Monday, January 07, 2008

I don't get the lyrics, but...I'll give it a ten.

Bison hood dancers
Stalk antler clad human prey.
A "Rite To Bear Arms"?

We have gone to the Buffalo Dance at the Cochiti Pueblo on December twenty-fifth for three years running now. I guess that makes it our official Christmas service. Each time I have sat and stared silently at the participants, and listened intently to the chanting and drumming, unaware of the passing minutes and surprised by how long we had actually been there. I also have understood very little, if anything, of what I witnessed - but have left feeling better about things than I did before I arrived. And that to me is what makes a good ritual.

Being a sacred ceremony, no pictures or sketches are allowed. This year a spectator was caught photographing the event. The surreptitious shutterbug was made to delete each digital image and show the blank results before being dismissed from the premises - not quite as dramatic as ripping the roll of film out and flapping it in the wind (as in the "analog days") but equally effective. At least the miscreant wasn't also drummed out of the area, the percussionists being otherwise occupied.

So here is what I am able to remember without the benefit of supporting pictorial evidence.

Two alternating groups perform these dances at Cochiti Pueblo in sets that last about twenty-five minutes apiece. Each ensemble is made up of the following: two male dancers garbed principally in a cloak made of the head and upper back of a buffalo; one male dancer wearing Indian clothing with no animal adornments; either one or two females dressed in similar fashion to the single performer; fifteen or more participants ranging in age from early teens to five or so wearing white one-piece outfits with antlers; and a chorus of non-dancing chanters and drummers. The "buffalos" and the single male each have a bow and arrows and all of the dancers either carry branches from fir trees or have them attached to their costumes. The chorus wears a variety of clothing ranging in style from modern jeans and collared shirts to Native American pattern Pendleton blankets to full-length buffalo pelt robes and beaded moccasins.

The event was held in an open flat dirt area surrounded on three sides by Pueblo housing with a "grandstand" made by five rows of wooden bleachers imbedded in a small hill at the other end. Each entourage was led into (and out of) the arena by one of the older members of the chanting chorus followed by the main dancers, dancing chorus and then the chanters and drummers.

The percussion rhythm was a repetitive "one, two, three" beat. The dance itself seemed to have two basic formations: (1) either the main dancers faced the audience executing their steps while the chorus scattered themselves around the periphery posing as if standing on four legs or (2) both groups turned their sides to the crowd, faced each other and the main dancers moved alongside the two lines formed by chorus. In the latter instance the buffalo clad performers moved down the lines simulating a shooting motion with their bows and arrows while the antlered ensemble knelt on one knee and then the maiden(s) moved through the assembly motioning for them to arise, which they did. These two formations were each performed several times before the music stopped and the group left the arena. Each iteration took several minutes and was followed by some slow walking around and realignment of the dancers. Based solely on the verbal description it's not exactly what most people would consider "must see TV."

There was no applause or any kind of outward audience reaction. However during the first year members of the Cochiti pueblo walked into the performance area and threw packages of snack food, fruits, and even toilet paper rolls to the observers. This Christmas there were no presents for the house but it may have been that we were just there are the wrong time - unlike our previous visits it was much colder and we therefore did not linger as long.

The first time that we went I expected to see something with a mixture of Catholic and Cochiti religious symbols - much like we had seen at the Taos Pueblo e.g. in the Catholic Church where an enormous statue of The Virgin Mary as a Corn Goddess (or vice versa) dominates the center of the altar. (Conventionally a crucifix would be the centerpiece with the mother or Jesus displayed off to the side.) On several tours of the Taos Pueblo we were told that such things were the result of the "forced conversion" of the Indians to Catholicism, and the Tewa Indians way of retaining their old beliefs and practices while paying (for safety sake) at least lip service to the ecclesiastical demands of the Spanish missionaries.

But nothing in the Cochiti ceremony made me think of the manger or anything else about Christ's birthday - so perhaps what we have here is a pure unCatholicized Cochiti ceremony performed on Christmas Day for reasons not to be revealed, at least to outsiders. Since they don't charge for admission or even take a collection it certainly isn't to make money off non-pueblo residents looking for a way to fill their holiday afternoon - and besides they give us the presents just for being there.

So what's it all about? I've "Googled" the world wide web and looked through several books in New Mexican museum bookstores and all that I found were some general references about the purpose of the dances being to ensure a successful hunting season (understandable) and produce more snow (huh?). I could not however find any detailed information about the meaning of the various movements, gestures and steps - no Rosetta stone to the assumedly metaphorical event. Nor did I find out why the dance was performed on Christmas Day.

Then I realized that I really didn't want to know all of the details. At a local museum there is an allegorical painting commemorating the 9/11 attack on World Trade Center. It is quite large, carefully laid out and expertly executed. And it comes with a complete written explanation of each of the symbols. It also doesn't work for me at all - probably because, even without the Cliff Notes, my mind immediately starts to dissect the painting into each of its component symbols. And then no matter how hard that I try (and I shouldn't be trying) I just cannot put it back together and appreciate it in its entirety.

Perhaps at Cochiti it was simply my atavistic response to the repetitiveness and the resonance of the drums; or maybe, since at the moment I have no appropriate organizational rituals of my own to officially solemnize this day, it was a personal need just looking to be satisfied. But either way it worked.

And I don't think that I was the only one. Monica's and Bram's friend J* for example comes every year and spends several hours seated on the ground with her back pressed firmly against the first row of bleachers - the better to feel the percussive vibrations. Many others looked to be likewise in the "Buffalo Dance Zone". I was reminded somewhat of the teenagers on television's old American Bandstand program being asked to evaluate the hit potential of new records - "I don't get the lyrics, but the beat is really good. I'll give it a ten."

Obviously something is at work here - and it is working!

I was brought up Roman Catholic during the time when the language of the mass was changed from Latin to the local vernacular, and the priest's position was changed so that he now faced the congregation during the service - so I am familiar with ritual from a believer's point of view. At that time a portion of the Church membership was, and may still be, resistant to those reformations.

And in one way they may have been correct. Mystery really is the key to magic. For simple sleight-of-hand all you need is a willing suspension of disbelief. More esoteric practices require an explicit willingness to suspend your intellectual curiosity.

Frequently what you don't know can help you.

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