Thursday, August 23, 2012

At a Medicine Dance with the Navajos Isleta


By Sidney H. Riesenberg

In the narrow cool shadow, before his little round-cornered adobe house, my friend Pablo sat smiling.  Just outside of the shadow, in the dust of the sun baked road, Pablo’s youngest son was involved with an endless game with the household's youngest puppy. The puppy, languid but not wholly incurious, suffered the attentions of the little brown cupid, but concerned himself more immediately with the pursuit of such flies as ventured within his reach; the flies, completing the circle, gave their efforts to the entertainment of Pablo and me. Altogether, the child and the puppy had the best of it.

Pablo's face did not change when two Navajo bucks and a squaw rounded the corner of the old Isleta church and rode up to us. He reached out a firm brown hand and swept the dog and the baby out of the way of the ponies and through the door at a single movement. The child made no outcry. The Navajos said "How," and without dismounting, talked for a while in Spanish, frequently looking in my direction. After some minutes of rapid conversation, Pablo bethought him­self of the hospitalities, and turned to me.


"Dance," said he laconically, "Navajo dance, way up there." His arm swept the horizon where the mountains glim­mered. "Want go?"

I at once expressed my desire to go. After some further talk with Pablo in which, by their looks, I judged they often referred to me, the visitors departed. They were it seems, sent out to spread the news that a medicine dance was be­ing held in the Ciancito Valley, close to Mt. Taylor of the San Mateo range, called Tsotsil by the Navajos and known as the sacred mountain of New Mexico.

"No picture at dance," said Pablo, when the messengers were gone; "no see dance if make picture. Navajo no like," shaking his head and smiling.

We prepared to take the trail for the mountains early the next morning. I overhauled my kit, leaving out all sketch­ing material, with the exception of a pad and pencil, safely stowed in an inside pocket, trusting to the chance of jotting down some memory notes. The first part of our journey took us over a sandy trail up toward the crest of a large mesa, some twenty miles from Isleta, where we pulled our ponies to a halt; their lowered heads and heaving sides telling the story of a steep climb. Turning in my saddle a brilliant picture of blue and yellow, with here and there a touch of cold red, spread out before me. In the distance, winding its way like a mighty serpent through the yellow-gray plains was the Rio Grande; a spot of reddish gray on its banks indicat­ed the sun baked habitations of the Isle­tas. Far ahead, alternate swells of the prairie allowed us an occasional glimpse of three mounted Indians, whom we expect­ed to overtake at their camp on the banks of the Rio Puerco that night. Dull and listless, our animals moved on, giving no sign of water, as we dipped toward the bed of that stream. The gathering dusk hid the horsemen ahead; Pablo and I rode on in silence, forgetful of all else but the mystery of the land, lit by the stars that twinkled with a rare brilliance in that dry clear atmosphere. I was startled by an exclamation from Pablo, who, pointing far across the stream drew my attention to a faint light that told of a fire being kindled. The Indians ahead had evidently found the river dry and pushed on for another hour. This worried us not a little, as we had relied on the Rio Puerco to replenish our scant supply of water and refresh our thirsty horses. We crossed the dry bed of the river and after a weary day, dismounted our tired broncos at the camp of the other travelers. Hobbling our animals, who were greeted by a friendly whinnie from the other ponies, we joined the men about the fire. They proved to be In­dians of the Laguna tribe, also on their way to the dance. Pablo established friendly relations, and we were soon sleep­ing soundly rolled in our blankets.

An odor of coffee and the usual Mex­ican stew of goat meat and peppers greet­ed my waking senses at early dawn the next-day. Pablo and the Lagunas were already busily engaged over the fire, and Abato, the senior of our hosts, bade me welcome.

"Eat much, good meat," said he, hold­ing up an unsavory looking piece of goat, and smacking his lips. No second invita­tion was needed; a day and night in the tonic air of those plains had made me ravenous. We fell to with a will; some sugar and a package of cigarettes from our store added much to the enjoyment of the breakfast. Our new friends were also greatly in want of water for their ponies, but knew of a ranch a half-day's journey on our trail, where we could de­pend on watering. We therefore made an early start to avoid as much as possible the glaring heat of the sun. Arriving at the Mexican ranch by noon the place seemed like a veritable oasis to our parched animals. The youngest Laguna and I had trouble in restraining our trembling ponies when we led them to the well.

