The Green Corn Dance at San Felipe

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Yesterday I attended the first Corn Dance of the season for the Keresan speaking peoples of New Mexico at the Pueblo of San Felipe. This dance celebrates the beginning of the agricultural season by honoring the Corn Maiden, the seed soon to be planted from which the corn will grow.

We arrived in the afternoon after the first set of four dances was finished. Passing by the church and stalls (where you could buy fox tails and other regalia) on the way to the plaza it was impossible not to notice two gracefully arced, stylized “corn-flower “ beings whose blue and orange feathers almost touched one another on the top of the front of the church. This beautiful painting, I was to learn, was a representation of the summer and winter people of the pueblo. Summer people were orange/scarlet and the winter people were blue but there was no real separation between the two except that each had its own season.

The circular sunken plaza was totally surrounded by pueblos around which an enormous crowd had gathered. Many people were sitting on rooftops. The dancers entered just behind us. We had a wonderful view from this spot, one that allowed us to see specific details like the red felt mouths of the foxes, their glass eyes and red felt feet that were worn by the men/boys. One man carried a tall white flag pole decorated with ears of yellow corn. On top of the tall flag were the bright orange feathers of the macaw parrot that were shaped into a huge pointed flower opening to the sun. This was the summer people’s flag. There were also painted wooden carvings on these poles beneath the flower that looked to me like eyes. Later I would see that the winter people had an almost identical flag with eyes topped with a cobalt blue macaw flower. The painting on the church literally came to life during the ceremony! The sounds of bells, shells, and turtle rattles made by the dancers as they filed into the plaza created a perfect harmony even before the actual set began…

Across the plaza, turquoise and coral inlaid scallop shell necklaces adorned the necks of two deer, two elks, and the four buffalo heads that looked out on the crowd from their place of honor. All had antlers or horns. They were attached to the top wall of a pueblo building that temporarily housed an image of the saint below (San Felipe) whose apparent role in the dance was to watch. Standing on the roof of the pueblo above these eight animals were the heads and skins of two wild cats – the bobcat and mountain lion, both without decoration. I wondered if these cats somehow symbolized wild nature, perhaps it’s more dangerous side – the side of the predator. The other animals – deer, elk, and buffalo – were all honored during the winter dances. They were also hunted and eaten.

Two large evergreens flanked the building in which the saint was housed and I didn’t know until after the dance that inside the adobe at ground level (along with the saint) there were many other deer heads with antlers. All these were decorated too and were present for the ceremony, lent by various families in the pueblo.

Below the deer, elk, and buffalo heads, on a second story porch, were three older women who kept time with the dancers first with with gourd rattles and then with evergreens.

Hundreds, perhaps a thousand people, mostly Native folk, attended this most important spring ceremony. Although the corn wouldn’t be planted for another few weeks, the acequias (or ditches) that irrigated the fields had been cleaned, water was running through them, and the fields had been plowed. Now the people prayed for rain.

After being astonished and delighted by the sight of the animals, the magnificent regalia worn by the dancers caught my attention. The women, all corn maidens regardless of age, wore single yellow feathers in their hair or blue tablitas. These elaborate headdresses were decorated with clouds (for rain) and rainbows, or cut out stars. Most of the women wore their beautiful black hair long and straight, and their identical black single shouldered dresses were belted with colorful sashes. All the dancers (men as well as women) were adorned with turquoise earrings and many wore coral and shell necklaces. Silver jewelry was in abundance. Each woman carried an evergreen sprig and a gourd rattle. Many of the women danced barefooted suggesting to me how important it was for the women to have an unrestricted, unbroken connection to the earth.

The men and boys rubbed different shades of clay (yellow, rose, buff,) on their torsos – gray clay was rubbed on their legs – and all wore white decorated kilts. The men had belts, bells, and shells at the waist or strapped crosswise on their bare clay colored chests. All wore animal tails (usually fox). The men’s moccasins were trimmed with skunk fur. They also had turtle shell rattles attached to their thighs. The men also carried evergreens in one hand and gourd rattles in the other. They wore tropical feathers gathered into bunches in their hair. The four clowns were dressed the same except that all four were covered in yellow ochre clay and had topknots made of cornhusks. At one point I saw one clown make an obscene gesture to the audience and everyone laughed.

Each kiva danced two sets and one dance followed the other without interruption as one group returned to the kiva, the next set of dancers arrived from the other. The winter people also had an equally long flag that had carved eyes, topped by cobalt blue macaw feathers that were shaped into the same kind of pointed flower. They used their flag to bless the chanters and the plaza just as the summer people did.

At the beginning of each set after the chanters gathered in a tight circle at the top center of the plaza in front of the evergreen pueblo, the other dancers formed two rows in a circle sometimes facing one another and sometimes reversing their positions as the beat of the drum and rattles seemed to keep each foot in perfect rhythm. The dance was simple with all the participants dancing, chanting, using rattles in unison. There must have been about 600 dancers that participated altogether.

The winter people finished their last set first and this time, instead of returning to the kiva, gathered respectfully to one side while the summer people danced the final set as a golden sun dropped behind the mesa that was situated directly behind the pueblo. After completing the dance everyone gathered in front of the evergreen pueblo where the saint had been housed for the day and carried him back to the church. Someone was playing a snare drum and two gunshots rang out.

The Green Corn dance was over and most of the people went to houses they had been invited to, in order to celebrate with a feast. As we literally crawled out of the pueblo (because of heavy traffic) we saw a number of men washing clay from their bodies in the Rio Grande river.

On the way home I found myself thinking that I felt privileged to be a part of such an ancient Puebloan tradition.

The dancing prayers of the people seeped deep into the earth and rose up into the clouds as white doves flew by overhead all day long. Between the drumming, chanting, and the shaking of many bells, shells, gourds, and turtle rattles by the dancers, it was impossible not to be drawn into the ceremony, on both a spiritual and bodily level.

The sound of rain was palpable…

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