Hopi Snake Dance
Hopi Snake Dance
The SNAKE DANCE is performed by the Hopi Indians on their Reservation in the northeastern part of Arizona. It takes place every year, but at alternate places-one year at Walpi and Mishongnavi, the next at Oraibi, Shungopavi, and Hotevilla. It is the closing public exhibition of a nine-days' secret ceremony in the kivas of the Antelope and Snake Clans.
The exact date is never known until ten days before the dance is to take place. What determines the date, the Whites do not know, though there are various conjectures. Some say it is when the sun casts a shadow from a certain rock in a certain way. However, it is always between the middle and end of August.
The dance is another prayer for rain. The snakes are the emissaries to the Rain Powers, and are held very sacred by the Indians. I shall describe it as we saw it at Mishongnavi on August 2 1, 1927.
In the center of the plaza was the kisi, a sheaf of cottonwood boughs, about ten feet tall and six feet in diameter, hollowed at the front where was hung a square of cloth as a doorway. To one side was a raised pit of stone, covered with a large flat stone lid, where the snakes later retreated.
At about S P.M., from the kiva there entered twelve Antelope Priests. They were painted red-brown, with zigzag stripes of white running up and down the upper body. They wore the usual Corn Dance apron, and the sash of the Zuni Rain Dance. From the back of each waistline hung an animal skin-mostly gray foxes, but in other cases, a badger, a cacomistle, a red fox, and a kit fox. On the head was an upright bunch of reddish-brown feathers, which looked like those of a Rhode Island Red rooster. They wore brown skin moccasins, with a self-fringe around the tops. In their hands, they carried each a rattle and a bag of sacred meal.
The step of their entrance was nothing but a vigorous walk in time to their rattles. They marched thus about the whole circle of the plaza four times. Every time they passed in front of the cottonwood bower, each stamped with his right foot on a board sunk into the earth at that point. This board covered a little pit, and had a small hole-the sipaf -in the center, representing the entrance to the underworld. The stamping was a message to the nether spirits-to the Great Plumed Waterserpent-that the Snake Dance was about to be performed. Each time they passed the little snake altar, they sprinkled on it sacred meal from their bags.
Finally, they stood in a line in front of the bower, backs to it, and marked time, raising the right foot decidedly higher than the left at
This continued for about two minutes, when there entered from Ahe kiva the Snake Priests, thirteen in number, headed by an albino. Their bodies were painted brown; their faces up to the foreheads, black.
The body paint was rubbed off in a six inch oval from either breast and the navel. They wore nothing but a scant breech clout, a skirt of brown leather fringed full length, and brown moccasins. The headdress was of red-brown feathers. In the right hand, each carried a bow, decorated with feathers; also a cottonwood wand about six inches long, tipped with two (in some cases three) eagle feathers. Two young boys (about eight and nine) were of this group.
They entered with a very vigorous march step, oblivious of the crowd, but marching in so wide a circle that the crowd scurried out of
their way. They circled the plaza four times, each stamping on the board in front of the booth at each passing.
Finally, they came to position opposite and facing the Antelope priests, and marked time. The rhythm was kept by the rattles; there was no drum or tom-tom, and, up to this point, no singing.
After a few moments, they began a very soft chanting, inaudible at first, swaying their bodies from side to side, and keeping time with their feather wands. They tapped the wands in air rapidly, twice to the left, twice to the right, etc., nine full times (eighteen double counts). This was done four or five times. Once in a while, they did it three times to each side, then back to the two-rhythm. Evidently they were singing a song to which they were keeping time, though we could not at all times hear their voices. The rhythm seemed to be i'-2-3-rest; r'-2-3-rest; that
is, loud-soft to left, light-soft to right in the wand movement; but loudsoft to left, light-rest to right in the song rhythm. The music is well given on Victor record No. 20043- I have attempted to notate a portion of this ( Song No. 17) .
Song No. 17 Snake Dance
lotated by Julia M. Buttree from Victor Record 20043.
kfter perhaps three minutes of this, they stopped abruptly. 04, heir number left the ranks, and strolled around in front of the ,d, apparently looking for someone in particular. He finally picke
old Indian, whom he led into the circle of dancers in front of t
~r. (Edgar K. Miller, Indian Agent at Keam's Canyon, tells me this rt of an initiation for the old man, who will eventually, after severa r trials, be taken into the Snake Order.) It became the duty of th', nan to hand out the snakes which were on the ground in the bower,' id the cloth doorway.
he Snake Priests now resolved themselves into groups of three, as ws: No. 2 put his left arm around the neck of No. i; No. i put hii ; arm around the waist of No. 2; thus they walked very close to.6'~ m No. 3 walked alone behind this pair. No. 4 as No. i; No.
o. 2; No. 6 as NO. 3, etc.
.'hey began another song, this time louder; and went around the once with a march step in which the right foot came up much r each time than the left. At intervals the right foot was held !nded for two counts of the music.
)n the second round, the old initiate handed out a snake, which w i by No. i and held in his mouth about 4 inches back of the head. tail was draped across the bent lef t arm. No. 2 kept waving his ier wand in front of the snake's head. No. 4 and No. 5 etc., did ame; while No 3, No. 6, etc., walked behind each his own pair, No. i, No. 4, etc., threw their snakes on the ground. Then NO. 3, 5, etc., maneuvered the snakes until it was possible to pick them up. ~n the next round, a new snake was given to each leader, and the procedure followed. All told, there were about thirty snakes used
rattlers, bull snakes, and racers. NO 3, No. 6, etc., finally bad their bands full. The snakes bung like strings of boiled spaghetti, soft and squirmy.
Several times it certainly looked as if one of the dancers was struck. Sometimes, the snakes coiled about the throat or the arm of a dancer, so that it was difficult to free it. (Miller says he has seen blood drawn from the face of a dancer by a snake, but these Snake Priests are immune to the poison. And poison there surely is, since nothing is done to the fangs of the snakes to lessen the danger.)
As the Priests began to dance with the snakes, three women came forward on one side, and nine on the other. They wore black shawls like those of the Zuni Rain dancers. At each passing of the Snake Priests, the women sprinkled holy meal on them.
When all the snakes had been used, the dancer of each triad who had been carrying them dropped them to the ground in a circle of meal. Each Snake Priest then grabbed some snakes. Four ran to the east, four to the west, two to the north and two to the south, to return the snakes, now prayer laden, to the places where they had found them nine days before.
After about an hour, all had returned. They went into the kiva, soon came up clad in nothing but a gee string, carefully washed their bodies; and then each drank at least a quart of an awful looking, greenish, brownish, thick liquid provided by two of the women. This emetic may be the reason for their immunity to the poison of the snakes, coupled with the fact that they have been fasting in the kiva for nine days, washing and handling the snakes. Also, no dancer picked up a snake when it was coiled, but used his wand to uncoil it before handling.
I have made no attempt to adapt this dance. If the attitude of a group is serious, I see no reason why it should not be done exactly as described, except for the live snakes. If, however, it is likely to provoke mirth or ridicule, I earnestly urge that it will not be attempted. It iF part of the Hopi's religion, and I quote the Woodcraft Law: Reverence the Great Spirit, and respect all worship of Him by others; for none have all the truth, and all who reverently worship have claims on our respect.
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Last modified: October 15, 2016.