Chapter XX. Of Walpi, and the Snake Dance There


Up: Contents Previous: Chapter XIX. Of Hotavila, the Eighth Pueblo of Moqui, and how it Looked Blackly at us Next: Chapter XXI. Of the Arts of the Pueblos, Especially the Ceramic


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WERE it not for the annual Snake Dance of the Hopis, it is probable that few travellers except those of the fireside would have any knowledge of these people. As it is, the Snake Dance has been so industriously written up and talked over that it has become a magnet which, every August, draws more or less of a crowd of tourists and holiday-makers across the desert sands to witness this most entrancing and most dramatic half-hour entertainment that America has to offer. I use the word "entertainment" hesitatingly, knowing that is all it is to the average white onlooker; but it should be borne in mind that, to the Indian, it is a solemn and religious rite—the public dénouement of a nine-days' secretly-conducted intercession for the divine favour. It is in the snake element that the attraction centres; for there are countless other


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public dances in Moqui which, to the casual visitor, would be even more picturesque and pleasing as spectacles than this; but hardly any white person sees them.

There is reason to believe that, at one time, Snake Ceremonies were a part of the religious rites among all the pueblos; but, at this date, the observance is confined to five or six of the Hopi towns. It is an annual ceremony, but all villages do not hold it the same year. The most elaborate presentations are at Walpi and Oraibi, occurring on alternate years—at Walpi on the uneven years, 1911, 1913, etc., and at Oraibi on the even years, 1912, 1914, etc. The specific day of the month varies, being determined afresh each year by some secret sacerdotal formula that keeps the white man guessing until the priests descend to their underground rites in the kivas or council rooms, which always begin nine days before the public dance with the serpents. The railroad company arranges to be posted as to this at the earliest possible moment, and to its agents one should apply for information respecting the exact date of the dance, which one may be reasonably certain will not be earlier than August tenth nor later than


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August twenty-fifth. It takes place just before sundown and consumes about thirty-five minutes.

So little interest has the generality of our people in the native home-life of our Indians that most visitors time their attendance to the one day on which the dance occurs, or, at most, from the evening before until the morning after. For Sylvia and myself, however, interesting as most ceremonies at the pueblos proved to be, an even greater interest attached to the domestic side of their life; and, keeping ourselves as much in the background as possible, we liked to watch the village activities as the preparations for the great events were carried busily forward.

There are, for instance, the moulding and burning of pottery knickknacks—cups and little pitchers, ash trays and shaving mugs—later to be set alluringly in the house windows to catch the visitors' eyes; for Moqui has already acquired the traders' trick of manufacturing down to the buyers' taste and has been quick to learn that, among the tourists whom curiosity brings to them, there are comparatively few who care enough and know enough to buy the beautiful native art-ware that conforms to Hopi ideas, when they can get


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for a picayune some useless gimcrack made in poor imitation of the white man's utensil. To such Philistine sense is it not "pretty good for Indian work"? Then, there is a house-cleaning industriously going on in every home—the sprinkling of the floors with the precious water from the desert well and the vigorous brooming and brushing with little grass whisks. The babies of the household, in the meantime, are sent forth in the sunshine on the willing backs of larger sisters to be out on the way. Old men, sitting in sunny doorways, are mending cloaks of mottled rabbit-skin and sewing up worn moccasins; young men (the few that are visible, for many are in the kivas) are killing and skinning sheep and pegging the skins out on the rocks to dry, laughing and joking together the while; girls are grinding meal within doors in an atmosphere fragrant with crushed grain, and their mothers are making waferbread and green corn pudding; other women are plastering anew the fronts of their homes—a cherished privilege of Pueblo women everywhere; burros come clattering along the rocks, laden with fire-wood from the mesa or corn from far-away fields, and women with water-jars slung on their backs pass and repass with noiseless tread on the deeply worn trail that leads to the mesa water-holes.

Mealing stones on which Pueblo women grind their corn.


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At the open door of a house we paused to look in at two stout women cutting up the meat of a recently killed sheep. Their hair had lately been washed in yucca suds and was clubbed up in a picturesque topknot that stood upright and bobbed above the forehead. One of them looked at us and said something in her native tongue.

