Sunday, January 02, 2011

More Than One Way

Kasi, from the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center Museum, enthusiastically told us that the Turtle Dances at Ohkay Owingeh started right after morning mass, which began at 8:30 a.m.

She said it totally without irony. And I heard it the same way. The seamless overlapping of incongruous theological beliefs with each other (some pueblo residents say that they practice both the Tewa and Catholic religions) -- and even more so with totally contrasting secular ways of thinking (images of the Virgin of Guadalupe on gourmet restaurant tee-shirts among other things), is an integral part of the Santa Fe way of life.

Until recently Ohkay Owingeh had been called San Juan Pueblo in the Anglo world-- a name applied to it in 1598 by Juan de Onate. At that time native Tewa were also "introduced" to Catholicism. (At the Taos Pueblo, another of the Northern New Mexico Pueblos and also Tewa, I have heard this referred to as the forced conversion.) The Tewa, who always called it Ohkay Owingeh, recently went through the formality of changing the name back.

The current day pueblo is the site of Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, originally constructed from 1888-90 on the approximate site of what had been the third San Juan parish Catholic church - - built in 1645 and destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The Shrine is one of only nineteen buildings in the United States built entirely out of lava rock and is one of America's top "family friendly shrines" according to Catholic Digest magazine.

The Turtle Dance is performed annually at Winter Solstice and is the most important public religious ceremony of the Ohkay Owingeh calendar. This year it was done on December 26th. No explanation of the dance is provided by anyone, but presumably like other such rituals it is done either to celebrate the return of longer daytime, or to guarantee it. The turtle is believed to be the first hibernating animal to return to life after the year has turned. It is a sacred ceremony so no photography is allowed.

Mars, Monica, Bram (wife, daughter-in-law and son) and I arrived around 11:00 a.m. The entrance to the public square portion of the pueblo was blocked off by tribal police, and we were directed to park along the side of the entry road. We then followed a small band of other "Anglos" around the corner past the above-mentioned shrine and into the piazza where we stood anticipatorily with a modestly sized crowd of spectators ethnically identical to ourselves.

There were no dancers in sight, but songs of chanting could be heard coming from inside one of the nearby buildings. Someone in the crowd mentioned that the sounds were coming from the pueblo's kiva. Soon, several male residents of the pueblo wrapped in Pendleton style blankets directed the milling band of spectators back against the buildings, and costumed O'ken men and a few boys appeared out of one of the buildings and lined up single-file along one side of the plaza.

The one hundred or so men were bare-chested and barelegged with dried mud covering their skin. Some wore what could have been women's silk scarves around their neck and shoulders. All of them had a turtle shell affixed to their right knee with, what I later learned, were noise-making pig's hooves attached to them by leather thongs and a wide leather belt bedecked with either clanging bells or slightly quieter seashells. Each one carried a gourd rattle and was decorated with evergreen branches in his armbands, headpieces, and hands. As the dance progressed whenever one of the costume pieces became out-of-place one of the blanket-wrapped men spectator traffic cops stopped that dancer and straightened out the wardrobe malfunction.

Any piece of evergreen that fell to the ground was immediately picked up.

The slow-paced, hypnotically unfaltering song was sung by the middle section of the line. The perpetual one-step dance was done in place and the line, one-by-one, periodically changed the direction they were facing. After about fifteen minutes that portion of the ceremony stopped and the dancers walked slowly to another side of the plaza where they began perform the same dance to what seemed to be the same song.

Three Koshari painted in black and white bands with black circles around their mouth and eyes and their hair in arranged two vertical bound with a corn husk appeared on the scene. They joked with the dancers ("Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee.") and the audience ("I could use a hug!").

Soon two other sacred clowns, fully clothed in white leather with a pointy-nose head and face covering, and brandishing white whips joined the ritual. These tricksters wandered around the dancers cracking their whips and periodically gently lashed one of the non-dancing pueblo members in attendance on the legs and then shook their hand.

After the dance ended everyone, dancers, clowns and spectators, moved to a third side of the plaza to repeat the ritual. When that iteration was completed the ensemble marched back to the first location and the four of us left to rest up before an evening of hot-tubbing at a local spa.
Two days later, on Mars' and my last full day in Santa Fe, I realized that I had not yet taken any photos. Since Mars needed to go a on a couple of gift-shopping missions I took advantage of the time to go on a pair of brief snapshot safaris.

But in the midst of our respective undertakings we took a short break to slowly and silently walk the meditation labyrinth on Museum Hill.
The permanently inlaid irregular network of paths is the site of an annual Winter Solstice walk held by the local Labyrinth Society. Mars and I took part in last year's event.

Today the plaza was deserted except for a young mother carrying her takeout coffee cup and her five-ish year old daughter. Somehow they inserted themselves in between the two of us on the dull red pathway.

As Mars proceeded slowly into the maze the little girl carefully inched her away up to the first turn and stopped. Her mother, following closely behind, told her to turn and stay on the red trail. The same thing occurred at the next change in direction.

Now she had it figured out and trotted rapidly through the maze quickly bypassing Mars who stood aside for her to pass.

At the center, where walkers are encouraged to stop and contemplate where they are, the girl quickly ran straight across the labyrinth and exited at one of the sides. Mom followed along. Mars and I slowly finished our walk.
Maybe because Monica and Bram both are graphic designers, comic book artists, and funky photographers I have come to appreciate the art of signage, and the possibilities of creating something visually interesting by looking at the world through a slightly askew camera lens.

And Santa Fe has no shortage of signs, public works of art, and southwestern architecture for me to obliquely view. Some results of my photo-trek appear throughout this essay.

But my favorite image is that of the Indian from the Americas in Ray Martín Abeyta's painting "Indios", which is used in a poster for one of the exhibitions currently in town.
Like so many other things in and around Santa Fe, it reminds me that there is more than one way to look at most things.

See Mars' photos of Santa Fe and other places at
Click on any of the above photos to make them larger.

Changes were made to an earlier version of this essay based upon comments received from a member of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

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