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Native American Dances & Ancient Ruins in Santa Fe

Buffalo Dancer. Credit Travis Suazo
Buffalo Dancer. Credit Travis Suazo

By Kim D. McHugh

Watching a Corn Dance at the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo near Santa Fe gives me a better understanding of why New Mexico has “Land of Enchantment” on its license plates. In a gathering of more than 200 tribal members, the Corn Dance is performed as a blessing of the fields and is one of many annual celebrations that occur at New Mexico’s 19 pueblos.

The ritual and the costuming fascinate me. Curious, I ask a nearby tribal representative and learn that the “dance” is really more of a religiously oriented ceremony or prayer for rain and a bountiful crop.

Corn Dancer. Credit Travis Suazo.
Corn Dancer. Credit Travis Suazo.

Energized by rhythmic drumming and chants provided by a scrum of more than a dozen men, two columns of colorfully adorned tribal members enter a large plaza. As the drumming and chanting continue the dancers, who are comprised of men, women and children, turn to face each other then for the next two hours perform their intriguing steps.

I notice three clowns moving among the group. Easily identifiable by their sparse loincloth, as well as torsos, arms and legs painted in alternating gray and white stripes, it is their role to poke fun through pantomime. Their satirical behavior targets tribal members who are not taking the ceremony seriously—usually the younger children—or occasionally white onlookers who may be behaving with disrespect.

With its simple pageantry and hypnotizing rhythm the dance is quite enchanting. Harvest Dances, Basket Dances, Cloud Dances and Eagle Dances are among those open to the public.

Hiking along the Puye Cliffs.
Hiking along the Puye Cliffs.

Two days after playing a round of golf at Black Mesa, my wife and I toured the Puye Cliff Dwellings. Translated from Tewa, the local tribal language, “Puye” (pronounced POO-yay) means “pueblo where rabbits assemble”. On the tour, Porter Swentzel, an extremely knowledgeable Native American guide from the Santa Clara Pueblo, explained that the abandoned cliff dwellings dated to the 12th century.

Speaking occasionally in Tewa, our guide said this was home to an estimated 1,500 villagers who occupied two living areas: the mesa and the cliffs just below. As we walked the upper site, Swentzel pointed out an intact kiva, a circular, below ground room traditionally used for religious purposes.

After browsing the plateau we headed down to the cliff dwellings. Swentzel shared that the volcanic rock face once had more than 700 rooms on two levels. Sadly, erosion and vandalism combined to reduce that number to just a handful. Thankfully, a few petroglyphs have survived so we were able to see how various clans indicated their dwellings via animals, the circle of life or deities.

Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966, the Puye Cliff Dwellings joins Bandelier National Monument as one of two regional examples of ancient Indian life. By the way, though the Weather Channel’s five-day forecast called for clear skies in Santa Fe, the next afternoon we witnessed a drenching thunderstorm.

Apparently the Corn Dance worked.

Details:  To learn more about events at the 19 Native American regional Pueblos, log on to www.indianpueblo.org.

Puye Cliffs: Three tours are available: the Puye Adventure Tour (plan on 2 hours) costs $35 per adult and includes the mesa top, the cliffs and the Harvey House. The Cliff Side Tour or Mesa Tops Tour each run $20 per adult; the Harvey House Tour costs $7. (Plan on 1 hour). Seniors (55+) save $2 off tours. www.puyecliffs.com

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