The Harvest Dance

(photo – author’s harvest – sunflowers and corn)


This morning on a brilliant blue morning, just a few days away from the Fall Equinox I attended the first set of the Harvest Dances at the Tewa Pueblo, Ohkay Owingeh.


This celebration of the harvest marks the end of the agricultural cycle that began early last spring. It seemed to me that the whole pueblo (that has more than 1400 residents) participated in this dance either as dancers or active listeners. When I arrived the colorful baskets full of corn, squash and chiles were laid on the ground outside of the Kiva. After about 15 minutes the drum began to beat as the dancers emerged from the Kiva led by four clowns with “ears” of corn tassels, followed by two old women dressed in black whose eyes were circled in white. All six wore bands of gray and white clay on their arms. The clowns wore kilts and were covered in these clay bands from head to foot. The other dancers followed in a single line as they entered the plaza.


People were bringing in baskets of more produce and now the dancers either threw or gave the outer circle of participants, the active listeners, the fruits and vegetables they were carrying. Pandemonium followed! Someone sailed a zucchini my way and fortunately I was not hit by it! Retrieving the vegetable from the ground I knew I would cook it for dinner, to remind me that everything about the harvest has to do with giving thanks.


All I could think of was that this was a Giveaway – a part of the ceremony that ritualizes the idea of community sharing. As people walked away with full baskets of produce and candy, others were bringing more into the plaza. I imagined this scene would play out again and again before each set all day long. This sharing of all the food is, after all, the core of genuine community.


After a few minutes the dancing and chanting, the Tewa form of prayer, began in earnest. The drummer and singers formed a dense inner circle and the clowns led the other dancers around; turning first one way and then another in union to the beat of a single drum as the songs continued. Many wore wreaths of flowers on their heads, a few men wore feathers. All the males wore rainbow colored ribbon shirts and belts and mustard yellow deerskin moccasins, the color of golden squash. A few men from the bear clan wore bracelets of bear claws and silver. The women were dressed in the traditional black dresses belted with colorful sashes, topped by striking shawls, many with scarlet roses. Their feet and calves were wrapped in creamy high deerskin moccasins. Some men and women continued to carry a squash or a pumpkin, strings of chiles and small watermelons too. Women still balanced baskets of produce on their heads as their feet followed the beat of the drum. I was deeply moved to see most women (and active women listeners that made the same gesture while standing) dancing with their hands pressing gently down as if caressing the Earth, while their feet tapped the ground lightly. Some women sprinkled corn towards the dancers. Others kissed the food they caught or were given. The dancers ranged from toddlers to old people and a few dogs joined in. One old woman/elder who was dancing stepped out of the circle to gather an infant in her arms to rejoin the circle.


I watched the clowns repeatedly gesturing in an arc first in one direction and then another throughout the set, as if acknowledging some force or biding farewell. I also watched the two women in black for clues as to their purpose but reached no conclusion except that to me at least they might symbolize death. At the south end of the plaza there was a huge collection of watermelon and other melons arranged in a beautiful circle that was included in the dance.


The slow beat of the drum and the repetitive singing and dancing prayers, the stunning regalia, the deep blue sky slowly put me in a quiet space where details were lost as I experienced the dance as one unbroken visual and audio whole, a weaving of the communal thread…


A dark shadow suddenly cut through the air and I turned to see a vulture circling. I don’t know what this bird means for the Tewa but certainly many noticed. To me  turkey vultures mark the return of the spring season with their tilting wings that cut through the sky. Soon now they shall be leaving to migrate south for the winter, and seeing this bird at the Harvest Dance seemed just right. Perhaps he too was saying goodbye to the Summer People…


When the set finally ended I was surprised to see that the clowns didn’t lead the dancers back to the Kiva. Since this was the first Harvest Dance I had ever attended I had nothing to compare it to. I knew enough to know that each dance is unique, and although some patterns are repeated just as traditional songs are always included along with contemporary versions others are conspecific to a particular dance. Today all the dancers and listeners gathered around the circle of melons, many of which were watermelon and each person partook of the feast, another meaningful way to give thanks for another successful growing season.


Dancing to the Four Directions, the Four Sacred Mountains, the Spirits of the living and the dead keep the Tewa World in Balance and this function is central to every Tewa ritual as is the emphasis on Community that extends itself to each dancer who becomes the Dance itself.


On the way home I couldn’t help thinking what a difference it would make if western culture put an emphasis, not on the individual, but on the diverse community of people who inhabit the Earth. Perhaps even now in this time of planetary crisis and disintegration we could learn something from these ancient people who have managed to survive the Europeans, Spanish colonization, slavery, and invasions from other warring tribes. If only we were still capable of being taught by those we once called primitive peoples…


I close with this beautiful translation of a Tewa song:


Oh our Mother the Earth, oh our Father the Sky,

Your children are we, and with tired backs

We bring you the gifts that you love.

Then weave for us a garment of brightness;

May the warp be the white light of morning,

May the weft be the red light of evening,

May the fringes be the falling rain,

May the border be the standing rainbow.

Thus weave for us a garment of brightness

That we may walk fittingly where birds sing,

That we may walk fittingly where grass is green,

Oh our Mother the Earth, oh our Father the Sky.