Poetry of the Pueblo Dances


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Image: ©2002 David Michael Kennedy
" Pojoaque Butterfly Dancer #1"
Platinum print, March 1994
15.25" x 15.25" / Ed 30
www.davidmichaelkennedy.com remote

It was dawn as we stood under a tall pine waiting for the dancers. We were waiting to greet them when they came down from the sacred hill, towards the west end of the village. The cool morning air surrounded us with memory, and there was stillness in every moment of our waiting. We were wrapped in bright blankets, some with stripes, some just solid color. We were waiting in the cold, wrapped in our blankets. We stood in silence as tiny clouds formed above the sacred hill, and fog rose from near Black Mesa and drifted toward the canyon. I held my grandmother's hand and my uncle was shivering to my left. The hillside was alive. There was only the sound of our breath, and the slow, gentle rustle of the blankets as some of us shifted our weight.

Animals have always occupied a place of great reverence and importance within the cultures and lifeways of virtually every indigenous tribal entity within the Americas. Not only were animals depended upon for food and various other materials necessary for survival, they were included in, and sometimes were the focus of, elaborate ceremonial events. Thus, their importance was not limited to providing sustenance for the basic and fundamental realms of human existence, but extended into the very core of many tribal religious and spiritual philosophies and practices.

Although many tribes developed highly complex rituals of dance and ceremony with respect to specific animals, one must remember that the use of any animal in particular within any one tribe in particular can not be assumed a given; animal veneration is not a homogeneous practice and varies greatly from one tribe to another, perhaps in some cases not existing at all. For example, to the Tewa and Kiowa peoples, among others, the bear is of central significance in several important religious functions, but is excluded entirely from the ceremonial contexts of coexisting tribes. In customary Osage ideology the sighting of an owl is often interpreted as a warning, a sign of possible misfortune; while other tribes, such as the Mandan and several bands of the Mission Indians of California, revere the animal, whose feathers are worn in a variety of religious celebrations, and whom they believe to possess great strength and spiritual power.

At the base of the sacred hill is where the highway cuts through; the highway to Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was built. The Tribal police had blocked the highway to let the dancers cross. Their white moccasins stepped softly on the yellow lines. Their headdresses were old and wonderful thoughts filled my head as I looked at them. My grandmother's hand tightened around mine. My uncle stopped shivering. We sprinkled cornmeal on the ground to bless the dancers and I could smell the freshly cut evergreens they were holding. I stared at the cornmeal near my feet.



Image: ©2002 David Michael Kennedy
" San Juan Eagle Dancer #1"
Platinum print, August 1993
15.25" x 15.25" / Ed 30
www.davidmichaelkennedy.com remote

It is also of value to acknowledge the fact that when animals were hunted as a means of providing nourishment, in turn ensuring the subsistence of generations of people, every part of their bodies was utilized: the meat was eaten, bone was used to make tools of seemingly endless variety, objects of adornment and musical instruments such as flutes and whistles; hide was used for clothing and footwear, blankets, shelter, and as canvas for paintings and pictorial documentation of important events and occurrences, records of time and seasonal and celestial information; sinew and intestine provided bowstring and thread for sewing garments and stringing beads, etc; teeth, such as those of elk and moose, were often used for decorating clothing and were also fashioned into gaming pieces; hooves of deer and antelope became ceremonial rattles. There was no thoughtless or unnecessary taking of animal life; even when religion dictated the killing of an animal for ceremonial purposes, this was carried out with great care, planning and protocol, and always by those to whom the spiritual and religious leadership of the tribe was assigned.

We followed the dancers and drummers from the waiting spot down the long, narrow tree-lined lane which lead to the center of the village. The morning sun was veiled by grey mist, and was not yet enough to warm our cold hands. The partly frozen earth crumbled under our steps, and an angular blackish-brown dog walked back and forth on the periphery of the center. Our waiting had been met with the sounds and colors of the dance, and as I watched the dancers move across the fine, powdery sand, it became known to me the meaning of prayer.

