Chapter XVI. Of the Night Dance of the Shálako Gods


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The Shálako festival of Zuñi, which occurs every year near the end of November, is a remarkable sacred drama, enacted in the open for the double purpose of invoking the divine blessing upon certain newly-built houses, and of rendering to the gods of Zuñi thanks for the harvests of the year. The exact date of the coming of the Shálako is fixed each year by some occult formula of the Zuñi priests, and while the appointed day is generally known several weeks in advance, the official publication of it is not made until the eighth evening before the event. The immediate effect of this announcement, which is given out by ten masked buffoons in the principal plazas, is to quicken the easy-going life of the old pueblo into a bustle of industry. The labour on the new houses, which has dragged along half-heartedly for weeks, receives a fresh impetus, the


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women putting on the mud plaster with rabbit-skin mittens as the men lay down the roofs. Daily from outlying farming villages of the Zuñis, country waggons arrive laden with corn in the husk, beans in the pod, and little round watermelons all white within, or piled high with trunks and branches of piñon and cedar, wherewith to set the Shálako hearths ablazing.

On the housetops and in the sunny doorways the huskers go merrily on with their husking, cluttering the narrow streets with the rustling sheaths, which crones, too old for heavier labour, gather up in blankets and carry off to be burned. From the ceilings of nearly every house are swinging the fresh carcasses of sheep or goats or cattle—the wet skins tacked out on the floor to dry—and everywhere as you thread the tortuous alleys of the town, the air is sweetened with the fragrance of fresh-milled corn as the women grind, kneeling at the mealing stones, their voices the while lifted in weird, minor songs, keeping time with the movement of their bodies.

At the little adobe store which Nick conducts in the heart of Zuñi, the ordinarily sluggish pulse of trade leaps to fever temperature in the last days


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before Shálako. Men, women, and children crowd in front of the counter behind which Nick, his placid full-moon of a face surmounted with a flat-crowned, broad-brimmed hat, set well down over his ears, dispenses sugar and coffee, leather gauntlets, checked calico, and scarlet blankets, in trade for piñon nuts, sheepskins, silver bracelets, hens' eggs, and wheat. Nomad Navajos from Gallup and beyond arrive on tough little ponies, in companies of three and four, bedecked with silver necklaces, belts, and bangles, which they are ever ready to barter away to trafficking Zuñis. Then one evening, as the sun drops to the Arizona line, a bugle sounds upon the plain and a troop of United States cavalry, in command of a pleasant-faced lieutenant, rides quietly in and pitches its tents just without the village.

Shálako being a night ceremony, we might as well have left our camera at home. To be sure, we had hopes of snapping the God of the Little Fire, avant-courier of the Shálako, as he came in from the plain just before sundown on the eventful day, but Five-Cent Marmon, the teniente, wise in the ways of the white man, divined the intent and enjoined us beforehand.


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‘‘Man,’’ said he, with an eye upon a suspicious bulge of one of my coat pockets, ‘‘you take pictu'?’’

We assented.

‘‘You no take pictu' till Shálako gone,’’ he dissented. ‘‘You sabe? I say so.’’

So the God of the Little Fire, carrying in one hand a smouldering torch of twisted cedar bark, his bare, painted body spotted with many-coloured sparkles, and his head eclipsed within a hemispherical mask, also dotted, that rested like a starry dome upon his slender shoulders, came and went unpictured, as becomes a god.

Before him walked a Zuñi priest in ceremonial dress, a great, white buckskin slung across his shoulders, a bunch of rabbits depending from his belt, and bearing reverently before him a basket of prayer plumes, upon which his downcast gaze rested. It was our old friend Dick in apotheosis. The two made the tour of the village, planting the prayer plumes at certain appointed places, and followed by a group of dancers who impersonated gods of the Zuñi pantheon and wore wonderful masks, presenting an ensemble of superb colour as they danced and chanted.


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The sight of these strange beings, more like denizens of another world than of this, put us in a fever of expectation, and we impatiently awaited the darkness under whose cover the Giant Gods should arrive.

As the twilight deepened to dusk, slowly moving groups upon the plain could be dimly seen approaching Zuñi from the southern hills, stopping on the farther side of the river that flows past the pueblo. Five-Cent Marmon, wrapped to the eyes in his blanket, strode by us.

‘‘Shálako come,’’ he observed, in a burst of friendliness.

But not till darkness had completely settled down—we, meanwhile, shivering on the bank and anathematising Indian deliberation—did the groups finally cross the stream. Then they paused in a hollow of the bank, the Shálakos kneeling while the attendants gave the finishing touches to their make-up.

