Sunday, February 05, 2012
Basket Dance Spruce
Weather: Snow Friday morning disappeared by late afternoon; snow Friday night gone in the morning; 10:15 hours of daylight today.
What’s blooming: Black mustard, biological crust, moss.
What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens; stems on hybrid roses and young chamisa; leaves on grape hyacinth, sweet pea, alfilerillo, gypsum phacelia, snakeweed, chrysanthemum, anthemis, strap leaf aster; cheat grass.
Leaf buds emerging or elongating on Bradford pear, Lapins cherry, peach, Siberian pea, forsythia. Unchanged on snowball and lilacs.
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, beardtongues, golden hairy and purple asters.
What’s yellow-green/yellow-brown: Arborvitae; branches on weeping willow more intensely yellow.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.
Animal sightings: Small birds.
Weekly update: The Basket Dance is a part of local change of season rituals that has constant symbolic elements despite variations between Tewa speaking pueblos. Santa Clara performed it between summer and winter in October of 1912, San Ildefonso between winter and summer in March in the 1920's, and San Juan the first of January as part of the transfer of responsibility from the winter people to the summer ones.
Alfonso Ortiz suggests that because it’s associated with a change in seasons it’s one of three dances which requires new songs every year. The others are the Cloud Dance (also called the Squash Dance and the Thunder Dance) with which it alternates from year to year, and the Turtle Dance which precedes it and initiates the transition of power at San Juan the day after Christmas.
Perhaps because the music and texts are only used one time, the dances are considered safe to reveal to outsiders. There’s no drumming, only singing and percussion from gourd rattles carried by the dancers. It’s one of the choreographic elements that’s been extracted from its ritual context and presented outside the pueblos at public performances in places like Santa Fe since the 1920's.
The Basket Dance is also one that’s highly attractive to tourists because it involves both male and female dancers. The latter wear calf length, dark manta dresses, with white maiden shawls. Their legs are wrapped in buckskin stained white by clay.
In one hand they carry baskets, in the other sprigs of Douglas spruce that conceal wooden sticks. At one point, they kneel on blankets laid by clowns and use the baskets to pantomime grinding corn. Then, using the baskets as resonators, they rub wooden sticks against ones that have been notched.
Fertility symbols infuse the drama that describes and reconciles the mythic division of the world into hot and cold, winter and summer, male and female, spirit and human, water supplying and water needing spheres in which the success of summer irrigated crops and human existence is dependent on winter snows.
The baskets are not made from ditch fed willow, but are shallow ones used to carry corn offerings to the spirits. There are times when they may have been purchased from other tribes. While importunings for rain are implied in the wooden sticks that sound like thunder, the women are more strongly associated with water thirsty corn and the Corn Maidens.
Mary Austin was told one of the San Ildefonso songs from the 1920's identified the men with “the Rain Cloud callers” and the women with the “ancient mothers of the Rain Cloud clan.” The singers were asking that
By the full-shaped womb,
That the lightening and the thunder and the rain
Shall come upon the earth,
That the great rain clouds shall come upon the earth
As the lover to the maid;
so that “their wombs bear fruit” and people have corn “to complete the road of life.”
The association with rain is made through Douglas spruce boughs the male dancers wear around their necks, and, depending on pueblo, in their arm bands and from the rain sashes above their white kilts. In one hand they carry gourd rattles, which have rain power, and spruce branches in the other.
Pseudotsuga menziesii, now more commonly called Douglas fir, grows in the “mountains and deep canyons” above the pueblos where they’re often the tallest trees in the forest, the closest to the clouds. Depending on the day, some may even disappear in the mist. Some clouds, in fact, are called spruce clouds.
For the comfort of the dances, the branches tend to be pliable enough to bend easily around the body. The inch-long yellow-green or blue-green needles are smooth with points that are not piercing. The connections to the wood are only rough if rubbed the wrong way.
The men also wear turkey plumes associated with fecundity. At San Juan they’re worn behind half miter headdresses made from yucca. At Santa Clara and San Ildefonso they’re held in place with rosettes shaped like squash blossoms. Both men and women may wear downy eagle feathers in their hair associated with clouds.
The role of the spruce is more obvious when the Basket Dance is considered as the culmination of a four day rite that natives tell outsiders are spent practicing new songs.
At San Ildefonso in the 1920's, Edwin Curtis said that on the first evening the cacique made prayer plumes for the male dancers to deposit outside the village. On the fourth night, he made more plumes which two or three dancers took the next morning into the mountains where they were left as “offerings to the spirits of Douglas spruce.” They brought back spruce boughs, which the moiety chief blessed the next morning before the dancers dressed.
