Sunday, April 10, 2016

About the Pueblo Hopi Snake Dance.

About the Pueblo Hopi Snake Dance.


     In northeastern Arizona, in a region of unusual wildness, even for the Southwest, lies the Moki Reservation. There are seven Moki pueblos built on the crests of the mesas. All are built of stone. The two largest are Walpi and Oraibe. Six of these towns speak a language related to that of the Shoshones; the seventh, Hano, is a settlement of strangers from the east, who speak the language of Taos on the Rio Grande. The Moki pueblos are, in some ways, particularly old-fashioned. Here the women do their hair up curiously: it is parted in the middle, and neatly smoothed out at the sides; behind it is done up in two queer, rounded masses, like horns. Formerly, perhaps, the women at some other pueblos wore their hair in this same way. In these Moki towns they weave the dark blue or black woolen mantas, or dresses, which are worn by women in all the other pueblos.
In most respects the life of the Moki is like that of other Pueblo Indians. There is, however, among them a great religious ceremony, which is famous, and is perhaps the wildest and weirdest of all Indian rituals. This is the Snake Dance. It is held at any one town only once in two years, but it occurs at some town or other every year. Thus it is held at Walpi in the odd years—1899, 1901; it is held at Oraibe, the even years—1900, 1902, etc. It is celebrated about the middle of August, and always attracts a crowd of Indian and white visitors.


The whole ceremony, of which the snake dance is a part, requires nine days or more, for its celebration. Most of the things are done in the kiva, or estufa, secretly. Dr. Fewkes has given a full account of these, some of which are very curious. During the earlier days runners are sent out to place prayer sticks at the springs and sacred places. The first days they are sent out the messengers go to the more distant shrines, but each day take in places nearer and nearer home. During the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth days snake hunts take place; the hunter priests go out to capture living snakes. The first day they go to the north, the second to the west, the third to the south, the fourth to the east. All kinds of snakes are taken, though perhaps the rattlesnakes are most prized. Few white men have ever seen the snake hunt. One who has seen it writes:


“In a short time a low call came from a man who was thrusting his stick into a dense clump of greasewood, and as the hunters gathered, there was found to be a large rattlesnake, lying in the heart of the thicket. Without hesitation they at once proceeded to cut away the bushes with their hoes, and strangely enough, although the snake lay in coil and watching them, it made no rattling or other display of anger. One of the twigs fell upon it, and the man nearest stooped down and deliberately lifted the branch away. Each one then sprinkled a pinch of meal upon the snake, and the man who had found it bent over and tapped it lightly with the feathers of his snake whip, and then it straightened out to make off, but just as it relaxed from coil, the hunter, using his right hand, in which he held his snake whip, instantly seized it a few inches back of the head. Holding it out, he gave it a quick shake, and then proceeded to fold it up and put it in one of the small bags carried for this purpose, showing no more concern in its handling than if it had been a ribbon.” All these snakes are cared for, being put into jars or vessels in the kiva.
We can speak of few things in the kiva. The altars of colored sands, the dances, the songs, the sacred vessels, and other objects used, the dramatic representation of passages from their legends, are all curious. We have not time to speak of them. On the eighth day, the priests of the antelope society dance, sing the sixteen songs, and perform a drama, all in the kiva. At last the ninth day arrives.
The plaza, or square, in the middle of the town has been prepared. In it is the kisi, built of green boughs, intended as a shelter for the snakes. In front of it is a board in which is a hole, called the sipapu. This hole is supposed to lead down into the lower world, where people used to live. Early in the morning there was a race between boys and girls. They went first to the fields, and then raced in, each bringing a load of melon vines, corn plants, or other vegetable life. These they placed in the plaza.


At noon the snakes are washed in the kiva. A great bowl is brought in and carefully set down.
Into it liquid is poured from the north, west, south, and east. The snakes, which have been kept in jars at the corners of the room, are taken and handed to certain priests near the washbowl. All those in the kiva begin to shake their rattles and to sing in a low, humming voice. The priests holding the snakes begin to beat time with them up and down above the liquid. The song increases, becoming “louder and wilder, until it bursts forth into a fierce, blood-curdling yell, or war-cry. At this moment the heads of the snakes were thrust several times into the liquid, so that even parts of their bodies were submerged, and were then drawn out, not having left the hands of the priests, and forcibly thrown across the room upon the sand mosaic.... As they fell on the sand picture, three snake priests stood in readiness, and while the reptiles squirmed about, or coiled for defense, these men, with their snake whips, brushed them back and forth in the sand of the altar.... The low, weird song continued while other rattlesnakes were taken in the hands of the priests, and as the song rose again to the wild war-cry, these snakes were also plunged into the liquid and thrown upon the writhing mass, which now occupied the place of the altar.... Every snake in the collection was thus washed.”
Late in the afternoon, near sunset, the antelope priests in all their finery and paint appear in a procession and circle four times around the plaza, dancing as they go and thumping heavily upon the board in front of the kisi as they pass over it. Then they draw up in line before the kisi. Then the snake priests come out of their kiva, with bodies painted red and their chins black, with white lines. They wear dark red kilts and moccasins. They dance four times around the plaza, but with more energy and wildness than the antelope priests had done. They then draw up in a line opposite the antelope priests and go through with strange singing and movements.

Moki Snake Dance. (After Fewkes.)

Suddenly the party of snake priests divides into bands of three persons. These little bands approach the kisi, where the snakes have been placed. One of the men kneels, and when he rises holds a snake in his hand. This he places squirming in his mouth, holding it at about the middle of its body. One of his companions throws an arm about the neck of the snake carrier; in his other hand he holds a feather wand or brush, with which he brushes at the snake as if to attract his attention. The third man of the band follows the other two. In this way they go with the wriggling snake. Four times these bands of three go around the plaza, when the snakes are dropped. The followers catch them up at once. When all the snakes have been danced with and are gathered into the arms of the followers, an old priest advances into the center of the plaza and makes a ring of sacred meal. Those holding the snakes run up and throw them into one squirming, writhing mass ]within this ring. All the priests then rush in, seize what snakes they can, and dart with them, down the trail, out into the open country, where they release the snakes to go where they please. Meantime, the antelope priests close the public ceremony by marching gravely four times round the