the large room a sacred circle was created by the women, who put beautifully embroidered wide sashes and hand woven baskets in each of the four directions on a beautiful handmade blanket. The women also sprinkled corn pollen in the circle. There were two empty baskets to contain the seed offerings. In the center a beautifully painted white and black clay bowl was surrounded by two ears of corn on each of its four sides. People were asked to line up in four lines choosing the direction they came from: North, East, South or West.

The ceremony began with the leader who blessed the space, and added a prayer for the dead. He called forth the four lands and four waters making offerings to each of them. We all sat in a circle around the simple altar. Small handmade baskets were handed out and we placed a few seeds in our baskets, and when it was our turn to enter the sacred space, we were asked to speak our names, state where we lived, and what seed(s) we were offering for a blessing. We moved around the circle counterclockwise (the indigenous way) leaving it after adding our seeds to the other offerings. The ceremony was solemn, and the experience was deeply moving.

What came next was a total surprise. The sound of drums beating in the distance gradually became more insistent as the Santa Clara dancers emerged from another room. Those that were gathered together witnessed an astonishing Rain Dance, (the first I had witnessed) that filled the room with its vibrant colors, sounds, and prayers that centered me so completely, that I too, became part of the dance. Every day we look to the sky in hopes that the rains will come.

The seed exchange occurred afterwards with people leaving with small envelopes full of seeds grown by another. A feast had been prepared for all the participants. Later in the afternoon three women spoke about the hope that comes with the seeds. How each contains new life, and that each seed is a miracle, a perspective that is also my own.

The young are the hope of the future and I was struck by the young women’s presentations from the Youth Alliance all of whom honored their mentors and were committed to passing on the traditions of the pueblos to which they belonged.

 

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The men spoke too and I remember mention of the spiral and how important this symbol was to the People. From the DNA spiral to the way a sunflower seeds up, to the shape of galaxies, the spiral is a universal life form.

Acknowledging “Truth of Place” one man spoke earnestly about how this land was their church. This land, her mountains her waters all sustained his people generation after generation.

One member of Abiquiu pueblo talked about the history of the Genizaros who until recently went unrecognized, although Abiquiu was given a Land Grant in 1754. Genizaros were Indian children and young women who were sold or traded and became Hispanicized, losing touch with their Native roots for a time. Today both Indian and Hispanic festivals are held in Abiquiu to acknowledge these once invisible people.

The day ended with Los Genizaros de Abiquiu closing the ceremony with an Eagle Dance. The two participants, Dexter Trujillo drummer and singer, and the Eagle Dancer, Maurice, dressed in flaming orange and red feathers were spell binding to watch as they moved towards and away from each other. The eerie sense I had was Maurice actually became an eagle.

A seed pot made by Indigenous artist Roxanne Swentzell was presented to Abiquiu Pueblo in recognition of its Genizaro status.

For a person like myself, who has been something of an “earth mother” tending to, and saving seeds for much of my adult life, this ceremony felt like the first recognition of the importance of this work over the span of one woman’s lifetime; I am 72 years old. Even though I will be returning to Maine before the summer begins I will carry this ceremonial recognition close to my heart. I couldn’t help thinking about the datura and redbud tree seeds that I had tenderly been germinating for the last month. Most, if not all, will find homes here in the desert, but I am content, knowing that I have participated in the spring planting for one more cycle. I am absurdly happy that wildflower seedlings are popping up where there were none before! Soon, I believe, redbud trees will follow.

The Buffalo Dance – Easter Sunday

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I could hear the rain of the turtle rattles that are strapped around the legs of the men long before I actually saw them dancing in a long straight line outside one of the kivas. The animals are honored for giving up their lives so the People might live. My skin prickled in visceral response.

I noted the evergreen boughs that each dancer had attached to his arms with bright green bands, the dark gray earthen clay that covered each torso, the red – coral? – necklaces, some inlaid with shells, the sparse feathers that were attached to each man’s head by a colorful band, the moccasin clad feet beating out a hypnotic rhythm as the dancing/chanting continued. The men also wore deer-skin aprons with bright crimson fringe on the front and behind each had an animal skin of either fox, ringtail, coyote, and perhaps a badger (I couldn’t see well enough to be sure) attached to his body. Some of these animal tails almost reached the ground. In their hands the dancers carried rattles or bows and arrows – the latter to symbolize the hunt.

The evergreen tree in the center of the line represents the forest where the men once hunted the buffalo but I also saw the spruce as a “Tree of Life” as the men danced before the conifer. Some say there were buffalo in this area at one time, but Tewa oral traditions suggest that the men traveled to the plains to hunt the buffalo that provided them with meat, fat, and skins that would keep them warm during the cold months.

The Buffalo Dance (or any animal dance that is chosen for this day) marks the end of the hunting season and the transition to spring planting. The animals are honored for giving up their lives so the People might live. Prayers for adequate rain, and the hope for a bountiful summer harvest are danced and sung. Dance is Indian prayer.

