Dancing Gods, by Erna Fergusson, , at sacred-texts.com
One day as I walked across the pueblo of Zuñi I fell in with a young Indian who had been away to school. His hair was cut short, he wore American clothes, and his English was as good as mine. Yet we spoke of the Rain-dance I had come to see, he said seriously: "We need rain so much. You see, the clouds are beginning to come up already, even before the dancers are out. Yesterday there were no clouds." His ancestral faith in the power of prayer had not been affected by years of American education. He still believed.
Soon the dancers came out of the kiva, brilliant in masks and jewelry, fox furs and fine white buckskin; and for hours we watched them move through the stately figures of their ancient prayer, accompanied by the insistent beat of the tomtoms, calling on the gods for rain. Later as we drove away across the Zuñi mountains, we looked back and saw the long slanting purple lines of rain falling on the pueblo. Indians say: "White men laugh at our dances, but they are glad, too, when the rain comes."
As a prayer the dance is a very intimate and pervasive factor in Indian life. For the Indian is a truly religious
being. No act of daily life is too ordinary to be dignified by ritual, no magnificence of God or nature too awe-inspiring to be explained by myth and influenced by prayer. There are prayers for birth and death, appeal and thanksgiving, prayers connected with the planting and harvesting of crops, the hunt, the journey, grinding the corn, the storm, the sun, and the rain--especially the rain.
The southwestern Indians are, and always have been, farmers and stockmen, and they live in an arid land. In New Mexico and Arizona few crops grow without irrigation, and irrigation depends upon rainfall. Centuries ago Indians learned to conserve their water in tiny reservoirs, to direct its flow in well-plotted ditches, and to make the most of every drop that fell. In the desert, where there are no streams, they learned to plant deep, to locate their fields where they could catch any underground flow of water, and to retain moisture by tireless cultivation. They were the original dry farmers. Both in the river valleys and on the desert uplands, prolonged drought has always been their greatest danger. If it does not rain, the people perish. So in one way or another nearly every prayer is a prayer for rain, for renewal and for growth. Symbols of rain are everywhere. The plumed serpent, which is the lightning, and symbols of clouds and rain and rainbows appear on blankets and pots and baskets for everyday use as well as on shrines and ceremonial garments. Linked closely with the rain as the life-giving principle is, of course, the sun. Prayers for rain often include appeals for all life, animal and human as well as plant, and on this is based the occasional complaint that Indian dances are obscene. It all
depends upon the point of view. To an Indian, human generation is no more obscene than is the fertilization and development of a plant.
This book attempts to give a description of the principal southwestern Indian dances, based upon observation, and an account of their significance, based upon all available sources of information. It is not an exhaustive study, for several reasons, the most important of which is that the material available is not exhaustive. A few scientists have made detailed studies of a few of the southwestern Indian dances. I have consulted those authorities, I have seen most of the dances which are open to the outsider, I have talked with many people, both whites and Indians, and I have concluded that nobody knows all about Indian dances, not even Indians.
Ask an Indian the significance of certain movements used in the dance or of certain symbols which appear in costumes or decoration and he will answer you evasively. This is often because he does not wish to tell, but often it is true that he does not know. The cacique or medicine-man knows the mythology which lies behind the ceremonies and he understands the significance of the various forms, but his knowledge is sacred to him and he will not divulge it lightly. The Indian layman, like the Christian layman, knows merely that certain things must be done in a certain way because they have always been done so. "Unless we do it this way, our prayer will not be answered. This is the way of the ancients."
An Indian dance is not a dance in the sense in which we use that term. It is a ceremonial, a symbolic representation,
a prayer. It is, in fact, what all dances were in the early days of the race before the dance as a social and dramatic expression grew apart from the ceremonial which gradually developed into the church service. In a sense the mass is still a stately dance, the theatrical production is descended from a prayer. The ancestor of both was the ritual presenting a symbolic act in dramatic form before the altar. David danced before the Lord. The first Greek drama was a ritualistic dance preceding the sacrifice. During the Middle Ages Christian priests gave mystery plays before the high altar, and a modern English prelate has recently recognized the religious value of such drama by permitting the presentation of a medieval miracle play in front of a cathedral. Survivals of these religious dramas are to be found among peasant peoples in various European countries and even in the United States, for the Mexicans of both New Mexico and Arizona have certain ancient religious plays which they give annually at Christmas or Easter time.
