Chaco Canyon – Acoma – O‘ke 1992

Dennis Kawaharada

In the winter of 1992, we drove out early on a cold, clear winter morning to see the ruins of Chaco Canyon, located on a dirt road northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico. In a dry gulch were the ruins of nine large buildings – called “Great Houses.” One, now crumbling, was once five stories high. The two of us were the only ones there. Map of New Mexico.

The buildings had been constructed by a people called the Anasazi, “The Ancient Ones,” and dated from 900-1115 – about a thousand years old by the time we got there. The rock walls were neatly made, of sandstone chunks and cut blocks stacked on each other in intricate patterns. Inside the walls were kivas, circular underground rooms used for religious ceremonies. The agricultural people who built the village worshipped the Earth Mother in her dark womb, the fertile ground that was the source of life for their staples of corn and beans. In ages past, humanity also emerged from underground.

Chaco Canyon

A rabbit popped out of and back into the dry grass and disappeared: like the desert spider, which is worshipped as an ancestral god, it lives in the Great Mother’s Womb.

At one time, Chaco Canyon was a center of a bustling community. Archaeologists have found the remnants of roads thirty feet wide extending out from it in several directions, and the footprints of other Great Houses along or at the end of streambeds. Pottery, turquoise, feathers, and shells were brought here from as far away as Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.

It’s not hard to imagine what might have led to the collapse of this community. The area might have flourished during an era of good winter rainfall: clouds from the west bring rain to keep the streams flowing, the underground pools of water full. The Pueblo religion is based on the worship of ancestors who return as rainclouds in the winter months. These being, called kachinas, are ritually portrayed in dances during that season. In a prolonged period of drought, there wouldn’t be enough water to sustain crops to support the number of people living there. The streams go dry; the people migrate to more fertile areas, leaving the stone village to fall into ruins.


That same winter, we visited Acoma Pueblo on the day after Christmas. I had read about Acoma Pueblo in the writings of Leslie Silko, from nearby Laguna Pueblo. Her stories are told from a native point of view, an alternative to and critique of American Capitalism, a way of looking at the earth and all its living beings as spiritually connected to people, not just a pile of resources to be exploited for profit. One of my Chicano colleagues at Berkeley told me he didn’t like Silko’s stories because they were “too Indian”; that was exactly why I liked them.

In “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination,” Silko notes: “The human beings could not have emerged without the aid of antelope and badger. The human beings depended on the aid and charity of the animals. Only through interdependence could the human beings survive. Life on the high arid plateau became viable when the human beings were able to imagine themselves as sisters and brothers to the badger, antelope, clay, yucca, and sun.”

In Storyteller, a collection of autobiographical and cultural writing, she describes a deer hunting ritual:

In the fall, the Laguna hunters go to the hills and mountains around Laguna Pueblo to bring back the deer. The people think of the deer as coming to give themselves to the hunters so that the people will have meat through the winter. Late in the winter the Deer Dance is performed to honor and pay thanks to the deer spirits who’ve come home with the hunters that year. Only when this has been properly done will the spirits be able to return to the mountain and be reborn into more deer who will, remembering the reverence and appreciation of the people, once more come home with the hunters. (191)

This passage gave me an insight into a moral problem that had puzzled me for a long time. In our modern civilization animals (as opposed to pets) have been reduced to the status of pests, to be exterminated; or meat, raised and slaughtered using industrial mass-production techniques. Meat appears in a patty or a slab in a styrofoam container wrapped in plastic in the supermarket, without any evidence of a connection to a once living being.

TV programs present animals in a competition in which the biggest and fastest, with the sharpest teeth survive: we are biologically programmed to interact with other animals as predator and prey, and this becomes the metaphor for global economic competition. Yet I felt a vague guilt about eating the flesh of something that was once living, a remnant perhaps of Buddhist influences in my upbringing. In principle, I thought we should treat all living beings with respect and for a while, I tried to become a vegetarian, but failed.