‘‘What does she say?’’ we asked of a young girl with her hair done up in a squash blossoms that we had often seen in photographs, and whom we suspected of understanding English.

‘‘She say she glad to see you. Take seat and sit down.’’

Entering, we discovered another young woman seated upon a sheepskin spread on the adobe floor and surrounded by small pieces of unburned pottery upon which she was painting designs with a strip of yucca leaf. Her hair hung down in strings and her countenance lacked the welcome of the others. Her pottery was poor and on American models—roosters and pigs mostly.

‘‘Is she your sister?’’ we asked of the smiling


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Squash Blossoms, who was preparing to take her position at the mealing stones to resume the grinding which our entrance had interrupted. She nodded brightly.

‘‘Why does n't she wear the pretty squash blossoms of old times?’’ we asked reprovingly. ‘‘We think the squash blossoms a pretty way for young women to wear their hair.’’

‘‘Because she married and mustn't wear them no more,’’ said Squash Blossoms shyly, her smile breaking bounds into a giggle. Then she said something in Hopi—evidently a translation of our little sermon—and all the women laughed merrily. And so we learned that squash blossoms stand for maidenhood in Hopi symbolism.1

As we rose to go, we noticed a male figure, clad in white man's attire, prone upon the floor. It slowly turned towards us, revealing the face of a young man chewing a straw. He raised his arms, stretched them, and, thrusting them under his head for a pillow, stared impudently at us.


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Without rising and without preamble, he proceeded to catechise us.

‘‘Where you come from?—California, eh?— —Whereabouts California?—You come Snake Dance?—How long you came?’’—et cetera und so weiter.

‘‘You have been to school, haven't you?’’ we observed, when his ideas had run out.

‘‘Sure,’’ he replied with a yawn.

‘‘Did you study at Carlisle?’’

‘‘No.’’

‘‘Where then?’’

‘‘Grand Junction, Colorado.’’

We pointed to the rooster and pig pottery. ‘‘Who taught her to do that?’’

‘‘Do what?’’ he asked.

‘‘To make those miserable forms of animals.’’

‘‘Her brain, I guess,’’ he said sullenly.

‘‘You tell her not to do that, but to make the beautiful bowls and jars that the old people always used to make. It is not good to make those pigs and roosters. That is not Indian work—it is just copying Americans.’’

The young man yawned again and muttered evilly, ‘‘You don't have to buy them.’’


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With which Parthian shot, he turned over on his face.

We could not but note that this youth, gratuitously endowed by our Government with the education which is expected to make him an uplifting influence among his "benighted people," was the only idle figure in the busy home, and his was the only voice that was unresponsive to our parting "Good-bye."

In all Moqui there is no more picturesque setting for a Snake Dance than the little plaza at Walpi. A wall of terraced houses shuts in one entire side and part of another. The south side is dominated by a towering rock, spread out at the summit like a great, petrified mushroom. Along the eastern edge, where there is an uninterrupted view across the desert for scores of miles, it is but a step into eternity—a sheer drop down the face of a perpendicular cliff to waiting rocks thirty or forty feet below. There is no barrier of any sort along this dizzy edge, and the fact that spectators at the dance do not back off it, and Hopi children, at other times, do not roll over it, witnesses doubtless to the red gods' continued care of Moqui and of Moqui's friends.

Snake Rock, Walpi. "Boy-afraid-of-the-Camera" and his grandmother.


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Now and again, as we rambled about Walpi in the days preceding the dance, the solemn, chorused chant of priests would flow up from the underground kivas near the plaza and hold us spellbound. Down there were the snakes, and great was our curiosity to descend to them. We asked Percy if that were possible of accomplishment; but that astute son of peace would not encourage us. Yes, people had been down—people from Washington—to see that everysing was being done all ri', and Mr. Curtis, the picture man, he had been down, yes; but it cost very much money—seventy dollar', he sought. Of course, we might spoke to some Snake people; but maybe we no want to pay seventy dollar'?

