Yesterday, the occasion of my sister’s birthday, was also the feast day of St Clare. Well–sort of. There is some confusion about the sainted one’s day—sometimes it is celebrated on August 11, not August 12. Here in New Mexico however, the Native Americans of the Santa Clara pueblo most definitely celebrate on the 12th and yesterday Tom, Mike and I joined in.
No cameras or cell phones are allowed at the stomp dance and so I cannot show you the spectacle, which is a shame because it was fascinating in a number of ways. The ritual celebrates the harvest with corn dances. There were hundreds of participants, all holding ears of corn. Two groups of more than 200 danced at any time. One group symbolizes summer and the other winter. The male dancers had their torsos smeared with mud and had animal pelts hanging from their belts and their faces painted. Many had headdresses with cypress fronds and feathers. They wore many beads. The drummers (tom-toms of course) wore bright shirts with ribbons hanging from the yokes. The women wore tablita on their heads (uncomfortable looking squares of what looked like painted hardboard) and patterned shawls swinging from their backs. They had muddy markings on the apples of their cheeks. Everyone wore suede one piece boots fixed with a button and some work white wool crocheted leggings. It was 100 degrees and there was no shade.
We saw dancers wearing bison heads, with the skin flapping behind them down to their knees. There were tiny children in the dance. Most of the spectators were native American with a sprinkling of gringo tourists.
The dancers all wore expressions of the utmost solemnity and appeared to be counting steps in their heads. There was also a line-caller (or at least that’s what we assumed) giving directions in the Tew language of the pueblo.
Nobody broke the no-camera rule and everyone watched in respect. This was more like a state funeral than an outbreak of Morris Dancing. It was dignifed, unlike most of today’s Orange parades in Northern Ireland. It was ordered like the Gay Gordons or a line dance, but it had none of their jollity. It was very ancient and very serious. A ritual rather than a tourist attraction.
There were a number of stalls selling jewelry, musical instruments (a lot of gourds, drums and pipes) and clothing but these were for the community rather than the tourists. Think renaissance fair rather than board walk. There was no charge to enter and no attempt to market guide books or refreshments or anything else. A woman and child came round and delivered corn-based snacks (caramel popcorn, cheetos, fritos) to the spectators. No money changed hands.
As with the sanctuary in Chimayo, there was something resolute and confident and whole about the corn dances. Something untarnished and admirable. Respect, as my son would say.