As I approached the Taos Pueblo it was -13 degrees and dark. Venus hung high in the sky, above a crescent moon. The sun would be rising soon and I was arriving for the 7AM Turtle Dance on New Years Day. Bernadette and Robert’s son, Pollen and Shell’s brother, AJ, was dancing today. He’s been doing this dance since he was 9 years old. I parked deep in the restricted area near their Pueblo home and walked into the network of ancient houses. I opened the front door and went in, but was early and the first to arrive, so there was no fire; no candles were lit. It was dark as a cave. I went, instead, to the mission church, where it was warm, and waited for the ceremony to begin.
It is disrespectful to describe the dances or the dancers. Suffice it to say, it is a breathtaking experience and one I recommend to any of you who can make the trip to Taos. It was a privilege to be there, in that ancient plaza, as the sun crested the mountain, experiencing this very powerful age-old ceremony.
I saw Bernadette and Pollen, standing against their adobe home, in traditional garb—beautiful long dresses that wrap across one shoulder, belted in the middle. They each had on cream colored, calf-high moccasins, handed down from their ancestors. Pollen explained that these are given to Pueblo girls when they are initiated into the womanhood of the Pueblo. Hers and her mother’s were over a hundred years old. Women are buried in them, but her great-grandmother owned three pairs. Each individual moccasin is made from the white belly leather of one elk.
I joined my friends in their Pueblo home. The fires were lit now and the spaces warm. Food they’d been preparing for a week was warming on the old cast-iron cook stove and presented on ancient wood tables. The house was fragrant with it. Pollen offered plates of fresh raspberries, cherries and strawberries. “Decadent,” she grinned, acknowledging the freezing snow just outside the door and a time when these wouldn’t have been possible, when feasts were comprised of items that could be harvested and stored.
I warmed myself and waited for the men to start dancing again. Hearing the drumming, I headed back out into the chill air. Even in these minus degree temperatures, the dancers were there for us. I came to understand, this day, that the ceremony was not just for the Pueblo; not just meant to honor sacred tradition. These dancers were offering their energy, their old knowing, to all of us so that we might carry it with us into our circles of family and friends. And in this way, we were being given an opportunity for connection and renewal—an ancient path to remember our greater good.
Most of the Indian women who were watching the dance wore colorful wool blankets, wrapped long to their ankles. This is the Taos wrap. Pollen wore a Pendleton she’d received as a Christmas gift from her mother some years back. She smiled and said, “We’re buried in these, too.” She told me it was considered disrespectful for non-Pueblos to wear native blankets. It is seen as a sort of mocking.
After the dances were finished for the day, I entered the Track home to join in the feast. It was merry and rich. Extended family members filled the dwelling, laughing and sharing stories, and were joined by friends, coming and going. It was not the picture we’ve come to expect of difficult family holiday gatherings. These people wanted to be there, sharing their lives.
But now it was time for me to head home. There had been a lot of packed snow and ice on the High Road when I made the drive the day before. I wanted to journey in daylight. So I said goodbye to my friends, lifted into this New Year by the ancient grace of ceremony. May the sacred wisdom of the ancestors fill my being; may I carry it forth, as the dancers did for me, and, in this way, in my own small way, expand the bond of humanity and spirit we all share.