Heading into the season of feasts with Thanksgiving less than two weeks away, I wonder at the difficulty some of us of the dominant culture have in enjoying feasts, or even being willing to carry on the tradition. How many of us say, “Oh, we’ll just go to a restaurant” and barely spend a moment thinking or speaking of thankfulness. The meal problem is complicated by the many different requirements—vegetarian, vegan and all the rest—which seem to underline our lack of unity as families and as a culture.
It was with a feeling of gratitude and relief that I went Sunday to the Tesuque Pueblo traditional dance, always held on November 12, in the Tesuque Pueblo twenty miles north of Santa Fe. This was the first ceremonial I attended, twenty-five years ago, on a cold, snowy day; Sunday was hot and we know the reason. But the temperature was the only thing that had changed in the presentation of the Deer Dance, in the pueblo plaza, at the feet of the Roman Catholic Church, burnt down years ago as a protest against the dominance of Anglo religion and carefully, beautifully redesigned and rebuilt.
On the cold morning of my first visit, I sat on the adobe banco outside the church, and marveled. I’d never seen anything like what the pueblo was offering me. I couldn’t explain it, and didn’t want or need to explain it. And today was very nearly the same, for although I’ve read a fair amount about pueblo traditions, and attended a lot of ceremonies, their essential mysteries remain untouched by explanations.
This is what I saw: a hundred dancers, men from the pueblo or related to it through ties of marriage or family, lined up in two ranks, their individuality hidden by their deer costumes: white shirts, brightly-colored and tasseled belts, kilts, either black or bordered with embroidery, head-dresses of pine branches with wicker visors which almost completely obscured their faces. Hands and faces were painted black, adding to the iconic similarity of all these individuals, young and old, fat and thin, who, with a strange, ceremonial stoop, leaned forward onto their sticks and began their rhythmic pacing, not quite dance, not quite march—imitating deer pacing through snow.
Their dance was set to the drumming and chanting of a mass of older men, the chant wavering, soft, then plunging into a sharp beat as the deer moved forward. Three big painted drums beat out the rhythm as attendants walked watchfully up and down the rows, tying on a feather when it fell from the deer antlers that crowed the headdresses, gesturing to the rows of dancers to move further apart. A big crowd lined the four sides of the plaza, sides made up of the facades of family houses where three generations often live together. The YouTube video I’ve attached tells the story of one grandmother of this pueblo and shows the way the plaza looked today.
It was probably the only occasion I’ve attended this year where there were no cameras and no cell phones. The pueblo forbids them and enforces the rule. I’d forgotten how blissful it is not to have to crane around people taking photos or listen to their conversations on cell phones. It almost seemed as though we were all at peace.
When the first dance came to an end, the deer filed out of the plaza with the drummers and chanters, and those onlookers lucky enough to have friends in the houses went inside to eat. The rule of hospitality never changes: whoever enters is ushered to the big table as soon as a place becomes vacant, a plate and plastic utensils are set down, and bowls of food are passed. Women of three generations cook the food, wash the dishes, serve, and ask guests who had finished eating to make space for the newcomers. I guess they feed dozens, if not a hundred strangers, family members sitting amongst us, a peaceful quiet reigning while the bowls are passed: delicious red chile (just the right degree of hot), pork stew, black beans, and the newer additions—chicken salad, cottage cheese. There is ice tea for all in a pitcher in the middle of the table. A big television played a football game although only one young girl was watching.
I was struck by the demeanor of the five or six women who waited on us: calm, focused, without needing to make a personal connection, without asking for names, or offering their own. This is hospitality devoid of personality. It is service to a tradition. Strangers come, strangers must be fed. The amount of food surely challenges family budgets. The time spent cooking and cleaning up must stretch to several days. But there is never a chance of scanting the tradition. Strangers must be fed.
Afterwards, when we were outside watching the next round of dancing, I found myself studying a majestic older woman, brilliant white hair drawn back, turquoise bracelet bright on a brown wrist, sky-blue dress with its bright sash and embroidered hem, tall yellow suede boots. With her chin on the ebony handle of her cane, she was studying the lines of dancers as surely she had studied them for decades, first seeing her father and brothers, then her friends and her husband, then her sons, finally her grandsons. She was the essential link that held it all together.
These days we women by necessity take on the role of critics, revolutionaries, voices for unspeakable truths. We do not cook for strangers; we do not sit in the audience and watch dances which are only performed by men. (Some of the pueblo dances do include women but not the deer dance). We must help to shake apart rotten habits, sanctified patterns of repetition and oppression.
And so we are uncomfortable even with the pale traditions we have inherited, unwilling cooks, uneasy reinforcers of rules that we did not make. It is the price of integrity. But for a few hours on a beautiful New Mexico Sunday, I felt the strong appeal of the old way—the way of tradition, where women serve and hold it all together.