Many animal legends and stories speak of fantastic magical events, spiritual transformations and journeys of the soul. They reflect with great wonder and beauty the importance of animals in our lives and elucidate their infinite and invaluable contributions to our world, and to the cultural landscapes in which we reside.

Nowhere is the spiritual relationship between man and animal better illustrated than within the context of tribal dance; where words, sound and movement flow into each other, where dimensions fuse through rhythm and song, and where man himself becomes the animal whose hide he wears, whose voice guides him to the place where earth and heaven meet.



Image: ©2002 David Michael Kennedy
" San Juan Eagle Dancer #2"
Platinum print, August 1993
15.25" x 15.25" / Ed 30
www.davidmichaelkennedy.com remote

When we reached the center, the dancers floated into two parallel rows, each led by a head male dancer, and alternating male female, facing the drummers. There was a break in the mist, and a small shaft of light broke through the grey. Drum shadows rose on the wall behind me, and as the first drum sounded, breaking into the stillness and silence of the day, my eyes were drawn to the skunk fur moccasin wraps worn by the dancers, and then to the patterns they had woven in the soft dirt. Voices echoed through the village as the first words were sung, and the first steps set the prayer in motion. Drumbeats blended with the sounds of gourd rattles and bells, and with the slow monotonous rhythm of heavy onyx-bead chokers gently striking each dancers' chest with each deliberate movement. The songs wove themselves through ancient cedar rings and dried blooms of cactus, and drifted snake-like through sandstone canyons and damp, red clouds, and the voices transcended all boundaries and connected us to the center.

American Indian Pueblo culture and knowledge are infused with an array of animal personas. There is Buffalo, who represents leadership, long life, abundance and power. He is the icon of physical strength, spiritual insight, dedication and courage. Eagle is undoubtedly the most revered of all birds which figure in American Indian mythology and legend. He is symbolic of wisdom, strength of vision and heart, and higher consciousness. Butterfly is often associated with water, and thus is representative of Mother Earth's life-giving forces. She is a totem of quickness of mind, agility, fertility, proliferation, regeneration, spiritual transfor-mation and rebirth. And there is Turtle, who is wise and unhurried, unwavering and changeless; a symbol of the mother and of Mother earth. Also exemplifying longevity and eternal life, Turtle reflects the constant renewal of life and land.

All of these animals, and many others, are honored through a variety of intricately choreographed dances. They are, in essence, living stories; tales of creation, migration and survival, plantings and harvests, births and deaths, the changing of seasons, the movement of constellations, and a multitude of other events common to the human experience, told through sound and movement.

The dancers moved in perfect sets of four, praying for rain, fresh corn and lightning. In and out of their heartbeats I moved, caught in the verse of the song and wanting to remain caught. Baskets of resonation were set before us, and I realized that we will never be without memory, because the songs remember, and the songs will not let us forget. It seemed curious to me that a dance which commanded so much dedication from me as a viewer should lead me into so many memories, both personal and collective. In each movement of the dance I relived much of what had come and gone before me, and I recollected entire lifetimes in each color of the macaw feathers that brushed against my skin as the dancers passed close to where I was standing.

During a particularly slow part of the dance, time spun back into childhood and I was sitting with my great grandmother as she made large clay pots and polished tall, slender vases with smooth stones. When the dance returned to its quicker pace, I was a new mother, holding my infant daughter to my breast in the cool November air that wrapped itself around us in our first moments together. And as the dance slowed again and neared its end, I walked away from my father's rose-littered grave, and was back by my grandmother's side, with my uncle still near me.

