The Laguna Pueblo, located in New Mexico’s high desert, is a poor town. For every intact adobe home one or two are half collapsed. Stiff winds blow clouds of sandy dust. The mission church of St. Joseph built in 1699 (just after the Spaniards’ reconquest) is the most prominent building. When we arrived on the saint’s feast day mass had just begun. The floor of the long narrow church is pounded earth and straw. The side walls are decorated with geometric motifs signifying graves – here and there a small bird appears with a head of ripe grain. Supporting the roof are the massive vigas carried from a stand of ponderosa pine thirty-five miles away. We were told that if one were dropped on the way, it was abandoned and a new one cut. Between the beams branches of different colors are laid in a herringbone pattern. On the right wall a large and frightening painting represents purgatory. To the left of the altar hangs a representation of St. Joseph said to date from the church’s founding and behind the altar one could see the Trinity, St. Barbara, and others in Spanish/native style.
The French missionary priest Father Hilaire served mass in vestments ornamented with an eagle dancer, speaking mostly Keresan to the accompaniment of tribal drums. At the conclusion of the service he distributed freshly blessed scepters of office to tribal leaders (including young men holding the position of war chiefs). One of the elder officials welcomed people to the feast, saying “if no one else offers you hospitality, you are welcome at my house. Everyone knows where it is, on the south side of the village.”
The priest handed a statue of St. Joseph to these men who then led a procession by a circuitous route to the dancing ground where it was installed in a pavilion ornamented with deer (or elk?) heads and bedecked with evergreen boughs. A few minutes later the dancers and musicians arrived. As a party of male drummers took up a position in the center, a long line of dancers circled the plaza led by two older men and followed by several hundred people, men and women, old and young. At the end came many children. Everyone participating in the ceremony had hands painted white, and all wore traditional clothing: the men and boys had fox (or coyote) skins hanging from their sashes behind, the females for the most part had their legs wrapped as we had seen in old photographs. Many dancers were shaking gourd rattles, and all carried sprigs of vegetation in each hand. They danced around the plaza again and again for perhaps forty-five minutes to drumbeats and song. Four or five senior men holding white painted branches kept everyone in the correct pace and place. At times the procession would pause and everyone would turn about where he or she stood.
Patricia was sitting next to a local woman who said that this first dance was a reenactment of the Pueblo peoples’ first migration to their present home territory. As the day wore on, we saw an eagle dance (with men wearing bird masks and great broad wings), buffalo dance (two men with bodies blackened and dark bison headdresses with horns, one white buffalo as well), deer dance (men in antlers, women in elaborate feather arrangements over their heads), and others, but we lost our original informant and asked no questions. At the start there had been far more dancers than spectators and very few outsiders. As the day progressed, at intervals there were in fact very few people simply watching, but the dances continued, one following another, always with drumming and singing in Keresan, no master of ceremonies, never a word, no applause. It was truly a community event.
Nearby vendors had set up booths selling crafts but also baseball caps and teeshirts (“Rez Hoops”) as well as food – tamales and burritos, fry bread and “Indian tacos” (fry bread with beans, onions, chiles, meat, etc.), lamb (“20,000 coyotes can’t be wrong”), the almost spherical loaves of the local bread cooked in the dome-like outdoor hornos we saw in some dusty yards. No alcohol anywhere, not even in the hands of those who stood at their doors watching; surely it was forbidden.
Though the day had started fair and clear, storm clouds arrived with a terrific wind that blew sandy dust into our eyes and obliged the vendors to hold the aluminum poles supporting their booths to keep them from blowing down. Rain fell as did the temperature. Route 40, the big east-west interstate by which we had come, was closed for miles in the snowstorm that followed.
Before we headed out, we took refuge from the rain (it had not yet cooled enough for snow) in the church where we came upon a nice fellow named Albert who played the flute, at the end pointing out where one might make donations to the church and adding, as he grinned and turned an embarrassed gaze toward the ground, in a barely discernable voice, “and I don’t mind taking a little tip myself.”
I can't seem to get this on in the comment section, so I am adding it to the end of the piece. I do want to respond to my critic below.
Thank you for your comments. I don’t doubt that you are quite right. My sketch was the impression of a passerby who spent only a memorable few hours in St. Joseph.
I don’t regard “poor” as an insult, but the fact is that the official poverty rate on reservations in America is twice the national average.
Further, symbolic hints and mythic associations have informed the travel writing I like best and the relation of description to reality is always complex.
Still, I regret having offended. I received a pleasant and civil reception in Laguna and hope to visit there again.