Chapter XV. Of a Zuñi Grinding Song, and of Prayer Plumes


Up: Contents Previous: Chapter XIV. Of Sa-wi-etsi-tsita, how She Made Us Jars; and Somewhat of Zuñi Babies Next: Chapter XVI. Of the Night Dance of the Shálako Gods


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ONE afternoon a knock came at our door and there stood Dick.

‘‘You no busy?’’ he inquired. ‘‘You want listen 'em sing song? You come with me.’’

So we went. It was the week before the great annual festival of the Shálako gods, and Zuñi was all preparation for the joyous feast. For weeks, by waggon and burro back, the corn had been coming in from the distant fields, and housetops and yards were piled high with the rustling harvest. Women and old men were sitting in the sun, stripping the husks from the ears, which were of a score of colours—red, yellow, blue, white, black, magenta, orange, lilac, pink,—and tossing them into kaleidoscopic piles. There would be no hunger in Zuñi this year, for the harvest was abounding and even the burros shared in the general good humour, feeding and fattening knee-deep in cornhusks.


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We ascended a ladder at the sun priest's house and, crossing a number of roofs, came to a door from which the sound of a drum issued. The small room, dimly lighted by three windows under the roof, was thronged. Two mustachioed Navajos were bartering silver trinkets with a little, soft-voiced Zuñi man behind the door; a cluster of women were cooking at the fire, and through the door others came and went bearing baskets heaped high with meal or corn. In a dusky corner was a choir of eight young men, singing to the accompaniment of a primitive drum—a large jar with a skin stretched tightly over its mouth. Across the room, where from one of the windows the light fell upon them, were five or six young women grinding corn upon as many mealing stones, their lithe bodies rising and descending in unison and keeping time with the music of the men. As one would tire, her place would be taken by another in the room. So the grinding never ceased and would not till the sun set. The faces of the grinders were half hidden by the veil of hair that hung down before them; but their dress of many colours, their brown arms encircled at the wrists with silver bracelets, the flash of shell or silver necklaces


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swinging as they knelt over the mealing bins, made an animated scene.

As for the music, it, too, never flagged. The air changed from time to time; one singer or another might pause to puff a cigarette or drink from a gourd of water, but the stream of the music suffered no stoppage. It was a Zuñi grinding song—a song of thanksgiving, it might be, or an invocation for rain and good crops—the words of which had come down from father to son for generations. Sometimes the singers turned reverent faces upward; sometimes they lifted their hands as in supplication; never was there a sign that they held the performance as otherwise than of the most solemn import. Indeed, the vim, the precision, the religious fervour which these eight serious men put into the music, made us feel that we were in a household of faith, where the dependence of humanity was realised and the daily gifts of God to men were received not as matters of course but with thankfulness of heart.

It was heathendom's testimony to the power and goodness of God, and we felt humbled as we stepped into the air. We passed one of the Government teachers on the way to her Christian home.


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‘‘Hello,’’ she remarked, ‘‘been visiting the savages? Find 'em pretty dirty, don't you?’’

Zuñi's prayers are breathed to little bunches of feathers, set in the earth, or deposited by certain sacred springs, which are peep-holes of the gods to keep watchful eyes on Zuñi, or laid in the recesses of certain stone shrines of the valleys and the hills, one of which, on the great plain just outside of the pueblo, marks the spot known in Zuñi geography as the centre of the earth. We used sometimes to see men walking silently from one house to another, carrying in their blankets wooden boxes with sliding lids, of which one projecting end was carved in the terraced shape that symbolises to Zuñi the rain-cloud. One day in Dick's house, we saw one of these boxes open, out of which our dusky friend was solemnly taking feathers of various kinds—turkeys', hawks', and bluebirds'—and making them up into prayer plumes, according to a strict ritual—fastening them with cotton string to short, painted sticks, and laying them in a ceremonial basket by his side.

‘‘By and by, do you say prayers to them?’’ we asked.

Dick nodded.


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‘‘What do you pray for?’’

"Oh, lots of lain to fill up wells and make plenty co'n for Zuñi man and white man, too, so ev'ybody all happy; and lots chillen for ev'ybody; and plenty lil' sheep and goat and lil' cow"—a kindly prayer, we thought, which in its inclusiveness put us to shame, who had not always been so mindful of those not of our own household.

Later in the day we saw Dick and four of his clan, their red blankets wrapped about them, and the tips of prayer plumes peeping from the folds, wending their way in single file, with grave, downcast eyes, out to the plain where Zuñi's sacred places are; and a little prayer was born in our hearts that the God whom these children of His ignorantly worshipped would incline His ear to their prayer, now and for evermore.

Si'na-he' (Zuñi Dick) making beads, Zuñi. The loom at his back holds an unfinished blanket on which his wife was at work before the photograph was taken. She got out of the way, being afraid of the camera.

Up: Contents Previous: Chapter XIV. Of Sa-wi-etsi-tsita, how She Made Us Jars; and Somewhat of Zuñi Babies Next: Chapter XVI. Of the Night Dance of the Shálako Gods




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