My mind wandered today to thoughts of the people of Zuni Pueblo, who all year will be putting together the intricate details of one of Indian America’s most thrilling traditional festivals, Shalako, to be held at the 2016 winter solstice. I knew I should be spending my time writing a long article on sustainability, but told myself it would be okay to break off on this tangent because a central cultural goal of the Zuni (and generally of other native peoples as well) is to practice sustainability — to balance environmental, social and individual needs. Their culture differs from the “mainstream” in other ways, too. I dug into the text of my memoir Wonderment to bring back memories of my visit to the event and the following emerged.
We had stayed the night at a nondescript motel in Gallup, the last New Mexico town you meet before plunging westward into the painted desert of Arizona. The four of us woke early and hurried through our coffee and Danish pastries. It was a 45-mile drive south to the Indian Pueblo of Zuni and we didn’t want to be late for the annual Shalako race.
We had decided on this 400-mile round trip because we knew that Shalako is part of a tradition that defines the Zuni people, as does towering Mount Taylor to the north. It’s super-important. Without this tradition and and a host of other ancient conventions, the tribe would cease to be. When he was the Zunis’ governor, Norman Cooeyate told writer Laura Paskus that he considered his tribe an endangered species: “If any portion of that [tradition] is lost, the knowledge that is gained by us, by our leaders, by our community, is lost now and forever.”
We drove through the light of early dawn chatting about the previous evening’s excitement, when in freezing December cold we walked through the unmarked sand footpaths of the dark village, hoping without a guide to find houses where Shalako dances were being held. We lucky to find two such houses, each with parading Shalakos, drums and singers. The Shalakos are unnaturally tall and impressive bird-like constructs with feather ruffs and clacking beaks, each with an actor/impersonator working hard inside each meticulously made structure. It is said that Shalakos are messengers of spirits (sometimes called kachinas) who live with the Council of Gods in the depths of Dawn Lake. This is a salt lake that is also home of the traditional Salt Mother and is sacred to several tribes.
There had not been enough room for us inside either house. As we shuffled our feet to keep warm, blowing into our hands and gazing through windows into densely crowded rooms, the Shalakos moved up and down a rectangular trough that had been purpose-built to accommodate their height, saluting and threatening guests and themselves being heckled by irreverent mudhead clowns in grotesque terracotta masks. In the front row of the second house, in the very best seat, an exhausted young Little Fire God was fast asleep, overcome by the physical demand of native ritual.
The poet Winfield Townley Scott witnessed the Shalakos’ ceremonial entry from Dawn Lake some decades ago and was left awed and apparently uncomfortable. In Exiles and Fabrications he said he felt he was “in the presence of towering, barbaric gods. barely able to see the gigantic figures as they slowly approach from the hills. Eerie cries sound here and there in the sudden dark, and the bitter cold, which worsens all night, sets in …”
Scott probably did not know that these “barbarians” were irrigating their crops here 3,000 years ago, speak a language that some believe is at least 7,000 years old, and in 1539 had become the very first aboriginal Americans to meet Europeans, scouts from Coronado’s expedition of Spanish explorers.
On this early morning after the house dances, we finally bumped over a rough access road and to a gate where a weather-beaten sign told us that we were again entering the Pueblo of Zuni. We were a little late but soon could see that in an open field the Shalakos were just finishing racing, in their great unwieldy costumes, from the starting line to a finishing line that consisted of a row of holes in the sand. Here they were planting prayer plumes before returning to Listening Spring, the source of Dawn Lake.
We joined a group of onlookers at a vantage point where a little river sparkled parallel with the narrow dirt road that ran between us and the racing ground. The six Shalakos formed lines with their entourages. Then to my delight two of them crossed a bridge and walked in procession within feet of us, preceded by brightly costumed and masked attendants, flanked by elders, followed by little groups of quietly, gravely singing men. People in the crowd around us came forward to sprinkle dust-fine corn pollen on the celebrants as they passed, and particularly upon the Shalakos. When the last group had gone, we saw the road gilded with pollen, a sacred way.
On our way home the folks in the car listened, nodded and dozed as I lectured them on how Shalako was all about journeys, journeys in space and time. Journeys are journeys. You can’t separate the physical journey from the metaphysical journey. Even the ancient Irish Catholic priests had this need to travel, and learn and teach as well, as far afield as Arabia. The Australian aborigines, and maybe the Bushmen and some of the North African desert tribes, know the travel-urge instinctively and intimately. But so many modern white-man journeys are done within the confines of the head, with books and television and Web pages. You don’t smell them, don’t touch them, don’t hear or feel them. We short-change ourselves. Or I guess we do, suspect we do. Most of our life’s experience is an uncountable avalanche of packaged messages, sequestered in the brain, trapped inside the grey matter in little zaps of electricity that twinkle between the cells of an outwardly quiescent form.
As I-40 started its wide arc around the town of Grants I told my fellow travelers about Alex Seowtewa. Alex had taken me to Our Lady of Guadalupe, a mission church originally built at the pueblo three and a half centuries ago, ruined, then rebuilt in 1968 from an open shell of adobe brick. There he showed me the wondrous pair of murals that he had begun to paint in February 1970. They depict characters from the spirit world in life size, full of color, full of motion, full of dignified power. The spring and winter kachinas dance across the north wall; summer and autumn kachinas across the south.
I remembered looking at the kachinas open-mouthed while in my mind’s ear I could hear the drum and chant of the lost storytellers. Seowtewa, a marvelously gentle man, articulate, educated, and a world traveler, spoke quietly about what he calls an “ecumenical labor of love,” which combined his respect for both his native religion and the Roman Catholic Church. Proudly he showed me a Native Peoples magazine article in which his eldest son Ken explained his family’s hope that future generations will use the completed mural “as a guide and inspiration for their lives” and “impress upon other people the importance of knowing their heritage – their roots. If they know where they come from, they will know where they are going.”
We drove home from Zuni through sandstone landscapes that were reddened by the setting sun and studded with the dark green of piñon pine and juniper; fluffy chamisa seed heads flared in gauzy roadside clouds. At seven we arrived at the adobe house in the village of Los Ranchos, and I settled down to write. Next to my laptop was a curious, wonderful wad of paper. I had stuffed into my pocket after an elderly Zuni man pressed it into my hand at a communal dining table the night before. I unfolded it and read it silently to myself, a prayer for the journey to Dawn Lake:
Do not despise the breath of your fathers
But draw it into your body,
That our roads may reach to where the
Life-giving road of our sun father comes out.
That, clasping one another tight,
Holding one another fast,
We may finish our roads together.
That this may be, I add to your breath now.
To this end:
May my father bless you with life;
May your road reach to Dawn Lake;
May your road be fulfilled.