I was blessed with a remarkable holiday weekend and I hope you all were as well. I spent Christmas Day and the day after that attending the dances at the Taos Pueblo and then the Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo). I was in the company of my friends Bernadette Track, Robert Shorty and their daughters Dawning Pollen and Shell. Bernadette is a Taos Pueblo Indian and Robert is Navaho.
I had heard of “Feast Days” and “Dance Days” before, but until this experience I hadn’t realized that whenever there are dances at the Pueblos, there are also accompanying feasts. So Dance Days are also, always, Feast Days. Their Christmas holidays follow the 12 days of Christmas, starting on Christmas Eve and ending on January 6th. It’s a very busy time for the Pueblos.
On Christmas Day I went to the Taos Pueblo with Pollen. I parked deep in the restricted area and followed her through narrow dirt allies and lanes between the mud houses, winding round and round, up and down, until we reached her family’s ancestral home in one of the main Pueblo buildings. She and her sister and brother were brought up in this home; her great great grandparents raised their children there. We were amidst their family complex—the homes of her grandmother’s sister, her aunts and uncles, cousins, and their cousins, and on and on. The Pueblos honor family and have always lived in extended family units.
I was invited in. The ancient home was awe-inspiring. There is no water, electricity or gas. The walls are mud and straw, without windows, and the floors dirt, but there was stunning art everywhere I turned—paintings by famous friends of the family; old, old photos of great grandparents in traditional garb. There were candles in ancient fixtures, wood in the kiva fireplace, and the silenced echoes of lives lived, long past. It felt sacred. The family no longer lives in the home. It is used only for ritual occasions and ceremonies, but not for the feast itself on this day.
I came to the Pueblo to watch the Matachines Dance which is more Spanish than Indian. No one really knows the true meaning of this dance although there are many ideas. Most agree the main theme is one of good verses evil, with good winning out. My favorite interpretation suggests Indian “resistance and regeneration against foreign invaders,” as stated in the essay, The Upper Rio Grande Matachines Dance, by Sylvia Rodriguez. It’s the only reason I can think the Indians would want to include this dance in their holiday schedule; a dance used as a means, by the Spanish colonizers, to Christianize Indian converts. In her essay Rodriguez says, “Encounter, struggle, and transformation between light and dark forces is a story for all times and places, whether Medieval Spain, sixteenth century Mexico, or New Mexico today”.
Regarding the issue of the dance and the potential for friction and ill will between the Indians and the Spanish Pollen said, “We’ve been together for 500 years now. We’ve intermarried. Our customs and ceremonies have merged. It just IS. There’s nothing to gain in being angry about it and so much to lose.” What a beautiful expression of acceptance, forgiveness and unconditional love—no better way to celebrate the spirit of Christmas, I think.
After the dances I was invited into the family’s home outside the Pueblo for the feast, which is a remarkable thing. It’s a little loose as to which families are hosting feasts. Not everyone does. Usually the families of the dancers do, as well as some others. I was never clear on who’s chosen or how or why. But it didn’t matter. People came and went. Everyone was welcomed. A table was set and people were fed. Plates were removed; the table reset and incoming groups were served yet again. The menu is traditional and sumptuous: All the stews, including posole, chicos and red and green chili; bread pudding, pork, turkey, ham, pies and cakes—too much to list—too much to eat.
Bernadette gave me the gift of a wild turkey feather. The Indians consider turkeys to be the “giving eagle.”
But the main point of Feast Days is honoring traditions with ceremony, and sharing comfort with family and friends, old and new. It was an amazing privilege to be welcomed into this ancient rite, to be among the living family of the ancients, whose spirits continue to walk the hard dirt paths of the Pueblo, who remain in the ancient homes there, and are remembered and revered by those who love them still.
Being with my Pueblo friends made me more conscious of how connected we all are, Indian, Spanish, Anglo, ancient and modern day and that, while most of us no longer have access to our ancestral homes, we are of antiquity, too. We descend from ancient lines as well, though we seem so very separate from the evidence of our heritage that it is sometimes hard to remember. All the more reason to honor the Pueblo people in their determination to hold on to traditions in a rapidly changing world.
There are no photos allowed during Feast Days so I’ll share some pictures of the Pueblo land, in general, taken the day of the dances, and a few of the village shot during earlier visits.
Pollen invited me to visit the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo the next day for their Turtle Dance. I’ll write about that the day after tomorrow. And, by the way, Pollen, Bernadette and Robert are all artists. I’ll be doing pieces on each of them later in the blog.