Dancing for the Dakota Access Pipeline

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Last week we attended dances at Ohkay Owingeh, formally known as the Pueblo of Santa Clara. These Tewa speaking peoples are located on the Rio Grande River, nestled in the hills on tribal owned land in Northern New Mexico.

 

Because it is the time of the year that most dances are held to encourage the crops to grow the first dance we witnessed, not surprisingly, was a Basket dance. The women dancers were dressed in bright shawls of every conceivable color and carried baskets with ribbons, symbolizing the containers for the harvest to come. All wore moccasins. Curiously, some women had what looked like three dimensional moons with rays attached to their backs. These sculptures were quite original and certainly spectacular and once again the corn maiden symbol, the round red dot, adorned the cheek of each woman. Very small girls were also dressed in traditional regalia. Drumming accompanied the dance and corn pollen was dusted on the earth before the dance began.

 

Many pounding drums alerted us to the next dance that immediately followed the first. Drummers and singers entered the plaza from the kiva (the best drummers I have heard so far). The lead dancer was dressed in a war bonnet made of brilliant orange feathers, His arms were covered in purple clay and he had wings made of feathers, bells, scarlet knee bands. He didn’t dance he flew, his feet barely touching the ground. I was mesmerized and for a while couldn’t pay attention anything but the sound of the drumming and this dancer’s whirling body and footwork. He became the dance. Gradually the other dancers entered my awareness, all men with bodies covered in ochre, red, and gray clay.

 

The whole tone of this dance was different. Angry. War cries. Yells. I could feel a fiery intensity that I have never experienced at any of the former dances. I didn’t understand. Some men wore buffalo horn headdresses and other men wore other fantastic war bonnets along with bells, kilts, red ties on their legs. The drumming pulled me into the earth with its awe – inspiring beat.

 

Then I saw the lead dancer wearing an apron with the letters DAPL – the Dakota Access Pipeline – and I finally understood what my body was experiencing. This dance was being held to support all Indigenous peoples in their fight for their brothers and sisters, the right to reclaim their lands. They were dancing for clean waters for all Indigenous peoples, all people, and for the Earth. I wept.

 

Recently the Trump administration failed to follow proper environmental procedures when it granted approval for the Dakota Access Pipeline according to the Federal Judge’s ruling. This action does not stop the oil from flowing but The People took this ruling as a sign of hope because it opens the door to the possibility that this outrageous law might be rescinded.

 

Currently the pipeline can carry 520,000 barrels of oil daily. It is sobering to know that thousands of gallons of oil have already been spilled in dozens of industrial accidents over the past two years. In early April the DAPL leaked oil before it was fully operational.

 

I came away from the dance with a sense of renewed hope and a grateful heart. I have been experiencing so much grief and anger towards this most hostile government that is destroying all hope for planetary survival. Being privileged to witness this active prayer dance for life helped me deal with my own ongoing rage and sense of powerlessness.

 

Thank you People of Ohkay Owingeh for reminding me that I am not alone. My heart goes with you…

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.

Red Willow River

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Winding through the valley the river tells ancient stories about the peaceful people who lived along her red willow banks, long ago… I can almost see the women who gathered slender branches and made spiral baskets as the horned owl stood watch from the heavily ridged bark of the cottonwood trunk, perching so close to her center that his presence went almost unnoticed.

Softly rounded clay pots were fashioned from the clay in these waters by these same women whose handprints also remain on the adobe walls they plastered in the pueblo just across the river. Distinctive pots stored precious corn, squash, and bean seeds dried and ready for spring planting. Preparations were under way by the men who would still be practicing for the last of the winter hunting dances. Each animal acknowledged as a relative through the footsteps of each dancer – turtle, deer, antelope, and buffalo – each song a prayer of gratitude for the animal who sacrificed itself so the people could have meat to nourish their bodies, to keep them strong. Soon the men would begin clearing the ditches of winters’ debris. Each spring snow melt from the mountains floods the river to overflowing and these ditches will irrigate gardens and orchards, germinating new seeds.

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The Tewa once pecked pictures of the serpentine river on high desert stones and named him Avanyu. The serpent flicked tongues of lightening, spit thunderous roars and called down the rains with the holy people who came down from the mountains to help the people grow their precious crops. In the spring the Bow and Arrow dance was performed in his honor, and this tradition continues in Nambe today.

Water is life and the Pueblo people have not forgotten the importance of this essential element to all those who inhabit her desert, especially in the spring. Knowing that the elements of water, fire, earth and air continue to be honored by others as well as by myself offers me hope that the Gift that is Life will not succumb to the now catastrophic death-seeking human climate…

At dawn the sun bleeds red roses into the river and overhead the geese are climbing into a blushing sky; they too follow the curves of the deep blue green river… Mallards skim the surface of her waters, and a golden eagle soars out of an old cottonwood tree nearby.

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When I walk the little path I am lining with stones broken pottery shards appear out of red earth at my feet. A bevy of birds skitter through wiry thickets, perching in bushes and small trees waiting for me to break the ice and fill their water dishes. Nuthatches, chickadees, towhees, juncos, finches, sparrows, the magpie – In the brief time I’ve been here I count sixteen new species, not including water – fowl. Sandhill cranes spread the word that spring is coming with their haunting songs joining the rest of the aerial crowd flowing with and flying along the river. In my mind I imagine that I can see with the eagle’s golden eye this wending stream, a path made of water, snaking her way to the sea.As I approach and open a rusty rose sculptured creaking gate some geese and ducks are resting on stones that form riffles and ribbons of quicksilver under a shimmering sun. Far away to the west the wind begins to blow… I am a woman in waiting. The rising waters of the coming season seem to be flowing through my body too.

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.