Of all these survivals of primitive ritual the Indian dance is probably the most interesting to be found anywhere in the world, for it is not merely a quaint custom largely divorced from its original significance. It is the genuine religious expression of a primitive people which has survived without serious interruption for thousands of years. It belongs to the period of human culture before the religious ritual and the drama had become separate things. The Indian dance is a prayer, performed with the greatest reverence, and it is also a dramatic representation, as finished and as beautiful as a modern ballet. Sometimes it has pantomime, sometimes humor, sometimes only the solemnity
of a religious service. Unhappily it is probably true that as young Indians are trained away from their ancient faiths, the Indian dance will lose its meaning as a religious form. As an art form it should certainly be encouraged and preserved as purely as possible. Fortunately we are still far from the time when the dance has lost its religious significance even for the young Indian. Even those of the younger generation who have been trained in Indian schools and have gone away from home to live, return to their people for the important ceremonies and show a deep belief in their efficacy.
While centuries of Christian training have apparently not affected the deeps of the Indian mind, and Indian ceremonials go on much as from time immemorial, there are superficial modifications which are interesting. Certain Christian symbols appear here and there and, especially among the Pueblo people, Christian feast-days are celebrated. In some pueblos the Indians dance on Christmas, on Twelfth-night, and at Easter, and in all pueblos ancient pagan dances are given on certain saints' days. In a few of the pueblos the Catholic priests permit dancing in the churches at Christmas, probably because they are tolerant enough to realize that any man's prayer, in any man's mode, is acceptable to God. Apparently these Christmas dances were originally a recognition of the winter solstice, a prayer for the return of the sun after his annual withdrawal. Now the Catholic faith seems to have modified at least the layman's conception of the meaning of the ceremony. I once asked an Isleta Indian what dance they would give in his pueblo on Christmas Eve, and he said: "We
dance in honor of the Christ-child." He said it with the completest reverence.
This mingling of faiths seems to be due to a quality of mind which makes it possible for the Indian not only to be tolerant of the beliefs of others, but to adopt them into his own practice. He seems to feel that every form of worship is good. Indians have always respected the religion of other Indians, and when the first white men came, they welcomed their religion as merely a different expression of fundamental truth. They readily accepted the new faith, but they continued with the old. Evidence of this dualism is still found in the use of prayer-meal in the Indian's home, and holy water in his church, prayer-sticks before the ancient shrines, and rosaries before the saints, and in the age-old serpent symbol of the sinuous course of streams painted on the holy-water vessels in some churches.
Most of the Indian ceremonials are extremely elaborate, lasting for days and ending on the last day or night with the dance. Outsiders are usually permitted to see only the dance. The secret ceremonies take place in the kiva or medicine lodge and are open only to clan members or to the dancers. Sometimes they are historical or legendary in character, presenting the life of the whole people or of a certain hero. Often elaborate altars are erected and painted with symbolic decorations, sand paintings are made and destroyed at specified hours and with meticulous care for detail, costumes are prepared for the dance, masks are painted and decorated with feathers, prayer-sticks are made. The dancers must be purified by means of fasting and medication, bathing the body, and washing the hair.
[paragraph continues] Everything is done under the direction of the cacique or medicine-man, whose duty it is to see that nothing goes wrong, as the slightest slip may ruin the effect of the entire ceremony.
From the chronicles of the early Spanish explorers and from the reports of American Army officers and Indian agents it appears that white men were long welcomed to all dances, even the ceremonies now held most secret. As time went on, white missionaries showed a disposition to impose their beliefs on the Indians to the exclusion of their old faiths and they naturally grew more and more secretive until now they shut white men out of the most sacred parts of all their ceremonies and exclude them altogether from certain more important and probably more beautiful dances.
