The Corn Dance: San Ildefonso Pueblo
We unfold our chairs under an enormous old cottonwood tree which has been shading the people of the San Ildefonso Pueblo for hundreds of years. Today we will be part of a ceremony that has been handed down from generation to generation through time.
San Ildefonso is one of the best known New Mexico pueblos, mainly because of the famous black-on-black pottery which originated there. Its people continue to hold to the old ways – the ancient ceremonies, rituals and tribal dances of their ancestors – many a closely guarded secret.
Deb Stephens (a guide with Santa Fe Walkabouts) and I had been invited to attend the pueblo’s Corn Dance. We were also invited by Deb’s friends Elmer and Deborah Torres to share in their feast day by joining them for lunch. The family has an adobe house right on the plaza. This gift was not lost on me. I know it is a rarely afforded privilege, and I am grateful.
Looking around me now from my vantage point under the old cottonwood, I see a group of older women – a mother, grandmother and a little one – in front of us. All are wearing calf length tan suede moccasins, decorated with fringes and large silver buttons. The oldest is wrapped in a colourful blanket. Next to her, a woman likely in her 50s, shakes loose her hair in order to braid it. Accented by only a few strands of silver, it is so long it sweeps the chalky dust behind her chair.
Across the dusty plaza two young boys lean against the wall of what appears to be a ceremonial space high above the plaza – watching, waiting. For a while they are so still they are a part of the landscape. Then in the distance the sound of soft drumming, a song drifting on the breeze. People shift in their chairs.
At this point Deb and I are the only non Pueblo people there, although others will come later. The knowledge that we are greatly honoured in witnessing this old ceremony does not escape us. We are indeed fortunate.
Without fanfare a beautiful young woman with long black hair walks to the centre of the plaza throwing out small handfuls of corn meal from a pouch at her waist. At her feet is a semicircle of feathers over which she sprinkles more of the precious powder. As she moves I see that a tiny new baby is strapped to her chest. She brings the infant over to the group of women in front of us and each takes their turn to kiss and bless the infant.
More people drift across the plaza, wrapped in colourful blankets. All wear beautiful moccasins in tan, pale green and cream suede, walking gently on the earth. Many of the women wear loose dresses in vibrant colours decorated with embroidery, a woven woollen belt, usually in red and black, cinched tightly at the waist.
Around us there is the murmur of people greeting each other in the language of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, Tewa, as well as English and Spanish. Glancing up I see a handful of white feathers bobbing above the adobe wall of the building across the plaza. The dancers are coming.
A group of local people walk past carrying a variety of ceremonial figures – and place them in a shelter covered with leafy branches. From here, these symbols of Catholicism and something more ancient, can watch the dances. Someone comes out from inside one of the adobe houses and hangs an American flag by the front door. It flaps in the breeze in startling contrast to the soft desert colours.
Suddenly my breath catches in my throat.
A man carrying a large drum walks into the plaza. He is followed by more men carrying leafy green branches. A couple of tiny boys walk with them. All wear head bands, brightly coloured shirts and moccasins. The drum starts to beat out a slow steady rhythm and the men begin to chant. It is an old song, and one that even to me, feels familiar. My fluttering heart slows to keep time.
We look up as small drifts of cotton start to float from the cottonwood tree like snow. These are the seeds, each one carried by a downy white tuft like a parachute. Although a common occurrence at the edge of summer, in this moment it feels like magic.
The singers take their place at the centre of the plaza and I pull my attention away from the drifting seeds as a large group of men, women and children, perhaps as many as a hundred, walk silently from behind a building.
The women wear loose black dresses with red embroidery and red coral necklaces. On their heads sit tall green headdresses which bring to mind a candelabra, each branch tipped with pure white feathers. The women’s feet are bare.
The men wear moccasins, but they are bare chested. Their short skirts are decorated with symbols. Most wear soft leggings. Ochre clay has been smoothed over their skin, whether to protect them from the scorching sun, or as part of a ritual, I’m not sure. There are many secrets still. On their heads they wear tufts of small feathers, deep green, black, and turquoise. A single streak of paint has been swiped across each cheek.
Some of these men have long hair that lifts in the breeze. It is not hard to see their ancestors reflected in the strong lines of their faces and their streaming black hair. People have inhabited the San Ildefonso Pueblo since 1300 AD. It is believed they came from Mesa Verde in Colorado after prolonged drought forced them out.
Many of the dancers wear necklaces of shell and turquoise. I wonder if wearing shells in a desert place far from the sea was once a symbol of wealth and status. Many of these large shell discs are decorated with slabs of turquoise and held in place by many strings of tiny turquoise beads.
The drum starts beating faster – both the singers and dancers shuffle in place. In the crowd people scatter more cornmeal around the edges of the plaza, and sometimes around where they sit.
The male dancers have branches of leaves tied to their biceps with turquoise bands and the girls carry a branch of leaves in each hand. The wind rustles through the leaves making them whisper. As the dancers move around the edge of the plaza very close to where we sit, it feels like a great green forest is passing by.
