Pueblo Lives

Yesterday I wrote about seeing the tried and true sites of northern New Mexico and usually finding something new along the way. Today, I debated whether it was worth going to the Taos Pueblo for the fourth time. I know the history, the scenery, and I wanted to get to Tesuque  Pueblo; it was holding a feast day, something I’d never seen before. But as the morning broke clear and cold again, I realized it was stupid to be so close to one of my self-avowed spiritual centers and not go.

The river that flows out of the moutain from Blue Lake, the sacred site of the Taos Indians

I arrived before the bulk of the tourists and the school buses bringing the local kids on a field trip. I wandered by myself, took pictures, soaked in the natural surroundings, bought some fresh-made bread. It was worth the trip, though as always, the pics – my pics – can’t do it justice.

Life as it was lived almost 1,000 years ago.

The church in the back has a history, which I won't tell right now; check out the History Nerd instead

Then I drove south, almost back to Santa Fe, and arrived for the feast, not knowing at all what to expect.

The rules are clear before you enter: No cameras. No cellphones at all in the plaza, even if they’re off. No recording devices of any kind, no sketch pads. It’s an honor just to be allowed to see the feast celebration, as for some special occasions/dances, no visitors are allowed at all.

Entering  Tesuque Pueblo, I saw an assortment of lawn chairs ringing the plaza, small groups of adults talking, kids running around. A few Anglos scattered in amongst the mostly Pueblo crowd. A sense of waiting but no sense – for me – of for what. A patient waiting, like these slowly moving minutes are just part of life here, or at least part of the festival. No concessions, no trinkets, though some people emerged from houses with food and drink. Did they know the hosts? Does an open door mean come on it? Even some of the seemingly tourist Anglos have found something. I felt left out and ignorant, but I didn’t make any effort to learn more. My loss.

Finally, after I made about two circuits of the plaza, the sun warm but the air cold, there was action. Four drummers led a group of about twenty men into the plaza. The non-drummers, I soon realized, were a chorus. Most wore colorful shirts that looked like traditional garb, with white pants. There was a wide age range, from gray-haired elders to buzz-cut young men. After a moment, the dancers started to enter the plaza – two lines, about twenty in each. On their heads they wore evergreen hats/helmets with deer antlers on top. The backs of their necks were covered with feathers splayed out in a semi-circle. They had white shirts, black skirts, white leggings with several red strips of fabric hanging off. The leader of each line had a more ornate skirt, almost like a Scotch tartan on the bottom, with some designs and a black border above it. The dancers held a short cane in each hand, also wrapped in evergreens, which they used as extra  “legs”; they bent over to place the canes on the ground as they walked. The effect suggested, with the canes and the antlers, that they were deer or elk.

Once in the plaza, the dancers began carefully choreographed, repetitive steps, each dancer moving in one direction, with the one behind him imitating it, like the energy was being passed along a human chain. Then the two lines curved and snaked about, while the chorus and drummers kept up their accompaniment

They have been doing this for hundreds of years, the people of Tesuque, since before the Spanish, and now they link it to a saint’s day, for San Diego. The church was open today, and I saw many people go in. They dipped their hands in the fonts of holy water, made the sign of the cross. But the dance shows how the traditional religion survives – one of the few pieces we strangers are allowed to see; the most sacred rites are conducted underground in the kivas, totally off limits to us not from the pueblo.

At several points, the dancers passed by an evergreen tree in the center of the plaza. That and the greens the dancers wore made me think that this dance somehow marks a prelude to winter: displaying the signs of life that will endure the darkness and cold to come. I’m sure there is other symbolism and religious import beyond the ken of any outsider. But here’s what struck me:  This is what shared culture, community, is all about. The people turn out every year to watch this ceremony. They socialize before, they watch attentively, they know what it all means. Each generation of men learns a role and pursues it diligently: drummer, singer, dancer. About four men stood on the fringe during the dance with their own job. My first thought was that they were marshals or judges of a kind. And sure enough, they closely watched the dancers move, nudging some dancers into line when they lost their place, or taking a few over for specific instructions or to correct a wardrobe malfunction. Their attention never wavered during the entire ceremony, which lasted about 30 minutes.

And what do we modern Anglos have for shared culture and community? Vicarious connections by watching  and then talking about reality shows? Socializing through text messages and Facebook? Yes, I’m biased, but theater seems to be the closest thing we have to their kind of communal rite, and it is, I fear, a dying activity.  Here at Tesuque, they have kept their social/religious  traditions vibrant and vital for 1,000 years. Even as the modern world encroaches (e.g., Dish TV satellites on the adobe roofs). Of course, they are a much smaller, self-contained population. But even with Spanish and Anglo influences all around, they have not given up their past. I respect that immensely. And I have faith the feast dances and other rituals will endure. Just like Jersey Shore and American Idol…

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~ by mburgan on November 14, 2010.

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