In addition to prayers for rain and for fructification generally, there is an almost unlimited variety of dances, ranging all the way from ceremonials of the utmost solemnity, in which the gods themselves are personified, to dances of a purely social and humorous character. In the masked dances the masked figures symbolize the actual presence of the god. Ceremonies for the initiation of children at puberty introduce the candidate to the man behind the mask, much as our children are permitted to see the man behind the whiskers of Santa Claus. The masked figure is not the god, he merely personifies the god, and all adults understand that. The masked figure may also be the messenger of the gods, as is the great Shalako at Zuñi. After the dance he returns to a secret shrine on a neighboring mountain, taking the message of the people to the god. This
is also the significance of the snakes in the Hopi Snake-dance. The snakes are brothers of the members of the Snake Clan and they carry back to the gods the people's prayer for rain. The Yei who appear masked in the medicine ceremonies of the Navajos are representations of the gods and are treated with suitable reverence during the entire nine days' ceremony.
A similar idea is to be found in the animal dances which are among the winter ceremonies of the Pueblos. Dancers are dressed to represent deer, buffalo, antelope, or mountain sheep, and superficially the dance is a pantomime of the hunt, but its esoteric significance is deeper than that. It goes back to the time when men and animals still lived together in the underworld; for to all southwestern Indians the original happy home was underground or below a lake where the gods still live waiting to welcome the people back after death. Thus to the Indian both the Garden of Eden and heaven lie underground. It is generally believed that before they emerged on this earth, men and animals all lived together and spoke the same language. So in the hunting-dances the performers propitiate the game by reconstructing the time when animals understood men and were willingly sacrificed for the good of their human brothers.
As is true of all primitive peoples, southwestern Indians have dances for the cure of disease, notably the great "medicine sings" of the Navajos. These are elaborate nine-day ceremonials, which include prayers and the making of sand paintings in secret, sweat baths and medications for the patient, and finally the all-night dance, which is
open to visitors. Through it all moves the stately dignified presence of the medicine-man. His ability to conduct one of the greater ceremonials is the result of years of study and training, as he must know every least detail of the ritual, every song, every sand painting, every word, and every movement. He is supposed to be a man of great spirituality, for he is priest as well as physician.
The intense seriousness of the Navajo nature is reflected in all their ceremonies, which are much less lightened by humor than are those of the Pueblos. Life has always been precarious to the Navajo. First as nomads dependent upon hunting and upon occasional raids against the peaceable Pueblos and later when their marauding days were forcibly ended and they were confined to an arid reservation, they seem to have felt the importance of propitiating the gods. Their songs and dances all contain a note of insistent urgency which reflects a deep ancestral fear. Most of their dances are prayers for the cure of a particular person's illness. The patient's relatives arrange everything, and both patient and sponsors are important figures in the ceremonial. Such a dance seems to include also an invocation of the great powers for all the people, a presentation of ancient symbolism, and incidentally an opportunity for a gathering of the whole tribe. Often thousands of Navajos attend. They come to assist the prayers for a sick friend and they are most serious about it. In addition they enjoy coming; they meet their friends, they feast largely, and they see much magic, for medicine-men can make feathers dance in baskets and run up and down sticks.
Dances as drama and for fun are found among the
Pueblos rather than among the Navajos. Many pueblos have pantomimic representations of the coming of the first white men--"men with pale skins who came across the great water in boats with wings." They prance about on sticks with such dramatic power that one clearly sees the conquistadores in their coats of mail, and they stage most realistic sham battles between wild Indians and blue-coated Americans. The Pueblos still remember that it was the United States troops who first gave them protection from the marauding Navajos and Apaches, and in these dramas their sympathy is with the soldiers. The modern American seems to fill them with less respect and more amusement. Usually he is the comic figure in the hunt, the man who trails his gun until he falls over it, who blunders on the game and scares it away, who loses his way and wanders bewildered for hours around one tiny spruce-tree. Clowns are endlessly fertile in ideas for burlesquing Americans, and often they are as funny as our best comedians. Practically every pueblo dance includes a clown who has absolute license to do or say what he pleases. In fact, there are in all the pueblos clans of clowns who serve as public censors by making fun of the foibles of the people.
War-dances are still given here and there. They come closer than any of the other southwestern dances to approximating the traditional notion of an Indian dance as a succession of war-whoops and mad gyrations. In a war-dance one may see real scalps, fine old painted shields of buffalo hide, beaded quivers full of arrows, ancient flintlocks, and powder-horns dating from the days of the first American occupation. Among the war-dances is the Comanche
dance, which was borrowed from the now almost extinct enemy by all the Pueblos and which they love to give for inquisitive whites. This is only one of many borrowings. Indians are inveterate travelers and they love to learn each other's songs and dances. Sometimes they give them seriously, as the Jemez give a series of Hopi dances in the fall; sometimes they burlesque them, as the Zuñi mimic the Navajo Yebetchai.
