Kachina dancers - Shalako - at the Zuni Pueblo New Mexico

©Stephen McDonnell 2001


Kachina dolls at the newly opened Museum of American Indians Washington DC

We ride West out of Albuqueque following the old trail of highway 66 crossing the dried out bed of the Rio Grande, only a trickle of water left by the irrigation, past the old volcanic fields of black tuffa, past Acome Pueblo perched on its mesa. The ride is long in the back of the van on the hard floor. My friend's dad is an Indian Agent, so we are to be guests of honor - really high school kids on a lark. Not knowing what to expect, yet excited by the unknown.

We arrive at Zuni pueblo just at sunset. The last rays of the sun light up Corn mountain. The pueblo is not that imposing. Not a Mesa Verdi, or Acoma, still it has an aura of ancientness that transports us into the past, as if we have hitched a ride in a time machine and not a Ford van. We ignore the history that has transpired here, the conflicts with the Spanish, the blood, the wars, the sins and omissions.

The winter New Mexico cerulean sky darkens to a dark indigo blue as stars appear and a chill fills the high mesa air, and we are glad we are dressed warmly. We wander the streets of the vilage, not knowing what to expect, my friend acts as a guide, a habitué of Indian dances. Our first encounter is with the mud heads, Koyemshi, dancers with round ugly head dresses, made of clay, like overturned pots. They make jokes that send the Indian audience into gales of laughter. Evidently much of what they say is obscene, but they are allowed this prerogative, as they represent children born from incestuous liaisons. They are the products of taboo, and can speak of taboos freely.

When we finally enter one of the new houses, we are greeted by the sight of the family fortune hanging on the walls; silver and jewelry decorated rafters. Turquoise of all colors, eagle feathers, leather goods. A table is laid out with food. Venison and corn, all free for the honored visitor, and Indian bread freshly cooked outside in the oven. A feast of thanksgiving, like the Arab, the Indian considers the guest is sacred, his house is your house, their generosity has no limits. The Zuni Indians smile at us, welcoming faces worn by the sun, wrinkled in the old, bright as a new button in the young.

In the middle of the floor is a deep pit, ten or twenty feet long and three feet deep. Soon we find out why it has been dug. The Kachina dancers arrive. The tall head dresses are four or more feet tall, some as tall as fourteen feet, they have to lean forward till they reach the dancing pit. The Kachinas are magnificently decorated, young warriors who dance all night and at dawn they will race against other Kachina dancers. Now they respond to the drumming and singing of the old medicine men. They hold bells which they shake, and they dance, light of foot even in heavy costumes and head pieces, as if the corn god has take over their bodies. They bless the house with their dance. Like Dervishes, they can not stop, nor show any strain.

How can I describe their presence? Godlike? Tall, with beaks that click open and shut, half man, half monster, animal; like the fabled Minotaur of Crete. They will dance all night, until dawn when they will race against each other. They represent spirits of nature. They are powerful.

In my High school class in Albuquerque I have Indian friends, Apache and Navaho,Hopi. I even date a Metis girl, Spanish with Indian blood, beautiful with her long shiny black hair and eyes. Her nose is hooked and her cheek bones high. They are shy, quiet, except when they play in sports. My dream is to be a long distance runner, so I try out for the cross country team; the best in the state. Foolish, why not try to play basket ball with Michael Jordan? The Indians run circles around me, and in the end, one of them slows down and lets me win and we all fall down laughing. They exchange curses and insults, calling each other's mothers whores and worse. Only friends can say these things. They have accepted me into their world - for a while.

But their world is not my white world, their world is the reservation. I remember this as I wander around the star lit Zuni streets to stumble on the darkened Mission church. The Church of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe sits abandoned. Closed, they tell me, because the priest has been run out, he tried to make them forgo the old gods, the old traditions. In the moon light, the church sits cold and forbidding, a reminder of the failure and success of the white man. The massacres, the Indian uprisings echo in the night, ghosts of the past. I don't hear them tonight, just the dogs barking and laughter. The stars are bright in the clear night air, they look so close, so hard and diamond sharp. I feel my soul drifting away, like the smoke from the pueblo houses, freeing itself form the base clay of my body, to fly away into the night. I feel at home.

©Stephen McDonnell 2001, 2005

A recent note:Kachina dolls sell for thousands of dollars...What do the Kachinas think?