After a short rest at the ranch, we left the huge stockades behind, also the noise and disturbance, camping for dinner some few miles beyond, in sight of the camp-fires of Ciancito, their smoke curl­ing skyward in thin blue spirals. A small pond formed by a rude dam in the bed of this partly dried tributary of the Rio Puer­to, made the spot an ideal resting place. Having disposed of our dinner, the young Laguna busied himself with the ponies, and I sought an inviting patch of dry grass on which to stretch myself. I had hardly lighted my pipe before Pablo and Abato started to their feet. Looking in the direction of Ciancito, we saw a rider galloping in our direction. The Indians at once seated themselves and re­sumed their talk, paying no more atten­tion to the approaching horseman. The third Laguna, a morose individual who never opened his mouth for more than a short grunt, seemed by his attitude of attention to have at last caught the spark of animation.

Reining in his pinto, the rider, who proved to be a young Navajo buck, greet­ed our party with a comprehensive nod, dismounted and joined us at the fire. I kept well in the background as things began to look very gloomy for me, judg­ing by the look Pablo gave me. Our vis­itor was a tall, supple youth, with long black hair, clothed in a nondescript garb, half Indian and half cowboy. Address­ing Pablo, he apparently delivered some set speech, and smiling at Pablo's ans­wer, emphatically shook his head as he gave a short reply. Mounting his horse, the young buck left us as abruptly as he arrived, and was soon lost to view in a cloud of alkali dust as he rode swiftly toward the Indian camp in the valley.

"Navajo no want you at dance," said Pablo; "Chief say you go back. Runner by lower trail tell him you come."

Calming my friend as best I could, for the disappointment was as keen to me, I determined to strike back alone and give Pablo a chance to attend the dance. Tell­ing them of my decision, they made no comment, but conferred together. No­ticing their frequent glances to the south­west, my attention was drawn to a small bank of cloud approaching us from that quarter at an unusual speed, although little or no breeze was stirring in our immediate neighborhood. Presently a few sharp words from Abato sent his men scurrying to round up the ponies that were bunched together, tails out, near the pond. All was bustle, but not confusion, for in an incredible time the broncos and pack mare were saddled, in­cluding my own pony.

"You go long to Ciancito; yes, much storm soon," Pablo shouted in my ear. A bright flash then illuminated the rap­idly darkening landscape and the cool sucking-in feeling of the whirling dust clouds that seemed to spring from no­where, told of the Indian's wisdom in hastening toward the shelter of the val­ley. All question of my going to the dance was forgotten, as the wind in­creased and apparently drove from all di­rections at once, choking us with dust. It was now as dark as night, the storm having reached its height within a very short space of time. A great jagged blinding band of intense lightning threw the wild scene into view, the dust-swept land having the appearance of a vast snow flurry, while the mountains be­yond Ciancito stood outlined in the glare. Even before the black pall that followed this flash had blinded us, our frightened horses were sent back on their haunches by such a crashing clap of thunder that our ears sung. Then came the rain in a steady sheet, drenching us in an instant, but also cooling our perspiring po­nies and laying the suffocating clouds of alkali. We were now over half way to the large camp and making good progress. The storm dying away to the north, we rode up to the first hogan as the level rays of the setting sun flooded our soaked and bedraggled little cavalcade with a blaze of light. Tsotsil, the sacred moun­tain, showed bluish gray through the re­ceding rain, while everywhere about us thin columns of smoke circled upward in the peaceful calm that succeeded the storm. Bright spots of color marked the Indians, who moved about among the fires as they were relighted; the place pre­sented an appearance of lively animation, and I fearfully wondered what they in­tended to do with me.

Some children and squaws approached; several bucks then came to the fore and beckoned us to alight. An old man com­ing out of the first hogan led us back into the grateful warmth of the fire with­in. Abato and Pablo then gave a graphic account of our being driven down by the storm. Pablo turning to me remarked:

"Lightning strike big tree by medicine hogan."

"What will they do now?" I asked. "Turn me away for bringing had luck?"

"Good medicine," he answered, nod­ding his head gravely, "medicine hogan no hurt; we bring sun in camp."

