Sunday, January 22, 2012
Willow Prayer Sticks
Weather: Some rain Tuesday, more muddy afternoons; 10:08 hours of daylight today.
What’s blooming: Black mustard coming into bloom along shoulders.
What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens; stems on hybrid roses and young chamisa; leaves on grape hyacinth, alfilerillo, gypsum phacelia seedlings, snakeweed, anthemis, strap leaf aster; cheat grass.
Men have been pruning their apples this week.
What’s red: Cholla; branches on Russian olive, tamarix, sandbar willow, apples, apricots, spirea, wild roses and raspberry; leaves on coral bells, pinks, soapworts.
What’s blue or gray: Piñon; leaves on four-winged saltbush, snow-in-summer, stickleaf seedlings, beardtongues, golden hairy and purple asters.
What’s yellow-green/yellow-brown: Arborvitae, branches on weeping willow.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium, Christmas cactus. A twig of sandbar willow I stuck in water has put out some roots and a leaf is beginning to open.
Animal sightings: Small birds.
Weekly update: Rain this week washed away what snow remained, but judging from my muddy drive, the water hasn’t gone far.
What a difference a year makes. The monsoons of 2010 left little water. We got some snow the usual time, just before the solstice, but it soon disappeared, to be replaced by zero temperatures last January with no cover to insulate plants.
Some flurries fell the first week of February, followed by below zero temperatures and a gas outage that left us with no heat for a week. Then nothing until May when more snow fell that killed what apple blossoms had managed to survive. The cherries and apricots hadn’t much tried to bloom.
By June we knew we were in serious drought. In past years, the pueblos would have been sending messengers to the rain spirits at Tsikomó mountain four days after the summer solstice. But last year, the Pacheco Fire that began June 18 had put restrictions on forest use. Then the Las Conchas fire broke out June 26 and crossed the headwaters of Santa Clara Creek (P’opii Khanu) on its way past what the Forest Service called Mount Chicoma on June 29.
In a normal year at San Juan, Alfonso Ortiz says the agricultural cycle begins on January 20, a month after the solstice, when the chief of the Winter moiety initiates To Lessen the Cold. This ends when, on the fourth day, he formally asks the chief of the Summer people to “seek life for all.”
On February 20, the Summer chief initiates Bringing the Buds to Life. March 20 marks Bringing the Leaves to Life and April 20 begins Bringing the Blossoms to Life. This work is so important, it must be postponed for four days if someone dies while it’s in progress. As Ortiz notes, since people do die, the work often is not completed until the beginning of June.
If no rain has come by the end of the retreat for Bringing the Blossoms to Life, “all of the Made People go on a ‘rain retreat’ to the mountain and hill shrines west of the village.” He doesn’t detail what occurs, but only says the purpose is “to pray, meditate, and make offerings to the spirits of the shrines and earth navels.” While there, they also “gather plant medicines for use in other rituals.”
After the Las Conchas fire burned through the headwaters of the creek, the Santa Clara governor, Walter Dasheno, called a press conference to express his dismay. But, when he had to explain why the fire was so serious, he would only say it destroyed “cultural sites, forest resources, plants and animals that the people of Santa Clara depend upon for their livelihood and culture” and that “he and other pueblo members were continuing to pray.”
William Boone Douglass grew impatient with the silence of local people regarding Tsikomó, and entered the sacred space in 1911. As he climbed the 11,400' mountain he moved beyond the timber line. The sacred spring was about 50' below the crust, which was bare, except for a group of four piñon.
When Ortiz climbed the mountain with two others from San Juan in 1964, they noticed the number of trees killed by lightening and the greater level of precipitation. He took that and the constant presence of rain clouds as signs the spirits were unusually active there. The lower part of the mountain is the source for both Santa Clara Creek and Rio Oso.
At the top, Douglass found a stone mound in the center of the crest. To the south was a stone enclosure (Kwan-po) with seven exits on the east side. These are the openings for the rain roads (awu-mu-wa-ya) used by the Taos, San Juan, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Jemez, Cochiti and Navajo.