We certainly did not and, upon second thought, we did not feel easy, anyhow, to attempt, from motives of mere curiosity, to force ourselves into the midst of a religious ceremonial the participants in which plainly did not want our presence. A quiet request, however, did gain us admittance to a kiva where, in the dim underground, illumined only by the daylight coming through a door in the roof, some dancers were engaged in making up for the dance, painting


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their cotton kilts with lightning symbols, stringing bracelets and necklaces of shells, colouring their bodies, and tying feathers in their hair. No children preparing for a party could be more garrulous—but in whispers always—or more vain, as, each ornamentation finished, its wearer showed it off admiringly to a neighbour and, lighting a cigarette, rested awhile before beginning on another.

The day of the Snake Dance is ushered in by an early-morning foot-race of young men, starting at certain traditional points out on the plain and ending within the pueblo. As the sunrise tints the desert mesa with red, the windows and roofs of the houses and the rim of the mesa on which the pueblo stands are crowded with eager spectators, their eyes all turned toward the north. Every rocky cape and promontory that offers an advantageous view is pre-empted by Indians who, silhouetted picturesquely against the blue, are gazing intently toward one distant spot in the desert. Suddenly hands are shot up here and there and then a shout from the housetops. The runners are in sight—mere specks of brown on the yellow plain—a scattering band of fifteen


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or twenty with one lithe fellow already well in the lead. In and out, over and around sand dunes and rocks, he runs like an antelope, now plunging at full speed down an arroyo, then leaping up its precipitous sides beyond—slowly here, but still running, the rest surging after him—pelted by corn stalks and melon vines, thrown by laughing boys and girls, gaily dressed and painted, and jingling with bells, awaiting the runners among the rocks. The other racers prove bad seconds—all except one who, by herculean spurts, manages to get close to the leader's heels for a few minutes; but the pace is too much for him and he drops back just as the whole pack, now close to the foot of the mesa, is lost to view under the cliffs.

The crowd of spectators run along the dizzy mesa edge, towards the south point where the trails from the foot come up, in order to catch first sight of the winner as he emerges from the rocks below. There are some minutes of suspense, then a cheer from an excited American with a fluttering, red necktie, and the nude runner, glistening with perspiration, his head thrown back, and his long black hair borne splendidly on the


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breeze, leaps up into the level sunbeams. The crowd falls back; there is the click of kodaks; dogs bark and yelp; and Hopi throats split the air with shouts of appreciation as the tense figure bounds through the covered passageway that is Walpi's southern portal, flashes by the kivas of the Antelope and Snake people, and disappears within an open door. The rest of the racers follow at intervals of a few minutes, the crowd breaks up, and everybody goes home to breakfast.

It is a busy day in Moqui—this of the Snake Dance. all the morning the rock-ribbed streets resound to the clatter of hoofs and the shuffle of human feet. Navajos come riding in on their tough little ponies, keen to trade their blankets and silver trinkets for American dollars and rent their horses for trips on the trail. Hopis from other villages, some from distant Moenkopi, have urged their tired teams, drawing laden, creaking waggons, with canvas tops, up the steep road cut in the mesa's side, and are hobnobbing with old friends. White visitors stroll about, snapping kodaks in people's faces, inspecting Hopi home life, chaffering for pottery, sampling piki bread and other Indian cookeries, and outspokenly


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marvelling at the squash blossoms of Hopi maidenhood. Some of the ladies have even bargained with a native hairdresser to do their hair in that engaging fashion and are admired accordingly. The children of the pueblo are in a high state of excitement, and are decked out in gala attire, ranging all the way from orthodox little squaw dresses of native weave to flour sacks and United States flags. Besides Hopi delicacies—principally dripping slices of melon—they are recipients of candy from such experienced white visitors as know the value of sweetmeats to reach the Indian heart. Brother Sim, the photographer and ex-priest from Gallup, who carries an enormous camera, and whose rotund countenance wears an all-embracing smile, has brought two or three buckets of candy in his outfit and, like a mid-summer Santa Claus, throws handfuls of it high in the air for the children to scramble for—he meantime photographing the scrimmage.