Pablo and Abato then left to obey a summons from the Chief, and I was told that it would be best for me to remain in the hogan until their return. All the Indians having now left with the excep­tion of the old man, we sat smoking in silence. Partaking of some excellent corn­bread that the old Navajo raked from the hot ashes of the fire, and in turn tender­ing my tobacco pouch, things soon felt quite homelike. A low whistle at the entrance of the but presently caused the old man to draw aside the blanket to exchange a few words with someone out­side. Returning to his place by the fire the venerable Indian and I puffed at our pipes. The crackling of our fire min­gled with the songs and chants of the Indians; rhythmic sounds that I afterwards learned were the various legends that are rehearsed for four nights before the fifth or final night of the dance. This was the evening of the fourth day, and they were giving the mountain chant of Chiki-chash-natlehi, or Maid-who-be­comes-a-bear.

The old man drew aside the blanket of the hut entrance, and the song with its climax and rhythmic cadence, drifted pleasantly across the valley. A transla­tion of the chant runs something like this:

"Maid-who-becomes-a-bear
Sought the gods and found them
On the summits of the mountains;
Sought the gods and found them;
Truly with my sacrifice,
Sought the gods and found them.
Somebody doubts it; so I have heard!"

There were many more verses, and the mountain chant was only one of a number of others. Held by the peculiar melody of this song, I was totally unprepared for the surprise that followed.

"The Chief of the Navajos has ordered that you remain in this hogan for the night."

The clear cultivated intonations caused me to turn toward the door, expecting some white man, but no one was there. The voice was that of my aged com­panion.

"Your friends have spoken well of you, and tonight at the council we will decide whether you will be allowed to remain at Ciancito and witness the dance."

Too astonished to offer an intelligible reply, my halting sentences were lost to his ears as he quickly slipped from the hogan and I saw him no more. Pablo drew aside the blanket at the door early the next morning, his face beaming.

"Chief say can see dance, but must not go in medicine hogan."

Being now at liberty to wander about, I started down the valley, attracted by a motley crowd of men, women and chil­dren watching two bucks engage in an exciting game, differing from anything I had before seen. Each contestant wielded a jointed lance about twenty feet in length, from which was suspended short thongs of buckskin. A buckskin hoop eight inches in diameter, stuffed with dry grass, was rolled along the ground, and each player did his best to cast his lance through the ring while in motion. The relative positions of the thongs as they came in contact with the hoop, counted as points. When the ring stopped it was seized by one of the play-era and tossed with an overhand motion, whereupon the contestants tried to in­terfere with each other's casts, at the same time making strenuous efforts to pierce the hoop. The game is exciting when one knows the rules, and requires skill, speed and endurance. In a skirm­ish, or when blocking casts, the audience would cheer their respective favorites, and the laughter spurred on the unsuccessful player to greater efforts. The game is called "Nanzoz" by the Indians, and is in some way connected with an old Nav­ajo legend, as Pablo described it to me. "Leave Nanzoz to me," said Great Snake, "I will hide myself in the hoop and make it fall where I please."

Pablo joining some of his friends, I made the acquaintance of an ungainly individual who said his name was Tom Demon. Tom's manner of speech was so peculiar that to attempt a record of it would be impossible.

"Do he draw in smoke, yes," provided my new friend with some cigarettes, but the remainder of his conversation merely served as a basis for guessing his mean­ing. I gathered from Tom that an ini­tiation was to take place that afternoon, to prepare candidates to enter the medi­cine hogan.

Many Indians assembled that after­noon, the larger number being Navajos. Pablo and I joined them in order to witness the ceremony; and he pointed out to me the various groups. Some Zunis were squatted at the foot of a small mesa, while Apaches and Lagunas were mingled among the watching throng. The initia­tion was to include both sexes, adults as well as children, and the initiates now cowered in a semi-nude condition on large blankets that were spread for them in one corner of a flat stretch of ground. Preceding the initiation two medicine men came running down the canyon toward us, yelling like wild men. They wore only blue and white breechings, and their bodies were coated with white clay. Hideous dog masks hid their features, and their hair streamed behind them. Low­ering their heads, they uttered those snarl­ing inimitable whoops, so peculiar to the Indians of the Southwest when worked up in a religious frenzy. One of the medicine men then passed round a coyote skin, into which the onlookers dropped various trinkets, my offering being a handful of cigarettes. His companion in the meantime rattled a gourd and kept up an incessant din of whoops and yells. This over, the medicine men approached the cowering initiates. The first one made mysterious marks with clay on va­rious parts of their bodies, uttering loud incantations while he did this. Then the real trial commenced for the poor crea­tures crouching on the blankets. The second medicine man haled them forth one by one, an elder took his place be­hind each initiate, who stood with head bowed down, while the medicine men struck each clay mark with a piece of cactus. The marks seemed a sort of guide, so to speak, and regulated the se­verity of the blows. A dreadful howling was kept up during this torture by the spectators. Pablo would answer none of the questions now, though he had pre­tended to be above believing in these things when we talked about initia­tion, back in Islets. The victims during all this were absolutely stolid, tak­ing their punishment with Spartan indif­ference.

