Skip to Content

< Previous | Next >


It is unusually cold and cloudy this December afternoon in 1976. The damp chill tells me there may be snow tonight. I have driven my old 1965 Chevy pickup from my home in Ramah, New Mexico, over to Zuni Pueblo, hoping to do a little trading. I can see at once that the village is busy with activity. I know it is the time for the annual solstice ceremony. I have attended this ceremony several times; however, I am just a youthful observer and have no real idea of the complex significance of this ritual.

Imagine a dance, a musical extravaganza with several hundred costumed performers, taking place simultaneously at seven different locations and lasting about fourteen hours. The preparation for this event takes 12 months, and includes numerous other important and symbolic ritual activities throughout the year. The support group to choreograph all of these activities consists of several thousand people. This annual ritual is called Shalako, and is one of the oldest continually performed religious ceremonies in North America.

Zuni Pueblo, in western New Mexico, near the Arizona state line, is home to this intricate and complex annual rite, which occurs near the time of the winter solstice. It is both a traditional house blessing ceremony as well as an opportunity to offer prayers for the year ahead. Each year seven new homes are built in the pueblo, all through labor contributed by village members. This annual building of the homes insure a continuation of village growth.

Some of those with major responsibilities receive their appointment from various village headmen, while other positions have to do with family lineage. Sometimes it appears as though everyone knows their job without seeming to receive any instructions at all.

As I said, I was hoping to do a little trading. I had brought with me various items: molted parrot feathers from the tropical rain forest, a little turquoise, some shell from Mexico. I stopped at my friend Jahulalita's house and saw that there were a lot of pickups parked there, some with sheep in the back; smoke was pouring from both chimneys. Jajulalita greeted me with a smile and I could feel excitement and high energy spilling out from inside the house.

Instead of inviting me inside her home as was customary, Jahulalita came outside and motioned me to follow her. We went to a shed around back of the house, where she opened the door and let me in. I knew at once that I had entered a new reality and my face must have registered the shock. Julalita was laughing and asked if I would help her family prepare for the evening feast. I must have agreed because she left and I stood there for a second, observing the scene before me.

The size of this room is about fifteen feet by fifteen feet. There is a roaring fire in the big wood burning stove in the center of the shed; the temperature in the room must be 105 degrees. There are maybe forty people in the room, along with about twenty or thirty sheep.

The sheep are in various stages of being slaughtered by young men with hand knives. All I can hear is the gurgling sound of bleating sheep as their throats are being cut. The old women are helping by carefully removing the organs and preparing the meat for cooking. I never knew what death really smells like until now.

A young man motions me over with a casual wave of his bloody knife-wielding hand. With few words he gives me a choice of several knives, while at the same time another fellow hands me a rope with a sheep attached to the other end. The sheep is bleating, speaking to me; pleading, maybe knowing that I have not been a meat eater for several years.

I sit on a stool with the sheep between my legs, its back toward me. I lift the head and pull it towards me, and reach around to the exposed neck and begin to draw my knife across its jugular vein. The knife feels awfully dull; it doesn't want to penetrate the skin. My sheep is not jumping around or squirming too much; in fact it is very calm, just bleating. My hands are weak.

Finally, I am able to muster the strength to draw blood and begin to cut, using a sawing motion. I try to finish quickly; but, somehow, I have entered a surreal time zone where everything is moving very slowly and I can see that this death will take a long time. My sheep is not fighting at all; it is very docile as I keep cutting.

Blood begins to flow down the neck of my sheep, kind of like a babbling brook; I picture water moving over rocks. With each breath there is a gurgling bleat, a little more blood being pumped out of the jugular vein. In this small and busy room, I am alone with my sheep. I don't like the heavy smell of death and try not to breathe. Finally, I have cut enough that I know my sheep has irrevocably passed on and will soon enter the stew pot.

As I finish this initial phase of slaughter, a tiny old Zuni lady comes over to show me what to do next. I make an incision down the stomach, from the neck to the anus and around the arms and legs. She is warning me to be careful not to puncture any of the organs, and helps me begin to separate the coat from the corpse. By carefully holding onto a flap of skin and using the knife to cut the layer of fat under the skin, I am able at the same time to slowly free the skin from the body. It is almost like pulling off a sweater.

I am almost enjoying the methodical movements of this process, even though it seems to be taking me quite a while. I am even somehow getting used to the smell. The old lady has expertly removed the organs, leaving a carcass ready to be cut up. I am soon finished and leave the shed.