In the war-dances as now given we have an excellent example of what is probably doomed to happen to all Indian dances. There being no more wars among these savages, the war-dances, once most earnest prayers for strength to fight and win, are now preserved by the Indians themselves as interesting survivals of a bygone day. In time, as Indians are weaned from their ancient faiths, it is likely that all their ceremonies will lose meaning in the same way, and it is important that interested white people should help them to preserve their dances as an art form when they no longer serve as a religious form.
As an art, Indian dances command the respect of artists. Dancers, singers, actors, and painters all recognize the southwestern Indian as a real artist. Ted Shawn, a great dancer and a deep student of the dance in many lands, says that the Indians truly understand the spirit of the dance, a fact which they demonstrate in many ways. They dance in the open air, instead of in crowded over-heated halls. The dance is an affair of the whole community, for everyone is obliged to take part some time during the year, either as singer or as dancer, and always those who are not dancing or singing are understanding and interested spectators.
[paragraph continues] Most important of all, the Indian dance has significance. There is meaning in every item of costume and decoration, in every step and movement. Mr. Shawn and all who know dancing, agree that the Indian is a fine performer technically. His foot-work is exquisite, the control of body and breath masterly, and the careful precision of the whole performance truly artistic. The steps vary widely, as will appear to anyone who knows dance steps and will watch them carefully or, better still, try to copy them. Every dance is full of tricky changes of tempo and rhythm, of the graceful turnings of long rows of dancers like wheat ruffling in the wind, of that deceptive appearance of ease which is based on years of training for each dancer and days of intensive practice for each performance.
The intricacies of tempo and rhythm are based on the music, which commands as much respect in high circles as does the dancing. Efrem Zimbalist, who has studied primitive music in all parts of the world, says that the American Indian's music is the most difficult he knows. Lacking harmony, the Indian achieves his effects entirely by rhythm, often combining several rhythms in one song and always using short intervals and very baffling pauses. It is notable that most musicians trying to play Indian music fail to catch the correct rhythm unless they bear it first. Often in the dances one can distinguish as many as four rhythms used at once, one maintained by the tomtoms, one by the singers, one by the dancers, and a fourth by the clowns, whose apparent indifference to the affair gives it the final touch of unity and charm. Indians often sing alone--love-songs, cradle-songs, grinding-songs, songs just for fun--
but usually, and especially in connection with the dances, Indians sing in chorus. In the pueblos a chorus of old men accompanied by tomtoms provides the music for the dance. The Navajos, wonderfully trained and controlled, tighten the muscles of the torso and sing while they dance, keeping it up for hours with no appearance of weariness. There is no part-singing among either. The voices blend with each other and with the accompanying instruments and are emphasized by the click of shells on costumes and the steady beat of gourd rattles. The Navajos use a queer falsetto voice, whose whining insistent appeal going on all night has a hypnotic effect even on the listener who does not understand a word of the prayer.
Lately, with the increasing interest in Indian affairs, white people are showing a disposition to assist the Indian to preserve his dances in their purity. Various shows in New Mexico are featuring Indian dances. At first the old men of all the tribes were opposed to having their ceremonials presented away from the pueblos or off the reservations. They quite naturally dread to see the commercializing of their religious rituals, they hate the effect of applause on their young men, and they resent all change. Through their influence many dances are not given at all in the white man's towns; most of them are given only in part. This resistance is slowly breaking down, however, and it may be that giving the dances for white audiences will prove the means of perpetuating them as an art form when their significance as a religious form has unhappily passed away.
It is still true that the only way to see the best dances in
their entirety and done with real reverence is to go to the pueblos or the reservations where they are danced in the "way of the ancients." There you get a sense of the magnificent antiquity behind them, a feeling of the marvelous strength and cohesion of a people who through four centuries of foreign domination have maintained their ancestral worship. We have here, held in modern civilization as in a matrix, a complete and extraordinarily beautiful survival of primitive life--a survival which should certainly be treated respectfully and preserved as an art if it must pass as a living belief.