Chapter XX. Of Walpi, and the Snake Dance There
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
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
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
Mealing stones on which Pueblo women grind their corn.
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.
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.
‘‘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.
‘‘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.’’
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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
‘‘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
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.