Sunday, August 18, 2013

Feast Day

August is a month that belongs to the Native Americans in this part of the world.  There are numerous exhibitions and fairs focused on the pueblo Indians.  There are two fairs in New Mexico that are exclusively about contemporary Indian culture: one is in Gallup known as Inter-Tribal Ceremonial; and the other in Santa Fe called Indian Market (I will discuss the latter next week).

Also at this time of the year, many of the pueblos celebrate their feast days with dances.  These are days of renewal allowing the tribes to celebrate their culture with family, tribal members and invited friends from in and beyond the pueblo.

Painting by Benedick Naseyoma

We have attended three such feast days this month at Pojoaque, Santa Domingo and Santa Clara and in the past we have attended others.  This year we were lucky enough at each of these pueblos to be invited by one of the Indian families to join them in their homes for their feast.  Dances on the pueblos are often all day affairs going from dawn to dusk.  We usually arrive in mid-morning to see some of the dances and then go to one of the homes on the pueblo for lunch.  One thing that you will usually find on the dinner table will be a red chili stew and a green chili stew.  When we first came out here in the restaurants we were always asked do you want green or red chili?  At first we naturally had no idea how they would taste so we asked which one was hotter and always picked the less spicy one.  I could never make up my mind so I would ask for Christmas which meant you got half of each!  They might also have posole, whose basic ingredients are hominy and pork. There may also be some turkey or small sandwiches and lots of deserts.   The food is cooked by family members with additions brought by tribal members or as gifts from visitors.  We learned early on that when you visit someone on the pueblo you bring a gift and often receive one in return.  I remember bringing one couple at Hopi a baseball cap for the katsina carver and a jar of honey for his wife.  This is a tribal tradition we have found at all the pueblos we have visited and it makes for an instant camaraderie between visitor and host.

Since so many visitors have been invited to partake of the feast and most of the houses are quite small these feasts are rotating meals.  You sit down when there is room at a table.  You may find a family member or an Anglo friend or one of the dancers sitting next to you.  In any case, it is always interesting company.  Also, just passing the many dishes around the table creates a link between all those who are there.  After you are done you get up to make room for the next guests to sit down.  After lunch it is time to return to the dance to see the afternoon edition.

It is difficult to describe an Indian dance in words. No photos by visitors are allowed during dances anymore but I found a few samples of smaller dance groups on YouTube.   Here is one of a Hopi Corn Dance to give you an idea of what I am talking about.  It does not give the feeling or ambience of actually being there, which has quite a different effect on the viewer than watching a demonstration on a stage or in an arena.


On a small pueblo there may be as few as half a dozen dancers but on a large pueblo with many inhabitants you might have hundreds with crowds of observers around the plaza and on the roofs of the surrounding houses. If there are too many to be on one plaza they may use two or three.  A plaza on a pueblo is an open space around which homes have been built.  It is usually the elders who have these houses and they are passed down through the generations.  In some cases these houses are shared with other family members for a feast day.  This is so the many members of the family may show their generosity and invite their friends.  It makes for quite a crowd.

All the dancers wear traditional costume.  The women wear black dresses and tall painted tablitas (headdresses). The men have painted their skin which also protects from the scalding sun light.  They wear thin pine branches tied into their armbands and in various other places on their body which must scratch terribly.  Many will have large strings of small shells over their shoulder or tin jingles sewn to their clothing, others may have large shells tied around their waist or to their legs.   They often have jingle bells on their legs and arms, as well, and carry rattles in their hands.  In the center of the plaza you will have the musicians, mainly drummers beating a rhythmic beat and others chanting.  After a few minutes the sound becomes totally mesmerizing and you find yourself inadvertently totally taken over by the sound and continuous motion.  I asked an Anglo whose daughter has married into a tribe when the dances ended in the afternoon.  He said he had no idea because he gets so into it that time just melts away.
The Indians may dance from dawn to dusk, their stamina is phenomenal.  Often there are small children as young as three or four who participate and they are always wonderful to watch.  Most are extremely serious and work very hard at following the rhythm and steps. There are also the “warriors” who keep the little ones in line and help them and the adults with adornments that may have come loose or fallen off during a dance.

It is quite an experience to attend a dance in a pueblo but you must leave yourself open to it and not think about when it will start or end.  It just is.  If perchance you have the honor to be invited into a Native home it will be a day you never forget.

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