Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Deer and the Antelope Play

(Not to Mention the Buffalo and Eagles)

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, armed with lots of warm clothing and earnest instructions on behavior (No applause! No asking questions! No photographs!) we visited three Indian Pueblos to watch ceremonial dances. It is truly phenomenal that these dances have been going on in much the same place and the same way for hundreds of years.

Because of the season, the Pueblo dancing in December is typically animal-based (most harvest dances take place when things are still growing). Originally, the dances were part of a winter solstice celebration, but the Spaniards forced the Indians to integrate the dancing (when they still allowed it) with the sanctioned Christian holidays.

We saw buffalo dances at Laguna, Jemez, and Santa Ana; eagle dances at Laguna and Jemez; deer dances at Jemez and Santa Ana; and an antelope dance at Santa Ana. We also saw a corn dance at Laguna.

First, let me describe the settings.

As mentioned in the the previous post, the Laguna dancing was held inside the 400-year old San José Mission Church, immediately after midnight Mass. The pews had been moved out of the right side of the church, leaving a small but adequate space for dancing on the hard-packed mud and straw floor. It was easy to imagine the setting looking much the same in 1699, except that the brown-robed Franciscan was probably not sitting watchfully at the side of the altar. Parishioners sat in the pews on the left side, and in the choir loft. Some older teens and young adults stood outside the front doors of the church smoking--just out of sight of their parents and grandparents inside.

Dances were performed sequentially--with 8-10 drummers setting up shop first, who were then joined by about 10 corn dancers. When the corn dance was finished, all left and the drummers returned with the buffalo dancers (two buffalo, a maiden "buffalo mother", and a hunter). After the buffalo dancers exited, the eagle dancers (two adult men and two young boys) arrived. During part of this time I was upstairs in the choir loft, and the big window overlooking the front of the church was the site of much excited murmuring of "Here they come!", as they watched and waited for new groups of dancers--much like children waiting and watching for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

At Jemez, we were told that the Christmas Day dancing started at 8 or 9 in the morning, and went on non-stop until mid-afternoon. It was certainly continuous the whole time we were there (roughly 10-11:30 a.m.). Unlike the sequencing at Laguna (which may have been attributed to the confines of the church space), all of the dancers were dancing at once--buffalo, eagle, and deer. The dancing took place in a dirt plaza surrounded by adobe village homes. This was quite a large space--maybe the length of a football field, though much narrower. The drumming cadre consisted of about 30 men, three-deep--the front row of men drummed and chanted, and from time to time would pass the position and drum to one of the other men in the group.

Here again, the buffalo dance included two buffalo and a buffalo mother, but there were many deer and eagle dancers--both adult males and children of both sexes (though the little girls' costumes were much less lavish). The resident non-dancers had set up their folding chairs in front of homes along the long sides of the space--quite a lot of the chairs were empty, and I'm assuming that people came and went during the dancing, which goes on for three days at the Christmas holidays.

At Santa Ana, the setting was similar but the space was squarer. Again, the residents had set up chairs, though not as many, and some sat on benches in front of homes. Here again the dancing was going on when we arrived, with buffalo, deer, and antelope dancers and a large group of drummers and chanters which included both men and women. The buffalo dance was in the same configuration as the other two pueblos, and there were about 20 deer and antelope dancers--adult and older teen males. There was also a time when all the dancers and drummers left for 20 minutes or more--we were just about to leave when they returned and started dancing again.

The Buffalo Dance

The buffalo dancers all wore realistic buffalo headdresses and black body paint (probably why the Indians referred to the African-American regiments in the Civil War as "buffalo soldiers"). At Jemez, the buffalo dancers had black chests but red forearms, faces, and legs.

The "buffalo mother" (whose ceremonial job it is to drive the buffalo down from the hills so they can be killed) was attired in white--wearing her hair long and loose at two pueblos, and a complex feather headdress at the third. Buffalo dancing is often accompanied by Indians wearing plains Indian headdresses (what you will immediately conjure up mentally if you think of an Indian chief headdress from the cowboy and Indian movies of your childhood). These feather headdresses are not typically worn by Pueblo Indians, but since the New Mexico Indians had to travel to the plains to find buffalo, they often encountered Plains Indians en route.

The Deer and the Antelope Dance

As in the illustration above, the deer dancers (and also the antelope dancers) use short sticks in their hands to simulate the four-legged animals. Here the attire was very different in the two dances we saw.

At Jemez, the dancers wore evergreen headdresses and embroidered kilts--much like the illustration. The kilts were white with blue or green patterns--some (especially those of the young boys) looked to be of a pre-printed material, but most were embroidered or made of pieced fabric--some cotton, some wool, some felt. They wore turquoise-colored deer heads with antlers, and turquiose arm bands.

At Santa Ana, the deer and antelope dancers wore ceremonial clothing realistically depicting deer and antelope--what looked like simulated hides, worn almost like body suits over white thermal underwear.

The Eagle Dance

The eagle dancers at Laguna were attired in feathers and headdresses much like that in the illustration. They wore black pants and shirts, and were accompanied by young girls representing butterflies. One of the images that really stayed with me was that of a young boy--maybe 8 or 9 years old, carefully executing his dance with one luminous dark eye glued to the adult dancing next to him--moving his wings and head carefully to achieve the desired result.

At Jemez, the eagle dancers wore white kilts with red and black decoration. Their torsos were painted black, and their wings and headdresses were much less lavish than those at Laguna.

And Later. . .

After the dancing we had dinner at the Hyatt Tamaya Hotel on the Santa Ana Pueblo--quite a modern contrast to the ancient village traditions we had just observed!
Photo courtesy of

Illustration Credits

The illustrations are all by Velino Shije Herrera (also known as Ma-Pe-Wi, or "Oriole Egg"). He was born at Zia Pueblo in 1902, and educated at the Santa Fe Indian School. During the Depression, he was employed by the School of American Research in Santa Fe to depict his people's customs and traditions. His work appears in major collections in Phoenix, Santa Fe, and Tulsa.

The drawing at the top of this post was taken from a series of elementary school readers in English, sometimes Spanish, and Native American languages that was produced for Pueblo, Navajo, Sioux, and Hopi students in the 1930s by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It appeared in a book entitled The Young Hunter of Picuris.

Note the art deco bottom border in the eagle dance illustration--another interesting culture combo!


SantaFeKate said...

The cover story in today's Santa Fe New Mexican contains a story (with rare photographs) on the Buffalo Dance at the Pojoaque Pueblo, just north of Santa Fe.

Click here to read the story.

Marilyn Rea Beyer said...

Now I want to know the story of how the Franciscans and the Pueblo managed to blend their religious practices. How does it happen that a Roman Catholic mission becomes a venue for day-long buffalo dancing on the celebration of the birth of Christ? Trying to get my mind around the complexity of that negotiation!