The dancers are led in this by the pueblo’s Koshare (clown), his body covered with alternating black and white stripes. His face is painted white, and black rings are painted around his eyes and mouth. He appears to be in a trance as he pads along. Cornhusks form two small horns. They are tipped with corn tassels that flutter as he moves, giving him a slightly comic appearance – but he scares me.
With so much to take in it isn’t until later that I realise there are also two female Koshares moving through the dancers. Their faces are painted white with black rings, like the male Koshare, but they each wear a cape of black and white squares. Although the pueblo clowns are known for their tricks and mockery, on this occasion they simply danced.
The male pueblo dancers carry rattles which hiss as they move. Every now and then they shake them vigorously – the voice of a hundred rattle snakes. Some of the male dancers wear large bells on their belts, while others have tiny bells sewn onto the fringes tied around their knees. This creates a continuous swirl of soft sound as the dancers move.
The singers form a circle in the centre of the plaza and the drum beats faster. My heart beats faster in time with it. All around me, feet encased in moccasins start to keep time – whether we are sitting or standing, all are joined in the dance.
Then it stops. The dancers move to the edge of the plaza – the only sound the tinkling of hundreds of bells and the padding of soft shoes and bare feet on the earth. They make rows facing each other.
Then the drum beats hard and fast and there is a furious shaking of rattles. Some make loud yipping noises as the dancers move towards each other. Some face into the plaza, others look outwards, facing those of us who are watching. They shift their weight from one foot to the other faster and faster. Drawn into the dance, it is captivating to watch.
The repetitive rhythm of the song has worked its way into my soul and I sing in silence. I feel I have always known these songs – that they have been inside me for a very long time.
It is midday and the sun beats down hard now on those performing the ceremony. We are shaded by the cottonwood, but I am very aware that the temperature out on the plaza must be reaching towards the high 90s – yet still they dance, and will continue to dance, until late afternoon.
As more people start to arrive at the plaza the dancing stops, and the singers with their colourful clothes climb a steep staircase in the adobe wall opposite and disappear inside. It makes me think of the ancient pyramids of Mexico with their steep steps. Shadows from the vigas (roof beams) cast diagonal lines across the wall.
Deb and I go to see if the public bathroom is open – it isn’t – we will have to wait. On our way we pass the round ceremonial kiva with its uniquely shaped ladder, and the church, which is all smooth round edges and graceful curves, shaped from adobe. A bell is set in the curved facade and a thin cross stands high and stark against the deep blue New Mexico sky – an endless expanse broken only by the cross and a single small white cloud.
Back at the plaza small puppies play and roll in the dirt. They chase the little girls, tugging at the hems of their pretty dresses with sharp teeth. We glance up and see one of the female clowns standing motionless against a door made from a rich honey coloured wood. Her black and white cape frames her, and my fingers itch to pick up a camera or paintbrush and capture what I see – but today is sacred and I have only my words.
The dance begins again and this time I notice that some of the male dancers are wearing lush golden red pelts that hang from their belts like tails – swishing when they move.
One of the teachers who stalk the edges of the dance, has white painted hands, a long braid, and a big turquoise bow tied at the side of his head. Deb marvels how a man wearing a bow can look so deeply masculine, yet he does. His bearing, his manner, and the way he moves speaks to his authority and stature in the community. He is one of the men who decided who would do the corn dance this year. It is a heavy responsibility. The dance must go well as it is the embodiment of a plea to the Creator for a good harvest and prosperity for the people of the pueblo.
Some of the girls show small signs of stress as the scorching earth burns their bare feet. Mothers pull little ones aside and slip moccasins on them. Later we comment that the women have it tough during the dance. ‘Yes, but that is the blessing,’ Deborah replies.
The dancers sweep by, very close now, and then everything stops. It’s lunch time. We watch a procession of dishes make its way up the steps and into the building where most of the dancers and singers are resting.
We leave the shelter of our tree and cross the plaza to Deborah and Elmer’s house. The sun beats down like a fist. It is the first time we realise just how hot it really is out there. The walk across that empty space is enough to make my head spin. Everything shimmers.
How do they do it – dance for hours in those conditions without stumbling or collapsing.
Both Elmer and his daughter Tracy were dancing this year. At lunch, the teenager tells me the girls are meant to dance barefoot all day, but are allowed to wear their moccasins during the lunch break. ‘They are so comfortable,’ she sighs, pulling them on. I watch as she hobbles off towards the table, her feet no doubt blistered from coming down again and again on the burning sand.
People start to pour into the house and Deborah brings the dishes to the long tables set up in the front room. Everyone is welcome on this special feast day. Even a visiting senator who takes his place at the table alongside us.
The food is incredible – like nothing I have ever tasted before. It is obvious the preparation and cooking has been going on for days. There is a big pitcher of iced tea, chicken enchiladas, ambrosia, red chile, posole (white corn in a broth), calabacitas – onions and squash cooked with ground beef, and thick crusty bread. Every bite a little piece of heaven in my mouth.
Once we have eaten we make room for the others coming in, and with many hugs and farewell wishes, head back to Santa Fe.
This was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life – something I had never dared imagine I would ever become a part of. For having been welcomed in, and accepted as part of this community and this ceremony, I have a grateful heart.
What I learned will stay with me always.