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.