In Zuñi mythology, the Shálako Gods are the couriers of the divine rain-makers, stationed at each quarter of the compass, which in Zuñi cosmography has six points—North, South, East, West, Zenith, and Nadir. So gigantic in stature


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are the Shálakos that they must be represented in effigy—astonishing creatures, ten feet or so in height, with staring, painted eyes, horns for ears, a horizontal, wooden snout that opens and shuts with a snap, and a head-dress, like an open fan, of upright eagle or turkey feathers. From the figure's waist, which is at the height of a man's head, swings a huge hoopskirt of heavy, white cotton of native weaving, ornamented in colour around the bottom with the inverted pyramids that symbolise rain-clouds. Completely hidden within this is the effigy's motive power, a Zuñi man, whose moccasined feet are seen below the skirts. He carries the effigy by means of a pole, lodged in a pocket of his belt. As the Shálako moves—teetering along like a superannuated dandy—it utters at times a shrill whistle and snaps the jaws of its snout with nerve-racking violence.

It was now pitch dark, a thin layer of snow flaked the ground, and the wintry wind, blowing up from the icy river, chilled the marrow of our bones. Now and again the Shálakos would make as though to resume their progress, only to settle down once more to an interminable wait. Finally, the few white spectators, who, with ourselves, were watching


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developments, grew tired, and at seven o'clock decided to go indoors somewhere and get warm. As for us, some experience with red human nature had taught us that when the Caucasian's patience with Indian ways has all leaked out, something is apt to happen. So we decided to remain a little longer, and wrapping our blankets closer about us, we shrank into the corner of an old corral a few rods off, that shielded us from the wind, and waited—and waited—and waited. By and by, we shifted our positions, and again waited.

And now there is a stir among the Shálakos, and we see the grotesque heads and shoulders rise from the ground into distinct outline against the starlit sky, far above the level of the crowd of Zuñi attendants. With a commingled, wheezy whistling and snapping of snouts, the Giant Gods sway into single file; suddenly there bursts in unison from a hundred throats a majestic chorus, a simple minor theme repeated over and over, fascinating and soul-compelling in the darkness; and the weird procession is off upon its march about the village.

We rush beside it, breathless and excited, and fall into step.


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As the notes of the solemn chorus penetrate into the dwellings, the doors are thrown open, emitting the light of a multitude of glowing hearths, and the people throng out upon the housetops and on the streets, watching the coming of the long-expected divinities. Many from the houses hurry out and swell the procession, which stops at each new dwelling where the ceremony of blessing is to be performed, and there leaves a Shálako. Kneeling before the open doorway, the gigantic god waits while, to the chanting of the chorus and the continual sprinkling of sacred meal, the priests plant in front of the steps the prayer-laden bunches of feathers which constitute the vehicles of the Zuñis' invocation to the powers above. Then, stooping, the great effigy passes in. We follow and find a seat to our great content near the fireplace, where a cedar log is crackling.

It is to a feast of fat things that every visitor to a Zuñi house comes on the night of the Shálako—a feast that is the full-blown flower of Zuñi culinary art. There is, for instance, meat-stew—mutton or beef or rabbit—even a tasty mess of mountain rat, garnished with onions and chili peppers; there is blue wafer-bread of corn and grey wafer-bread of


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beans; there are wheaten loaves and frijoles, roasted piñon nuts and watermelons, none the worse to aboriginal taste if they are frosted; and there is coffee flowing free as milk in Canaan. For two or three hours the feasting is kept up, until about midnight the ceremonial dances begin. Beside the primitive altar which is erected in the room, there sits a choir of men, who supply the music, which is entirely vocal, except for the accompaniment of gourd rattles and a hollow-voiced drum, made, in the orthodox Zuñi way, of a huge earthen jar.

The spectators throng the walls of the long room or crowd the doors and windows that open from the inner apartments of the house—a motley lot, interesting indeed, under the flaring lights. Predominant, of course, are the Zuñis, some in the picturesque costume of their fathers from headband to moccasins; others in the nondescript attire that the trader sells them—grey sombreros, blue overalls, suspenders, and clumsy brogans. There is, too, a sprinkling of other Pueblo people, from Acoma and Laguna or even the distant Hopi mesas. Of Navajos, traditionary enemies of Zuñi, yet never debarred from the hospitalities of Shálako,


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there are many—their gaunt-visaged women with roly-poly, uncomplaining babies by their sides, strapped in queer little rockerless cradles, either asleep or blinking at the unaccustomed lights. A few whites are looking on, too, but they soon tire—employés of the Government agency and schools, a surprised tourist or two, lured hither perhaps by a railroad advertisement, and an occasional hard-faced trooper of the lieutenant's squad. Only Mexicans, of all the world, are forbidden to view the Shálako, and no word of Spanish is permitted to be spoken during the ceremonies. The dancers come and go in bands, each with its leader—one set appearing from the outer darkness as another departs into it.