In the center was a saucer like depression. To its west was a polished blackware vase which had held water and corn meal offerings. Behind the vase were rows of prayer sticks planted in the earth.
Prayer stick is a confusing term, because while the sacred objects to which it refers are similar in form - a stick or pair of sticks, with feathers and plant matter attached by cotton cording - they are used in most of the pueblos for overlapping and sometimes differing purposes.
Ruth Bunzel found among the Zuñi, their most important associations were with the two solstices, and that winter solstice activity was related to the kachinas. At Isleta, Elsie Clews Parsons says prayer sticks were used during the summer solstice only, and that the Tewa speaking pueblos only used them in times of drought. She notes there they were made by all the chiefs and taken to the top of Tsikomó.
Douglass identified 14 different types of prayer sticks in the space shared by three Tewa speaking pueblos, a Tiwa speaking, a Towa speaking, and Keres speaking one, along with an Athabascan group. Most were made from willow, but other materials were used. Parsons says willow was used for rain or water spirits and oak or pine for the war cult.
The most important reason willow is used is that it only grows near water. Frank Cushing went so far as to suggest the Zuñi believed willow brought forth water. The Hopi call their prayer sticks paho, meaning water wood.
In a binary world sharply divided between two moieties where harmony and community are valued, the prayer sticks may also have acted as symbolic bridges between two discrete worlds. Sometimes, two sticks are bound together, representing male and female or, Douglass was told, older and younger brothers.
Among the Zuñi, the fact willow has separate male and female flowers seems important. Bunzel heard a poem used for offering prayer sticks at the winter solstice that included the lines:
From all the wooded places
Breaking off the young straight shoots
Of the male willow, female willow
Another used at a monthly offering of prayer sticks was
Four times cutting the straight young shoots
And, during the chief’s summer retreat to bring rain, she heard
Male willow, female willow.
Four times breaking off the straight young shoots.
The other important characteristic of willow is color.
Most prayer sticks found at Tsikomó were made from wood with “smooth reddish bark” and painted green or yellow. The attached plants were either ones with yellow flowers (goldenrod and snakeweed) or green sedges. Ortiz says the colors associated with the Summer people are black, yellow and green, while the one associated with the Winter is red.
The willow is almost always described as red, but Parsons says in one pueblo “one moiety uses red willow, the other yellow willow.” Often, the wood is painted with green or black paint, the one color representing life, the other the underworld.
What isn’t mentioned, but must be observed, is the colors of willow embody elements of both summer and winter in a single branch. In one season, it’s clothed in green leaves. In January, its bare stems are not dormant, but every day become a more vivid red.
Baca, Joe. “Las Conchas Fire Burns More Than 6,000 acres of Santa Clara Pueblo Land – 6/30,” Santa Clara press release, 30 June 2011; words with potentially coded meanings are bolded.
Bunzel, Ruth L. Introduction to Zuñi Ceremonialism, 1932.
_____. Zuñi Ritual Poetry, 1932.
Cushing, Frank Hamilton. Zuni Breadstuff, 1920.
Douglass, William Boone. “Notes on the Shrines of the Tewa and Other Pueblo Indians of New Mexico,” International Congress of Americanists Proceedings 19:344-378:1915.
Los Alamos Monitor. “Santa Clara Pueblo Declares State of Emergency,” 30 June 2011; words with potentially coded meanings are bolded.
Ortiz, Alfonso. The Tewa World, 1969.
Parsons, Elise Clews. Pueblo Indian Religion, vol 1, 1939.
Photographs:1. Red willow near a public path that someone cut, 1/15/12.
2. Las Conchas fire from my back porch about 12 miles away, 7/4/11. I believe this is one of the canyons south of Tsikomó.
3. Goldenrod growing on a ditch bank, the water now frozen, 1/20/12. The local Solidago species doesn't bloom at the time of summer solstice, but everywhere I’ve seen it here it’s been growing near water.
4. Snakeweed in my drive, 1/21/12. Douglass identified the plant he found used as Gutierrezia eathania. I haven’t found any other reference to that name. The species that’s common here, Gutierrezia sarothrae, doesn't bloom at the time of summer solstice, but it retains some green leaves all winter.