The variety and complexity of Pueblo animal dances is impressive, with the roles of each animal having been previously defined and set forth generations ago. These roles do not change, and are not open to interpretation; the dances in which these roles are contained are practiced within a predetermined calendar of sorts, primarily dictated by seasonal events and activities, religious beliefs, and spiritual practices within the tribe. For example, Butterfly and Turtle dances are symbolic of Mother Earth's annual renewal and regeneration processes and are therefore usually performed in the spring. Deer and Antelope dances take place in the fall, a traditional time of hunting and preparing for the imminent change of season. Buffalo dances are winter dances, celebrating the abundance of food and the continued survival of the tribe.

Other common dances occur throughout the year as well, sometimes in connection with Christian-based celebrations such as Easter and Christmas. Even then, the animals represented remain in context with the current season; an Easter dance, because it is in the spring, would most likely include Butterfly or Turtle, while a Christmas eve dance would in turn represent fall or winter oriented animals such as Deer or Buffalo.

The memories were filled with love, and even those that were less joyous possessed an element of beauty, and they contained a sense of comfort, because they returned me to places and times that were familiar. I recognized a dancer about halfway up the row closest to me. It was difficult to be certain at first because of the long black fringe across her eyes, but the woven belt she wore seemed familiar, and I recognized her squash-blossom necklace which sparkled in the day's new light. With each step the reflections against the silver pendant moved and changed, and when she neared the end of her row and began to turn back towards the drummers, she was completely enveloped in the reflections. She shone angel-like as she danced between her leader and her follower, and I never really saw her feet touch the ground as she moved across the earth in the cool fall air.

Further into the prayer she led us, and into it we went willingly. A small piece of eagle down fell from her hair, drifted slowly to the ground and settled among the tiny, glassy pebbles near her feet. It swirled and spun there upon the sand, and fluttered in these circular motions as breezes from the north tossed it gently about. As the dance ended and movement became stillness again, the blackish-brown dog returned to the edge of our prayer. We waited for the drummers to lead the dancers to the east end of the village, and followed them there for the next dance. Again they formed two even lines, and danced in perfect timing with each drumbeat, and with each other, becoming one movement, one mind: a collective connection to a vast yet singular awareness. As I watched this serpentine flow of color and form, dictated only by the drum and the words of the ancient song, the essence of my being melded into that collective, and I became part of the connection, too.

Over time we have assigned specific attributes and characteristics to specific animals, thereby identifying our beliefs in no uncertain terms, and embracing their influences in our ordinary lives. Through our stories and legends, our songs and our dances, we honor our animal relations, in whom we see ourselves, and with whom we share our homes, our history, our ceremonial and spiritual pursuits, our challenges and triumphs, our victories and defeats. . . and to whom we so often look for direction, and assurance of our continued survival.

The dances continued throughout the day, always in the four designated areas which represent north, south, east and west. The north, south and east areas are quite large, and the songs drifted upwards into the passing clouds. But the west spot is small and narrow, surrounded by old, mud-walled houses, some of which had begun to crumble and return to the earth, and when the drummers and dancers glided into their positions and the dance began, the songs, trapped by the cold, adobe walls, drifted outwards and into us, and there was no separation of dance and dancer, and no boundaries between us and them.

The last dance began at dusk. We returned to the tall pine, and again waited in silence. In the fading light I could see the outlines of antlers, and through the thickness of the evening I could hear the soft rattles of the turtle shells worn by the male dancers. Silhouettes of ram and mountain lion appeared before me, and as the song came to an end and the last steps were danced, drum shadows fell from the wall behind me.

Thanks to RoseMary Diaz, an author, poet and freelance writer living in Santa Fe.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 16

Related Pages

American Indian Signs and Symbols article
Events at the Indian Pueblos article
A Sacred Place: Meditations on Corn article
Glossary of Indian Art Terms article

Helen Hardin 1943-1984 article
Platinum Photogrpahy article
What Does This Indian Symbol Mean? article

Collector’s Resources

Santa Fe

Steve Elmore Indian Art | 505-995-9677
Keshi - The Zuni Connection | 505-989-8728
Warrior Maiden Art pic 227 Don Gaspar | 988-4674


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