Hour after hour until dawn streaks the sky beyond the eastern mesa, the singing and the dancing go zealously on, and lest any of the spectators should so far forget the proprieties of a religious occasion, certain of the dancers carry a yucca switch, sharper than birch, which they lay lustily upon the shoulders of any tired wight who nods. Now and then the Shálako takes the floor, its head almost touching the ceiling, and after a few conventional rounds, breaks into a brisk run


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that seems aimed to annihilate some frightened onlooker in the front row, but with surprising dexterity the huge figure whirls about in the nick of time and drops again into the customary shuffle. Now and again there is a pause in the music and the dancers, perspiring at every pore, retire to be replaced by a fresh band, arriving from another house.

Each set of dancers is differently attired, and in their songs and accoutring represent diverse features of the complex Zuñi mythology, that only the initiated may comprehend. But whatever it may mean on its esoteric side, to the uninitiated the spectacle appeals as a thing of marvellous beauty, growing more beautiful as the night wears on. The intense earnestness of the dancers, trained in their movements to act as one man; the fineness of many of the faces, that for the time being are lighted with the glow of a god-like enthusiasm; the litheness and grace of the more or less nude figures, painted in harmonious hues, and adorned with tinkling ornaments of shell and turquoise and silver, and the native loveliness of the furry skins of wildcat or fox; the music of the voices sounding in unison, now fierce and fortissimo,


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now tender and low, now tempered with almost organ-like majesty, ever varying with the sense of the legendary words that proceed from the lips of dancers and choir—all this, enacted by men who render it as a free service to the Omnipotence that rules their lives, is as different from the work of players acting for pay as light is from darkness.

The beauty of the make-up of these dancers is a revelation to one who thinks of Indian art as a hodge-podge of crudities in form, and of glaring colours—of anything so it be red and yellow! As a matter of fact, the Indians as a race have a true artistic sense, the phenomena of nature serving as their most frequent models; and the harmony and balance of colour evidenced in the shifting scenes of the Shálako dancers are a delight to the most cultivated eye—an exhibition, indeed, that would do credit to any metropolitan stage—with the added fact that it is no make-believe but the real thing.

The last song had been sung, the last dance had been danced, and the Giant Gods, showered with sacred meal from the surging crowd, filed slowly away under the risen sun, towards the gullied mesa out of which the night before they had appeared. Our sleepy eyes followed the strange procession of swaying figures until it reached the foothills where, breaking into a run, it passed from view to reappear in a year, bringing to Zuñi renewed assurance that the gods of the harvest and the rain do not forget. Over at the troopers' camp the roundup for departure was on and the Government mules were lending their patient backs once more to the pack-saddles; the visiting Navajos were bunching together and striking into the north trail that led off to the hogans of their people; the Zuñi folk were vanishing into their houses for a nap; and the dance of the Shálako was over.

The Zuñi shrine Hé-patina, believed by the Zuñis to be the centre of the earth, which in their view is flat.


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As we strolled back to our own quarters to pack up for home, we marvelled at the indifference of our countrymen to this beautiful religious ceremony of a race who antedate us as Americans. People travel far to attend the Passion Play, or metropolitan representations of the Nibelungen Cycle, or Shakespearean revivals—to see, indeed, any sort of dramatic make-believe, if it be well enough staged; but this sacred service of the Zuñis to their gods, which is no play, though performed with dramatic fervour and with a magnificent setting that symbolises the living things of their


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faith—to this service of life only an occasional, stray traveller comes, or an ethnological student now and then and some nomad Indians.

The shadow of Five-Cent Marmon fell across our threshold as we sat thinking it over.

‘‘You take pictu' now?’’ he observed; ‘‘all light, you take pictu'. I say so. Shálako gone.’’

But the teniente was outwitted. Though we had obeyed his orders and pocketed the camera, we had none the less secured the picture of Shálako, impressed indelibly upon the enduring film of memory.

Up: Contents Previous: Chapter XV. Of a Zuñi Grinding Song, and of Prayer Plumes Next: Chapter XVII. Of the Eight Pueblos of Moqui, and the Way Thither




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