After reading Silko’s passage, I realized that human relationships to animals need not be simply predator consuming prey. The assumptions and attitude of the hunter mattered—if the animal is seen as sacrificing itself to help a fellow being and the killing is done with humility and respect and appreciation, the relationship becomes spiritual rather than material.

Deer Dance at Acoma

Situated atop a mesa rising from a plain between Albuquerque and Gallup, Acoma is the oldest continually inhabited town in North America.

Acoma Pueblo

(from “Anasazi Indians of the Mesa Verde - Kayenta Period” by O. Ned Eddins at

The town is normally closed to visitors, but opens for public ceremonies that affect not just the residents of Acoma, but the rest of the world. On the day we visited, a deer dance was going to be performed, and we were allowed to walk up the road to the town for the ceremony.

Four dancers, wearing antlers and evergreen branches on their heads, appeared from one of the houses to the shaking of rattles and bells. They walked with a cane in each hand, to simulate, very suggestively, the four-legged gait of the deer. One of the dancers was a young boy, learning the traditional ceremony to pass it on. The dancers crossed the plaza, entered the Franciscan church of San Estevan, built in 1629, and continued the dance inside. Christianty has absorbed or been absorbed into the traditional Acoma culture—the sacrifice of the deer and the sacrifice of Christ together.

Turtle Dance at O‘ke

That same winter, we watched a Turtle Dance at the Tewa village of O‘ke (San Juan Pueblo), 25 miles north of Santa Fe, on the eastern bank of the Rio Grande, near the fork with the Chama river. The fertile alluvial soil and irrigation supports good crop growth.

San Juan Pueblo

San Juan Pueblo, from “New Mexico, Land of Enchantment”

Here, in one of the largest of the Tewa-speaking Pueblo villages, the number of dancers, men and women, was much greater than at Acoma – sixty or seventy strong. To chanting and the rhthymic-rattling of turtle shells with pig hooves attached, carrying branches of evergreens, the dancers moved around the village, from plaza to plaza: the dance is performed four times, four being the magical number of completion, the first three above ground, the last underground, in a kiva. The dance is performed around the Winter Solstice, that time of the year when the sun reaches it southernmost limit and “stands in place,” the depth and stillness of winter. Should the sun stay there, nature would freeze over. According to tradition, the first animal to awake from hibernation and move is the turtle, and the dance reenacts the renewal of life that the movement of the turtle represents and marks the beginning of the sun’s journey back to the northern sky through spring and summer.

Although the chants are recomposed every year, the imagery is taken from a traditional repository. Here are some lines from the songs recorded in 1974 (Oku Shareh: Turtle Dance Songs of San Juan Pueblo, New World Records):

Here at the Dewy Water Structure, sacred village
Here at Misty Corn Structure, sacred village
Poseyemu’s sons
Poseyemu’s daughters
Graceful are they moving about as turtles!
Beautifully are they dancing as turtles! (from Turtle Dance Song 1)

Over there, at the Lake of the Dawn,
Dawn youths, their singing is heard!
The beautiful singing of Dawn Youths is heard! (Turtle Dance Song 2)

Away to the west, holy people are gathering
From every direction!
They come, with their wheat-growing powers,
And still they come!
Until here they have arrived! (loud rattling) (Turtle Dance Song 3)

Alfonzo Ortiz explains the significance of the imagery:

First, in their celebration of sons and daughters, of youthful dawn beings, of the dawning place, and of holy people of great vitality, the songs celebrate renewal and regeneration and the continuing process of creation. In their frequent mention of lakes, rainwater, fog rainbows, and mist cream, they express a concern for fertility. So, at the ends of songs and their dances, we often have the holy ones arriving joyously, with an abundance of corn, wheat, squash, and life-imbuing powers. (6)

A crowd of tourists, we among them, had gathered. A clown who accompanies the dancers drew a hearth in the sand and needed someone to watch it while he roamed around the circle of onlookers, performing his antics. He pulled me into the performance, asking me to tend his imaginary fire in his imaginary hearth. This turtle dance seemed a healthier way to mark the start of the year than the Christmas and New Year celebrations in the cities of America, the orgy of consumption a dance of death.