As I exit into the hazy late afternoon sun, I am lightheaded and almost sorry to leave. Although I am breathing it in deeply, the fresh air confuses me and I feel isolated. The lack of ego in the shed and the way everyone worked together, the youngest of the men and the oldest of the women, gave me a sense of unity that had no basis in my own personal experience. I am a little wobbly as I get into my truck and head over toward the Zuni River.

Quite a crowd has gathered behind the old trading post. There are several Zuni, as well as a few Anglos, all talking quietly among themselves. I see a few acquaintances and nod, still too dazed to want to engage in conversation. What could I really say? How could I explain where I have been for the last several hours?

Suddenly everyone is alert, looking to the west! Although they are still distant, I can hear the clearly identifiable sound of approaching dancers: a shuffle of bells; leg rattles made of turtle shells, clanging as the attached deer hooves hit against their surface; hand held gourd rattles…all shifting and shaking as they walk up the Zuni River. Soon the entourage is in sight.

The Shalakos, couriers of the rain deities, are walking in line as they enter the village to bless the new homes. They are surrounded by several attendants; the Salimopia, the many-coloured Warrior of the Zenith?, serve as guards for the winter solstice katsinas. They keep plenty of space between the Shalakos and the public, punishing ceremonial transgressions. Because their breath brings the wind, they appear only during the winter months.

Each Shalako is over ten feet tall, its headpiece a cluster of around fifteen bright red and blue twenty-inch macaw tail feathers, framed by eagle plumes. There is a bunch, almost a bouquet, of dozens of smaller yellow and green macaw fluff on top of the head. Around his neck are several turquoise and jacklaw bead necklaces. He is wrapped in a traditional cotton shawl. The sight is truly remarkable!

The sun is just setting as the entourage moves past us and up the Zuni River to houses where they will be fed and then rest for several hours. It is easy to spot the Shalako houses, because of the many trucks parked in front, the enormous stacks of cedar firewood in front and the bright lights in the windows. The crowd slowly dissipates as the group moves on.

I leave my truck and head over toward the closest house with bright lights, about a 500 meter walk. It is already dark and getting colder by the minute. The cloud cover is low and it is only a matter of time until the snow will begin to fall. As I approach the house there is a warm energy visibly emanating from 100 feet out. Standing in front of one of the large windows I try to see into the house, but the condensation from the cold has completely fogged over the glass.

Gathering my courage I enter the house from one of the side doors, and feel the same initial shock that I experienced earlier in the day when I entered the slaughter shed. The temperature inside is easily 100 degrees, with wood burning cook stoves blazing; a dozen Zuni women in aprons bustling around. There are enormous cauldrons of hominy and mutton stew bubbling on the stoves. Several tables have been put together to form one large table maybe 18 feet long by 6 feet wide. Dozens of loaves of sourdough bread are piled on the table, fresh-baked in homemade adobe ovens. Bowls of fresh fruit are at either end of the table. Large serving dishes full of chili, plates of cakes and donuts and other sweets fill the table.

After this initial visual and olfactory reaction, I begin to get my bearings. I look toward where I hear the steady and rhythmic sound of chanting, and see that at the far side of the kitchen there is a partition, beyond which is another room sunken into the ground. I edge my way through the crowd of observers until I am in front of this partition, looking down into the sunken room.

There is a group of maybe thirty men with rattles, sitting in a circle around a drummer. Chanting to the steady beat of the drum, eyes half closed, they are entranced. Each man is dressed in new clothes; mostly jeans with checkered flannel shirts; all wearing bandanas made into headbands, apparently to signify their status. I have never seen anything like this: men of all ages, praying and chanting fervently and publicly with no sense of ego.

The time is probably about 9:30 pm and the praying just keeps going on. A song will end and, in a single breath, the next one begins. Only moments go by before everyone is lost in the new rhythm. I too am lost in the rhythm, completely caught up in this vortex of energy.

I know time is passing, but I have no idea how quickly. I see that the sixty or so folding metal chairs in the sunken chamber have been filled with women and children. Everyone's attention is drawn to a commotion at the exterior door to the chamber. Two men wrapped in Pendleton blankets enter, ushering in the Shalako. There is an audible intake of breath as the people gasp in awe at their first sight of this masked god. The Shalako enters the chamber with his entourage.

The beat quickly changes with the entry of the Shalako, and he immediately begins to dance. He moves in rhythm to the drums and chanting, back and forth across the room. This goes on for some time. He never seems to tire.

