Thursday, January 3, 2013


I want to share a picture that I could never paint with justice and cameras are not allowed at ceremonial dances. However, a photo could never adequately record the power of this day. I will try to paint it with words.

 Fresh powdery snow covers the earth of the plaza as we wait for the dancers to emerge from the south side kiva. It is probably their last round today, they began at sunrise and it is now afternoon. The temperature is below freezing but the air is so still and clear that the cold is barely noticeable.  For the dancers it is probably different.  They dance bare above the waist.  
Gean Closs Image of the Turtle Dance. Just add color and snow.

Snow is still falling from low misty clouds snugging the sacred mountain and its nearby companions. It is so soft and pure that it seems like a virtual special effects fantasy in our 21st century world. Here in the Pueblo plaza the sun is brilliant and the sky transitions from flickering sparkles on the mountain to intense blue in the west.

Behind us, several young children play in the pile of snow accumulated from swept off Pueblo roofs. I notice that they speak to each other in English without an accent.  I hope they also know their own language this well. PQ didn’t speak English until he went to school, and he still arranges English words in Tiwa order. 

The scene changes and the dancers materialize, coming in a line from the south. I cherish the power of every moment suspended from time’s illusory reality. Now seems boundless. They cross the bridge in a snaking line to the north side plaza.  Then the sound comes on.  I gasp because the syncopated drumbeats ta tah, ta tah, ta tah penetrate to the heart almost before they reach the ears. Like a stepped pyramid, the golden tan north pueblo bordered in white makes a flawless backdrop for the dancers.  Then the perfected authority of a thousand years begins caressing the great Mother’s sleeping body. Her children are urging her to awaken from her winter nap with soft steps mimicking her heartbeat.

The Pueblo women are wearing their colorful blankets and white boots. The brilliant colors against the snow are a statement in itself. They remind us that this dance is about the event of life emerging from winter's stronghold. I'm reminded that I also have a colorful wool shawl and used to wear it to winter dances. Yes, I too am being awakened from a long sleep.

I try to absorb every detail.  Although deeply moved by again encountering the beauty and power of his heritage, PQ must stand back from the dancers. Men who are not participating in the dance consider being a spectator disrespectful. It has been years since we have been to this New Year’s Day dance but this is the perfect time. This winter seem to have a theme of renewing relationship with PQ’s place of origin. As a woman, I am allowed to move in closer to watch the dancers.  They have headdresses of eagle and hawk with tall parrot feathers in the center, fabric kilts of traditional design, fox pelts hanging from a belt in the back, net leggings, bells strapped below the knees and a turtle shell on one leg. Each dancer holds a gourd shaker. They wear only white paint on their upper torso and a white painted band under the chin.

A black Lab sits lazily beside a door at the east end of the row of dancers.  He takes it in as if he has witnessed many dances and doesn’t flinch even when the dancers almost step on his toes. I wonder how the canine species experiences this event.  Other rez dogs mill among the visitors, undoubtedly getting far more information about them than we do.

I am ashamed to realize that I recognize only three of the dancers.  It has been so long since I witnessed this dance; however, the distance of time makes it fresh again.  The vibration of their songs, the drums, the feet on the earth have organic power. Later, on the way home PQ told me the meaning of some of the songs, but in a way it was more impressive to only catch their rhythms, just as French or Spanish has a rhythm that you can only hear if you don’t understand the words. Sometimes I wonder what English really sounds like.

Next, we plan to attend the Buffalo Dance on January 6th. Although Indian time is always a factor, this dance usually begins in late morning and runs until early afternoon, but if you want to come, be there about 10:00 am.  This is one of PQ’s favorites.  The dancers literally dance wearing the head of a Buffalo and a few with Elk or Deer. This day is called Kings Day and corresponds with the appointment of the new Pueblo governor and his staff. 

I remember witnessing PQ dancing the Buffalo Dance. It was the last time I saw him dance at the Pueblo.  On this same occasion Joe J. Suazo, PQ’s father also supported the dancers with drum and song. He deeply valued this honor because he sensed it would be the last time he participated in this dance. Joe J. was among the respected elders who held the traditional knowledge of the Pueblo.  One of his own colleagues and consultants was Frank Zamora, the main character in Frank Water’s beautiful novel, “The Man Who Killed the Deer.” They are both gone now, but I feel grateful to have been here in Taos when some of these elders were still with us. Now we ourselves are becoming elders in a very different world.