Pueblo dances take place throughout the year, offering us a window into an ancient culture. To stand in the same courtyards and plazas where these dances have been performed unchanged for 700 to 800 years is a truly remarkable experience. So little has changed physically at these plazas that it is if you’ve been transported back in time. It’s an experience unique to our country—the drumming, chanting, gourd rattles, and small ankle bells enlivening centuries-old dances.
Here corn, deer, buffalo, antelope, turtle and community feast-day dances keep the Native culture alive century after century. The Puebloans were among the few Native Americans to complement hunting and gathering with a new way of life—agriculture—through their creation of adobe pueblos and the cultivation and storage of crops. Permanent residency encouraged the development and refinement of the arts of jewelry, weaving and pottery, and the dances became an integral part of teaching and passing down the cultural and artistic Puebloan traditions to succeeding generations.
Imagine the first Spanish explorers arriving in the late 1500s to the future provinces of New Mexico to find a pre-Christian environment that celebrated through dance the many elements in nature that defined their spiritual lives. It is a blessing for civilization that, in this instance, Catholicism generally tolerated and accepted these unique Puebloan traditions, and that they integrated them rather than obliterating them via the forced adoption of a new Western religious order.
One of the most beautiful dances I ever saw was on the High Road to Taos at Picurís Pueblo, a performance that was capped by a pole climb in the center of the plaza. Theirs is a shared Pueblo history of peace and conflict with the European descendants and their religion. I partnered with Picurís Pueblo to create the Hotel Santa Fe, and I found its members to be some of the nicest people in this country.
Easter is a big time for Pueblo dances. Fall shifts its focus to harvests, corn, deer and the coming of winter. And then comes December, with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, followed by New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and Three Kings Day (January 6). Consult the Pueblo dance websites (indianpueblo.org/19-pueblos/feast-days/ or newmexico.org/feast-days/) to see what is happening and where, year-round.
My first memory of a Pueblo dance is of one I attended at Zuni Pueblo in far western New Mexico when I was 19. Named Shalako, this incredibly moving collection of traditional dances takes place around the first week of December, when the Pueblo members bless and welcome newly constructed homes into the community via all-night dances performed in that year’s 4 or 5 unfinished homes. To the sound of drumming and chanting, costumed Kachina dancers represent all facets of the Zuni’s spiritualism, and community members stand or sit while a dish of mutton is shared. The welcoming ambiance is enhanced by the traditional decorations adorning the new homes’ walls—silver and turquoise jewelry, weavings, mounted animal heads, bows and skins. I have never experienced such a mystical night in my life. When I stepped out of the Shalako house at sunrise after the dances had finished, the crisp, cold mountain air renewed and replenished my own personal spirituality.
Remember to always check with the Pueblos directly, or visit their websites to confirm details of dances you wish to attend, as sometimes certain dances may be closed one year but not the next. Generally speaking, though, the dances occur as scheduled. The Inn on the Alameda’s front desk staff always has access to current information on nearby dances and feast days. There are few events as complementary to one’s stay in Santa Fe as these dances, which let you experience the beautiful complexities the tricultural (Pueblo, Spanish and Anglo) heritage that has survived here in Northern New Mexico. Also, be sure to show respect and remain quiet, as you are guests at these special and personal community events. The dances will create lifelong memories for both old and young, offering a glimpse into the past, a view of unadulterated living history in our ever-changing American culture, so quick to obliterate its past to invent new realities for and by each generation. Attendance at the dances is truly an experience not to be missed.