As though the grand entry of the Shalako contains a hidden signal, the ladies in the upper rooms immediately begin to ladle out enormous bowls of steaming stew and put them onto the tables. They are incredibly courteous hostesses, making certain all the visitors are eating. Hundreds of visitors are eating stew, breaking off chunks of freshly baked sourdough bread. Of course, I remember that this identical scene is occurring simultaneously in six other houses

Later, the door opens to allow another entourage to enter: several more men wrapped in Pendleton blankets and bandana headbands are accompanying several Mudheads. Although Mudhead work is sacred and serious…they have worked for the Zuni people for an entire year without pay, building the very house I am standing in, they also act as clownish detractors. The crowd begins to buzz as the new dancers join in. The Mudheads dance around the ten foot tall Shalako, looking like dwarfs. They seem to taunt the Shalako, like mosquitoes.

Usually extremely focused, but sometimes very playful, the Shalako suddenly comes charging across the room, bent over, with his beak clacking. The Mudheads scramble to get out of the giants path. The spectators are always taken by surprise by this playfulness; they all jump, and then giggle self-consciously, as the tension of the spectacle is broken for a moment.

The dance goes on indefinitely throughout the night. A song will end and another begins on the next breath. Spectators in the sunken chamber, usually friends and family members of the group sponsoring the house, come and go, Children dozing on their mother's laps. The mothers themselves also sometimes dozing, looking up quickly when there is a change in the rhythm or a door opens.

The upper rooms are so completely full of spectators, that every exterior window, completely steamed over by the heat of the bodies and fire inside, is full of people peering in. There are Native Americans from other tribes, visiting quietly amongst themselves; Anglo visitors in their bright city clothes, always speaking too loudly and asking too many questions? wanting to know the unknowable and to understand that which cannot be understood, even in a lifetime. Local cowboys and traders who seem to know many of the people.

A song ends and the Mudheads suddenly leave with their handlers as quickly as they appeared. The drum begins the beat of a new song, the chanters pick up the chant and the Shalako keeps dancing. It must be after 3 in the morning by now and I decide to visit another house.

I walk through the village toward the south side, by the water tower, where the Longhorn house is. Not everyone is attending the dances. There are several bonfires along the way, with youngsters standing around smoking and talking. Even so, the mellowness of the night permeates the entire village and everyone here. The new homes have been built and the old tradition is continuing another year: the cycle is once again being completed.

As I come near to the Longhorn house, I see a large crowd forming outside. Several men in Pendleton blankets are securing a large open space behind the house. Spectators and participants alike are coming out from both the sunken chamber as well as the upper rooms, forming a circle around this space. I then see the image of the Longhorn, an imposing figure.

His headpiece has a black and white striped horn coming from its side, above where the ear should be. He is wearing a kilt.In his right hand he is holding what appears to be a cow's bell, a sprig of cedar in his left. CONTINUE DESCRIPTION

Although the crowd is huge, there is hardly a murmur. This is a solemn moment. The Longhorn is the go-between for the people. He is conveying the prayers of the people for a good year to come. Every symbolic act of this ceremony is specific. He first takes several steps in a direction, shaking the bell, intoning the prayers with incredible emotion, for an indeterminate amount of time. The Longhorn continues praying to the different directions, shaking the bell, going through several motions that I often miss or do not understand. He finishes, the annual blessings completed, and is escorted back inside by his handlers.

It's probably almost five am by now. As the crowd breaks up outside the Longhorn House, I wander back across the Zuni River to another Shalako House. The energy is still strong here. The dancers are dancing. The chanters are chanting. The women are cooking. The spectators are observing. The young children are nodding off; watching, half-dazed; this scene being their entire reality. In fact, this scene is reality for all of us here, witnessing this ancient observance

I am sensing the first light of day. A song ends; the singers take a breath, but instead of beginning a new song as they have been doing for the previous twelve hours, there is only silence; they simply get up, fold their metal chairs and walk away. Although I have observed no signal from anywhere I can see that the ceremony is over. I watch the dancers exit with their handlers; the women gather their belongings: chairs, shawls and children, quietly leaving. I feel empty in the silence; a void where the music had been.

The reality I had entered over seventeen hours earlier has become the only true thing. I had abandoned my sense of self, as well as everything I "know". It had seemed as though this feeling would last forever; that I now existed in a world of chanting and dancing. The feeling is so powerful and strong, that for it to end seems impossible. I go to my truck and slowly drive east toward Ramah, into the rising sun.

Authors Note: While the deepest significance of this ritual will probably remain a mystery to me forever, I have been fortunate to be able to continue to observe the preparation and performance of this ritual for over forty years.

Return to Table of Contents

< Previous | Next >

cataloged under

^Back to Top^