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.

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The Deer Dance

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A waning crescent moon hung in the sky with a few steel blue clouds as a few people gathered in front of the hill at San Lldefonso Pueblo waiting for the deer to appear at dawn. The air was cold and the wind was still asleep. Suddenly, the drums began to beat insistently as the singers and drum players turned to face the hill. The drums were calling the deer down from the mountains…and sure enough antlers peeked over the horizon as the deer people made their descent amidst loud calls and whoops. A group of chanting, drumming men were just a few feet away from me. The women, dressed in colorful fringed blankets and white moccasins, their shiny black hair swaying along with focused movements, scattered sacred cornmeal on the ground in front of the drummers and singers. One by one the women came and then crossed quickly over to the other side to welcome the deer people. There were four of them that appeared, two fawns and two adults whose bodies were bent forward, almost like the well known flute player (kokopelli), to accommodate their two sticks for front feet. The fawns had only one stick and copied their elder’s behavior. The deer people were dancing inside a circle that closed around them. Some men had evergreens in their hands and other held rattles. Many of the men wore only a kilt, their bare chests covered with clay; paying homage to the earth. All carried bows and arrows, for this was the hunt. A cacophony of bells on the men’s belts intensified the beat and the Tewa songs seemed to fill the air. I felt rooted to the bare ground, all my senses seemed to be in synchrony with music that seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. My eyes burned with tears that I had trouble holding back. Time ceased to be when the spirit of the dance claimed me and I was shocked when I noticed that dawn had transitioned into a beautiful morning with heat from the sun streaming down from the sky. The dancers moved to the front of the church briefly acknowledging the (folk) Catholicism that was practiced in all the pueblos. Just as quickly as it started the first deer dance was over and the participants disappeared into the kiva to finish their dances in private…Dancing is the primary form of prayer for all Indigenous peoples.

After breakfast a second round of dances began. The first dance to open the second round was either a Comanche or Apache dance that took place on the other plaza opposite the one where the deer dance ended. Again, rainbow ribbons and bright colors shone in the sun. A number of magnificent eagle feathered war bonnets were visible on the heads of the men. Others had faces painted black, and still others wore clay on their chests, arms and legs. There were no women dancing, and the sharp yells or calls punctuated the many drums that were beating in time to the dancers feet. The stunning regalia was a feast for hungry eyes and I was left with a vision of dancing moccasins, and the music of the bells.

Suddenly a second round of deer dancing began in the other plaza and it was hard to decide which plaza to go too! This time the women joined the men and all carried turkey feathers. Some dancers including children had turkey tail feathers attached to their regalia. The women looked like exotic birds with their brightly colored shawls and feathers, many of which were scarlet red and blue – the feathers of the parrot. Small children were part of the dance and I noted how skilled these small feet danced! The men wore, what looked like, skunk fur on their moccasins to repel the witches who had come up from the underworld along with the People so long ago and were always lurking nearby, unseen.

This time only two deer people were present and these were the two deer children. Men, women, adolescents, and children participated in this dance that moved around the plaza in a great circle around the two deer and the evergreen tree that represented the forest. I noticed two more trees laying against the adobe walls in a corner that would probably be used when the hunt intensified. Again the drumming, the singing voices, the intricate dancing stopped time. My eyes couldn’t keep up with what I was seeing. At times the circle tightened around the deer people and then moved outwards. At the end of this round the deer children, or fawns, were whisked away before the remaining dancers disappeared into the kiva.

A second round also occurred at the other plaza. This all male dance seemed to spiral inward and then outward at first and I was reminded of Avanyu, the Horned Serpent who is the spirit of water and of life to the Tewa. From where I stood I was never able to determine the shape of this dance because it seemed to change directions so many times. Once again bows and arrows were commonplace, and on some headdresses the horns of the buffalo were visible, as were the blackened faces that I believe represent the men who were captured or killed in raids. The energy of this dance seemed more warlike, and many of the men carried staffs with flags of different designs, including the yellow and red sun flag of New Mexico. Before I knew it this dance too was ending and the dancers and drummers disappeared into the second kiva to finish the dance in private. Both kivas were squarish or rectangular in shape, although an unused round kiva still sat in the plaza.

The wind was starting to bite and the sun was high in a cobalt blue sky. Although there would be another round of four dances after lunch my friend Bruce and I were ready to go. I was on an emotional high!

The deer are sacred to almost all Native American tribes and I believed that what we had witnessed was an enactment of the hunt, which begins with fasting and prayer and culminates in a re-enactment in which the deer will eventually voluntarily sacrifice themselves as food for the people because they have been honored and respected by the men who hunt then. There is a covenant between the two that makes the hunt and the kill a mutual decision made by both deer and men.

These dances that occur in the various pueblos are usually the culmination of private fasting and other rituals that outsiders know nothing about. And this is how it should be because these Indigenous people embody an ancient oral tradition that remains unbroken only because its secrets are kept. I feel privileged to be a witness to Native traditions/dances that remind me that my own Passamaquoddy roots may have been severed, but Tewa Peoples have survived in spite of incredible odds. Today they are teaching the Tewa language to their children as well as encouraging them to participate in the dances when they are 3 -4 years old.

I learned this morning from the tribes lawyer that women are now allowed to take part in the decision making process of Lldefonso Pueblo, although historically the Tewa, including those of this pueblo, are patrilineal or patriarchal which means that most power historically stayed with the men. These people have demonstrated that they know how to adapt to whatever challenges and changes that come their way. This flexibility has allowed the pueblos to not only remain intact but to thrive; (their villages are beautiful) especially now with the much needed help from the casinos, casinos that I once voted against in Maine.