These dances hypnotize me, transporting me to a place outside time, – a space in between – one might say, so whatever I have written here is surely missing important details. The dance itself is simple with the line of dancers turning one way and then reversing directions, never missing a beat, and it ends brusquely with the men retiring to the kiva. There are two kivas and two plazas in this pueblo.

During the first break, I was approached by a young man dressed in a tribal shirt with a rainbow of ribbons who introduced himself as the Governor.

“We think that you might be recording the dances,” he said, quietly and respectfully gesturing to my purse. I was stunned.

“Oh no, I would never do that, not ever,” I replied babbling on, incoherently no doubt, as I offered him my purse, explaining that I had Passamaquoddy Indian roots and came from Maine where the Native American traditions had been totally destroyed and that for me it was a privilege to be at this dance… Evidently, this  sincere outburst convinced him that he/they had been mistaken.

He talked about how difficult it was to monitor these dances that were open to the public because although signs were in full view telling visitors not to photograph, record, or sketch the dancing, people did not respect the rules, so members of the tribe were forced to monitor strangers. He told me that one of the most sacred of the dances, The Eagle Dance, led by his grandfather ended up being illegally videoed and had been posted on youtube. I groaned. He also told me that the Tewa are working to get these illegal postings removed for good. I asked him about tribal traditions and he told me that it was getting more difficult to hold the Tewa culture together, due to outside pressure, but that they were doing their best. Then he extended an invitation.

“Please come to my home for food after the next dance is over,” he offered kindly after he introduced himself to me and told me where his house was located. When I mentioned that I was with someone, he replied “please bring your friend with you.” I knew that it was considered to be an honor to be asked to join the Governor’s family for dinner. How could we refuse?

My second blunder occurred while I was sitting on a log watching the second round of dances in the opposite plaza. I picked up a pitifully sticky seed coated turkey feather, and carefully picked off the debris. At some point during this process I began to feel uncomfortable about the feather in my hand so I kept it visible. Sure enough, another “watcher” – I don’t know what else to call these men, but some had bows/arrows and all kept a large space between the audience and the dancers – approached me.

“To pick up a feather or anything else inside the pueblo even if it is on the ground is a violation of our rules,” he remarked sternly.

I quickly returned the turkey feather to the watcher, apologizing profusely. Obviously, I am still learning how to behave in Pueblos I thought to myself ruefully.

After the second round of Buffalo dances we made our way to the Governor’s house and sat down to eat with the family. A feast had been prepared and people were expected to come and go until the dances ended in mid afternoon. I was intimidated and had some difficulty making casual conversation although these family members were friendly, if reserved. The food was delicious.

Outside the Governor’s house I noted how warm it was getting. All the cottonwoods had deep crimson tassels already lying on the ground, and once again I felt deep misgivings because although most of the trees were either leafing or in process of doing so it was only the middle of April, the temperatures were in the high 70’s and the sun was very hot. Many early fruit trees like the apricot trees had been badly damaged by a couple of hard frosts according to one tribal member. I couldn’t help worrying about these disturbing weather changes and how they would affect these people who had so much invested in a good harvest.

We watched a third round of Buffalo Dances. Each dance had its own distinct chant and the third was just as mind-altering for me as the first two had been. Once again the dance ended abruptly and the men filed into the kiva.

Kivas are the places where the elders gather to enact the secret Native ceremonies that are held all throughout the year and each spring during Lent. After the secret ceremonies are completed visitors are invited to witness and celebrate the final dances that are chosen by the Governor of the Pueblo for the Feast Day, which in this case was Easter. It is believed that each visitor that watches, Native or non –Native, is participating in communal prayer – and that prayer centers gratitude to the Creator or Nature for life and in the hope that the rains will come so that the crops may flourish.

Most Tewa pueblos along the Chama and Rio Grande have assorted dances that culminate the Lenten season on Easter Day including this one at P’o – Wah – Ge – Owinge or San Ildefonso which is located on some juniper strewn hills that surround the pueblo and the spectacular Jemez mountains. Modest (mostly) pueblo housing, and well kept yards dot the hills around and in the pueblo.

In March there are no public dances at any of the pueblos, but the Katchinas, or holy people have been praying for rain and have been present for the People since the winter solstice. They will return to the mountains or to a sacred underground lake (depending upon tribal oral tradition) sometime towards the end of July. Because all these ceremonies are secret, no one outside the pueblo knows exactly what goes on in March or any other month even when the public is invited to a dance. And even then people are expected to experience the dance through their bodies and not ask questions about what is happening. This is the only way the Tewa people believe they can keep their oral traditions intact. Although nominally Catholic there is an absence of iconic Christian images that attests to the fact that the central beliefs of these Indigenous peoples do not revolve around Catholicism but are much older and rooted in the natural world and the cycle of the seasons.

Perhaps this is why I am so deeply moved and feel deep gratitude after attending one of these Tewa dances. My personal beliefs echo those of the Tewa who were amongst the first peoples that inhabited this continent. My fervent hope is that Native peoples will find a way to adapt even more efficiently to an increasingly alien world where Nature is seen as a commodity to be exploited and not a Living Being on whose life we depend.