As the afternoon shadows lengthen, the air of expectancy thickens, and the visitors begin to congregate about the plaza and pick out their seats—a preference being noticeably shown by many for the roofs and upper stories; for rattle-snakes,


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like elephants, are poor climbers. Professional photographers and moving-picture men take their places, and a yellow-clad squad of United States troopers, who arrived and camped on the plain last night, stroll in in a blasé way, carbines on shoulder and toothbrushes in their hatbands, and come to a stand about the Snake Rock. By five o'clock the outskirts of the little plaza are packed with expectant humanity. The housetops are a rainbow of colour: Pueblo women, in bright, fiesta attire; girls from Indian schools in new-starched calicos and hats of the latest Flagstaff style; Navajos in brown velveteen shirts and red head-bands; a contingent of American ladies with their escorts in corduroy and khaki, and, here and there, a girl of the Golden West type, in spurred riding-boots, flaming bandanna neckerchief, and Texas sombrero, jammed down on the back of her head. About the plaza, besides Indians of various sorts, are cow-men with long love-locks curling about their ears, cartridge belts around their waists, and glittering spurs clinking at their high heels. There are helmeted tourists from England, New York, Australia, and Denmark, and there are enthusiastic young


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Easterners on a vacation, roughing it under weather-beaten sombreros and marvellous hatbands and various sorts of Navajo adornments—bracelets, silver rings, and wrist-guards. A dash of returned Hopi students in dinky hats, some even with cameras, and a sprinkling of Government officials and teachers from territorial Indian schools help to round out as picturesque and motley an assembly as the traveller often runs across in America.

Who can do justice in words to the Snake Dance itself? The silent, swinging entrance of the priests in single file, decked in a remarkable harmony of sombre tones, from the copper-coloured tuft of feathers in their hair to the tawny, fringed moccasins, relieved only by a few lines and zigzags of white lightning painted on the semi-nude bodies and on the kilts; their rapid striding four times around the plaza and stamping with resounding foot blows upon the plank that symbolises Shipapu, the entrance to the underground world; the humming chant of the Antelope priests, accompanied by rattles, that never ceases before the leafy prison of the snakes; the mouthing and lightning-like handling of the writhing serpents


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by the successive trios of celebrants; the tossing of the reptiles into a squirming pile within the mystic circle of scattered meal outlined for them at the foot of the Dance Rock; and the final act of the priests, snatching up the snakes by the handful and fleeing with them, some to the north, some to the west, some to the south, and some to the east, down the precipitous trails to the open desert, there dropping them to carry the people's supplications for rain to the gods of the waters—all this without pause in the movement, makes an unflagging crescendo of dramatic action that baffles description. Being a real religious act, there is no self-consciousness on the part of the participants—they are not playing to the galleries; the activity of the venomous snakes makes that impossible, even if the desire existed; and, from start to finish, the attention of the spectators is tensely held. Not only is there no levity—hard, indeed, to subdue in an American white crowd—but, on the contrary, one sometimes sees among the more emotional onlookers twitching faces and eyes wet with tears.

As Sylvia and I joined the crowd on their way down the trail to the camps and the horses, we


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suddenly stopped and looked at each other, struck with a common thought. The permanganate of potash—we had forgotten to bring it!

‘‘Is it not too bad?’’ Sylvia mourned. ‘‘Emily was so anxious for us to have it with us, and, of course, the snakes might have bitten us.’’2


Notes

1. This way of wearing the hair would seem to have been the fashion in former times at other pueblos, also. Thus an old Spanish chronicler, describing Zuñi customs in Coronado's time, says: ‘‘The women wear their hair gathered about the ears like little wheels.’’

2. What is the Snake Dance all about, you ask? It is an elaborate invocation to the divinities of Moqui, entrusted to the serpents, which, it is believed, will convey the prayers to the gods and bring the blessing of rain in return. This explains why the snakes are never hurt by the priests. It is also a dramatisation of an ancient myth concerning the origin and early history of the Snake and Antelope fraternities—the two clans which conduct the ceremony. See The Moki Snake Dance by Walter Hough, for a condensed statement of the snake legend, or J. Walter Fewkes's detailed account in the Journal of American Ethnology and Archæology, vol. iv.

Up: Contents Previous: Chapter XIX. Of Hotavila, the Eighth Pueblo of Moqui, and how it Looked Blackly at us Next: Chapter XXI. Of the Arts of the Pueblos, Especially the Ceramic




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