Another Way to Live

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The drive to Taos New Mexico  takes us skyward to more than seven thousand feet. There are few cars on the roads and my friend and I stop to gather fragrant bunches of stiff Black Sagebrush, an aromatic herb used to purify people and areas before and during Native ceremonies. The junipers and pinion pine are taller in this country and the latter is spilling out her cones and seeds (the pinion nut is a delicious food, first eaten by Indigenous peoples). Along the way, we stop the car and help silver dollar sized black tarantulas cross the highway to safety. We both wonder why the spiders need to cross the road at this time of year. (This question remains unanswered at the time of this writing)*. The air is crystal clear, and as we move closer to the town the pull from the Sacred Mountain intensifies. Called Taos Mountain by Anglos, the mountain has it’s own sacred name for the people who have inhabited this astonishingly peaceful place for millennium.

I notice immediately that visitors are only allowed into the Pueblo in one open area. This is fine with me, because having Native roots myself I am sensitized to what the American people have done to the Indigenous peoples of our country, and part of me feels a terrible hopeless shame.

The buildings belong to the land and are built of earth, straw. mud, and the trunks of trees. They stand one upon another and are fashioned by hand with softly rounded corners with small windows and doors of various sizes. Many doors are painted bright blue, others weather naturally and have pleasing designs.

There is a quiet sense of activity present as men repair the walls of the buildings for the coming winter. I sense that these beautiful structures along with these peoples “belong” to the earth in a way that I cannot articulate because the feeling is in my body. I feel so rooted, conscious of the way my feet are moving over the packed ground. Some older women and men are sitting under ramadas – square open structures also made of wood that offer shade even on the hottest of days. Contented dogs of uncertain breeds roam the area freely. There are signs that say “do not feed the dogs.” Wonderful, functional wooden ladders allow the workers to move up and down the pueblos with ease. I love it that the perpendicular poles of each ladder are a different length. No two are exactly alike.

It is a brilliant fall day and here the cottonwoods are turning gold in the sun. The small clear stream is crossed easily by a wooden bridge, and I stand in the middle to listen to the water talking to the willow trees that bend so gracefully towards the source of the sounds I hear. Everything is clean. Behind the signs on the coyote fences that make it clear that visitors are not allowed to trespass, we see lush gardens with corn and other vegetables growing, small houses in neat rows, some almost completely covered by large trees.

 

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In the plaza there is a church that has had its entrance walls white washed so that the cross at the top almost blinds me, it is so white. My friend comments that this work must have been recently completed. She knows because she has been here many times before. People are milling about in the courtyard and we enter the church just as a guided tour is ending. I learn that the coffin at the right of the chancel represents the body of Christ. The altar intrigues me because there are many paintings of Mary, Guadalupe, and other saints;  Although painted on a blue wall they appear to be floating in the air although Guadalupe has skin that has been lightened. I am puzzled by this attempt to make Guadalupe, who was an Indian into a white person. My overall impression is that ancient goddesses are present in these images of Guadalupe, Mary and the  other Christian saints…Although the usual gold cross/crucifix is present as part of the picture, the feeling I have is that a Great Mother is living here, one who cares for the people who live under her Mountain.

We are aware that although some doors are open at ground level we are ambivalent about entering any of the low ceiling rooms. I see a beautiful unevenly carved micaceous pot displayed outside one particular door and we are drawn in to a small room, another is curtained off behind it. It is very cool inside as we step down into the room and quite dark after the brilliance of an almost blinding sun. A woman displays many small black and white scaled quail and other handmade clay objects, pots, and some jewelry.  The quail, she notes, is a bird sacred to her people. In a quiet voice she tells us that this small room was once inhabited by her great great grandparents. And that even today the People (Native peoples of all tribes traditionally call themselves the First People) come here to the plaza to re-enact their ceremonies. I ask her where she gets the clay to make her pots and she replies that she goes to the same place on the mountain to dig clay that her ancestors did.

This Indian woman has a lovely round face with beautiful eyes; something about her reminds me of a doe. She seems to want to engage us in conversation. She asks me if I am Native, and where I come from. When I tell her that my Native roots are Passamaquoddy/Maliseet she immediately remarks on the baskets that the Passamaquoddy are so well known for. We talk about the pliability of ash, used by Northern peoples and the red willow that grows by the stream here that is equally pliable. My friend asks a question about all the work that is being done on the pueblos by the men. The Indian woman tells us that this weather is just right, not too hot or too cold to work with the mud, and that the men are preparing for the coming winter. She is frank when she says that many of her people want to close the area down to visitors. They are tired, she continues, without saying of what…She also mentions that some of the young people are leaving the Pueblo to work in the city of Taos. Poverty is a way of life in the Pueblo and continuing to make the choice to stay is saying yes to that poverty. Life is hard without running water regulated heat and all the conveniences that many of us take for granted. The winters are harsh. And yet there is a sense of peace here that is palpable. No one is in a hurry. The mountain watches over her people. There is also a genuine sense of “community,” a word that no longer carries deep meaning for people living in western culture.

I find myself longing to be part of this kind of society, one based on the importance of relationship instead of power. Reflecting upon the experience when I arrived home, I felt a great sadness. These people have so much to teach us about how to live, if only we could open our hearts and minds to something other than greed, war, and acquisition, qualities that simply do not exist for some of these Indigenous peoples who live in harmony with the Earth, and call her home.

*After doing a bit of research I discovered that male tarantulas are crossing roads in the fall because they are seeking mates. Two small leg-like appendages near the male’s mouth will be used to transfer sperm from the surface of the web the male spider will spin for his lady. Sometimes this ritual is preceded by the spider dancing and drumming. As soon as he mates the male spider runs away because female tarantulas are known to eat their mates! The female then seals the eggs and sperm in a cocoon and guards it for six to nine weeks. At least 500 tarantulas hatch from the egg sac just in time for the winter solstice!

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