By the time the last blows were struck the sun sank behind the low range of mountains, and numerous Indians were stacking wood into huge piles to be fired later for the illumination of the dance. As this was the fifth night, a largely augmented gathering would be present to see the ceremonies and listen to the chants. These chants are very important and must be known in all their various phases, both by the priests and the danc­ers. Many of the listeners are critical judges and any error made in the sing­ing is supposed to spoil the efficacy of the whole rite. The women take no part in any of these songs, although those at the camp showed the greatest interest in all the proceedings. After a hasty sup­per Pablo took me back to the flat, where we took up a position midway between the medicine hogan and a large stockade or arbor, built of green boughs and sap­lings. The great pyres were lit and the flames threw a weird, fantastic light over the scene.

While the dancers were dressing in the arbor, the medicine men kept up an in­cessant rattling of their gourds, attract­ing many of the Indians to their hogan; those privileged to enter filed in and out during the entire night. Suddenly the noise from the hogan dropped to a faint rattle, and the dancers filed out of the arbor, appearing like so many ghosts when their clay-daubed bodies reflected the light from the fires. A slight tink­ling of bells which they wore around their ankles was plainly audible in the hush that settled over the flat. They slowly approached the middle of the flat their limbs glistening in the full glare of the center fire. The dancing costume consist­ed of a small breech-cloth and an abbre­viated skirt, held in place by a belt com­posed of large silver medallions. A coyote tail was fastened in the rear of this belt, and hung down below the knees. Brace­lets and necklaces of silver or beads, and wreaths of evergreen worn about the neck, knees, and ankles, were their principal ornaments. The head-dress consisted of two large eagle feathers held in place by a red band of cloth; ugly dog-masks covered their features; and plain buckskin moccasins completed their cos­tumes.

The dancers formed a circle about the fire, standing calm and still, while the large assemblage maintained a sphinx-like silence. Presently the subdued rattle of gourds in the medicine hogan grew fainter and then ceased altogether as the Chief stepped forth onto the flat. The Chief was an old man whose manner and car­riage bespoke a ruler of his tribe; a blan­ket of unusually fine design was thrown over his left shoulder. The Chief raised his right hand to the heavens and ad­dressed the audience. His speech was short and fluent, ending amid a great hubbub of applause; he then motioned to the leader of the dancers, and the great medicine dance began.

First came a low chant, and the danc­ers began a slow, rhythmical motion of their bodies. The snakelike forms were sharply silhouetted against the bright flames and gradually waxed faster as the dance progressed. The sound of the rattling gourds, commingling with the whoops when the chant took on a warlike tune, added an unearthly note to the strange song. As the songs succeeded each other, the danc­ing became fiercer until the performers reached a feverish climax of wild song and gesticulation. The chant then grad­ually died down, and finally the tired dancers wended their way back to the stockade for a brief rest. From the ac­tions of the watchers, I gathered that the dancers were doing exceptionally well, and their second appearance was watched with much interest. They again started a low chant, gaining in volume until the danc­ers had once more reached the summit of their emotions. This program was kept up with slight variations until the gray dawn lighted the low hill-tops to the east. With the first ray of morning light, the wild dancers, with one accord emitted a fiendish whoop, and rapidly withdrew from the flat.

The watching Indians arose, and gath­ering their blankets about them, quietly dispersed to their several hogans. I sat spellbound, the whole thing seeming some wild fancy of the mind, until Pablo tak­ing me by the shoulder, roused me from my reverie.

"How?" he asked.

"Good," I replied, and we slowly took our way back to our but by the edge of the valley.

From The Pacific Monthly Magazine, 1906