Please note: Pueblo rules prohibit photography on the pueblo, so no photos are included. I will try to reconstruct the images from my mental impressions.)
The drum calls us from our stroll past the vendor booths lining a pueblo street. We follow through a narrow walkway to the plaza, a dry, barren space the length of two football fields. At least 1,000 dancers are moving in synchrony with the drumbeat and the chant of more than 200 singers closely clustered together. About half of the dancers are male and half are female. Almost all ages are represented, from very young to just under the aged.
It’s hot and dusty. The sun is unrelenting in its brilliance and heat. The dancers, stretching from one end of the plaza to the other, are enclosed and embraced by a riveted audience of fellow pueblo members and others who have arrived for the Feast Day.
Male dancers are wearing white, cotton, woven kilts with embroidered borders. Belt-line sashes hang to the side with cloud knots. Fox pelts are suspended from the rear belt-line. Their upper bodies and legs are painted with orange-tinted clay. A black-painted rattle is in each male dancer’s right hand. A pine branch sprig is in the left. A bandelier of shells hangs from the right shoulder to the left waist.
Women dancers are dressed in black, cotton, woven dresses (mantas) with red belt sashes. A colorful, printed cotton slip hangs below the hemline. Pine branch sprigs are held in each hand. Each is raised and lowered in sequence. They dance to the steady beat of the drum, with a stutter step, accentuated by the bells worn around the waists of the male dancers. Some women wear turquoise-colored tablitas on their heads. Many of the women have raven-black hair hanging below their waists and longer.
A single senior male holds aloft a staff of approximately 15-feet with vibrant red parrot feathers the color of flame atop. A vertical banner is attached to the staff for about half of its length. The banner is white and embroidered with a tall corn plant. The staff and it’s bearer move in front of the dancers, periodically lowering it to horizontal and passing it in a semi-circular pattern.
The dancers follow in two double rows, a pair of men followed by a pair of women, followed by a pair of women and on and on. A signal not perceptible to the hundreds of spectators, tells the male dancers to shake their rattles is unison. With another slight change in the lyrics, tempo or as part of the rehearsed dance, the dancers turn and change directions, while maintaining their double row. From time to time, the men and woman face each other and then turn so women dance behind the men.
About 200 singers accompany the single drum, vocalizing in unison. Singers also move deliberately in the stutter step of the dancers, but less vigorously. They are crowded together. They wear various colored shirts. They move as one.
By luck, we are privileged to observe from the end of the plaza where the youngest dancers are. It is a treat to watch them because they are still learning the dance and doing so by trial and error. As often as not, they turn in the wrong direction only to recover quickly and find their appointed places. The confusion and, perhaps, a little embarrassment, brings forth nervous smiles that never appear on the faces of the adult dancers. It is too innocent for words. Some of these children are no taller than my 3-year-old grandson. I can’t imagine him having enough patience and discipline to dance as they do.
At one end of the plaza, a canvas canopy with elk heads hung over the entrance, shelters and shades the pueblo elders, who sit and watch approvingly.
About a dozen males in gray, clay-coated body paint, wearing black kilts and skull caps covering their heads entirely move randomly among the dancers. They appear to be there to help dancers who lose part of their costumes and to generally encourage the dancers and keep them moving. Atop their heads, corn husks stand erect, pointing to the sky. Some of these “monitors” seem to be as absorbed in the dancing as are the other dancers. Others seem to move to their own inspiration as if in apparent supplication to the earth to provide abundance.
As the dance continues, we leave, exhausted by the sun and warmth. And we were just standing there. The stamina of the dancers is amazing to our non-Indian eyes. On our way out of the pueblo, we pass the many booths of vendors, from artists to snow cone sellers. We meet a Navajo carver we have never met before and whose work we are unacquainted with, and buy two carvings from him. One is by him, Ronald Portley, and one is by his son, Jeremy Lucero.
We pass another booth showing the carvings of Wilson Romero, Cochiti, and his son-in-law, Lionel Sanchez, San Felipe. Wilson has left for the day but Lionel tells us the nativity set carved by Wilson already has been sold. We comment on how proud we are that we were the first to suggest to Wilson that he lend his carving skills to that subject matter.
We also encounter a Santa Clara potter we had not met before, Dinah Baca. Her work, slender, black figures, remind us of pieces done by Wayne Snowbird. Whereas Wayne’s figures are more realistic and detailed, Dinah’s are more lyrical and flowing in their human forms.
We promise to look for Dinah at Indian Market in two weeks. Dinah tells us she is very “picky” about who she allows to retail her pieces, citing only close friends. We describe our history, credentials, philosophy and operation. We hope we will have the honor of offering her beautiful work. There is hope as she then invites us to be her guests at Santa Clara’s Feast Day next Sunday. This is a rare honor and we accept enthusiastically. Stay tuned for a report from that event in a week’s time.
Tribal Artery is presented by Aboriginals: Art of the First Person, with a web site at Native-PotteryLink, that offers pottery from all pueblos, including Santo Domingo and Santa Clara.