At Santa Clara in 1912, John Harrington said the day before the dance, the five capitanes went to the forests where they cut eight young Douglas spruce trees. After midnight, they set two up in each of the four places where the dance would be performed.
At San Juan, Antonio Garcia indicates emissaries go to the eastern mountains for trees they hole in “at each plaza with an offering of cornmeal." Before the final rehearsal, the men perform a sacred line dance, an ange’i. In the past they were expected to fast and be celibate, but fasting is no longer observed.
On the day of the Basket Dance at San Ildefonso, Curtis said, the chief of the kosa, the summer clowns, led the dancers from the kiva. After that, two of his assistants took over supervising the dancers. At San Juan, the representatives of the new order, the kosa are also the ones who appear.
The cycle of four songs, which alternate slow and fast sections, is repeated four times, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. Gertrude Kurath says the dances are repeat four times in the first and last sessions, and twice in the second and third performances. During the dance segments the clowns stand at the ends of the lines and guard the boundaries of ritual space.
Between sessions the clowns keep the crowd amused, and away from private pueblo areas. In a photograph from about 1920 at Santa Clara, the clowns were shown wearing the sort of feathered headdress associated with plains Indians and worn in the Comanche Dance. A 1942 photograph taken at San Juan by Wyatt Davis showed them wrapped in geometric patterned blankets
According to Ortiz, clowns at San Juan are considered children of the sun associated with changes in weather. As such they’re allowed to dramatize reversals in gender. According to Jill Sweet, their antics were once much more licentious than now, but various forms of outside pressure have limited what they do. They can still discomfort the tourists they ridicule.
The final dance is usually completed just before sunset. It’s followed by another sacred ange’i, this time performed by both men and women. In the past, a ritual bath in the river was expected at San Juan, but indoor plumbing has transferred that function to the home.
At Santa Clara in 1912, the spruce was thrown into the creek that flows from Tsikomó to water the summer corn. At San Juan, the War Chief returns sacred objects to the supernaturals when he throws the spruce and down feathers into the river the next morning.
Austin, Mary. “Song of the Basket Dancers,” in The American Rhythm, 1930 edition reprinted by Sunstone Press, 2007. Kurath reproduces a text from San Juan in which the dancers are called Dew Boys and Dew Girls; pleas are made to the rain god Oxua for clouds with “wheat-producing power” and “corn-producing power.”
Curtis, Edward S. The North American Indian, volume 17 on the Tewa, 1926.
Davis, Wyatt. Photographs from 1940 in the University of New Mexico magazine collection; includes one of Steven Trujillo. Photographs distributed by the Santa Fe Railroad taken at San Juan and ones by T. Harmon Parkhurst at San Ildefonso in 1935 are also reproduced on the web. Paintings of the San Ildefonso Basket Dance are available on the web, including works by Gilbert Atencio (Wah-Peen), Diane Calabeza (He Shi Flower), José Encarnacion Peña (Soqween), Alfonso Roybal (Awa Tsireh), Abel Sanchez (Oqwa Pa) and Pablita Velarde (Tse Tsan).
Garcia, Antonio. “Ritual Preludes and Postludes” in Kurath; provides more information on the dance as part of a pueblo repertoire. Rehearsals at San Juan include four nights of practice for the men, followed by four nights of practice for the women, then a joint practice the eve before.
Kurath, Gerturde Prokosch. Music and Dance of the Tewa Pueblos, 1970; contains a photograph of the Santa Clara Basket Dance at Puye Cliffs in 1961.
Ortiz, Alfonso. The Tewa World, 1969.
Paterek, Josephine. Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume, 1996; she includes a painting by Pablita Velarde of a young girl’s legs being wrapped for her first dance.
Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington, and Barbara Friere-Marreco. Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916; includes comments on habitat.
Sweet, Jill D. Dances of the Tewa Pueblo Indians, second edition, 2004; includes a color closeup of a woman’s costume taken in 1974 by Roger Sweet.
1. Middle section of what I’m told is a Douglas fir growing where it no doubt was transplanted near the village, 3 February 2012; it’s not native to the river bottom.
2. Lower section of same tree with new springs emerging from the furrowed trunk, 3 February 2012.
3. Twigs on same tree, 3 February 2012.
4. Needles on twig from same tree, 3 February 2012.
5. Same tree in its neighborhood where it’s higher than the utility pole and shorter than the cottonwood growing in a ditch. The shape and curvature suggest it was deprived of sun when it was young. While such trees lose branches from the base in those conditions, this was probably pruned because it’s near a road. Taken 3 February 2012.