A Primer on New Mexico’s Native American Pueblo Dances and Feast Days

Staff | SantaFe.com - December 2, 2014

The experience of New Mexico is unique to the nation, in large part thanks to the influence of a vibrant and diverse Native American culture that continues to push forward while maintaining devotion to the traditions and customs of its ancestors. For visitors and locals eager to immerse themselves into the traditions, architecture, food and rhythm of Native American life in the Southwest, feast days and other special events within New Mexico’s 19 pueblos are unmatchable.

Feast and Ceremony

Most pueblos in the region host feast days, which pay tribute to the patron saints of the pueblo.

These events are typically held on the same day each year and are open to the public or by invitation. During the weeks and days leading up to these festivals, members of the pueblo communities prepare bountiful meals to share with fellow tribal members and guests and often prepare specific dances that honor specific segments of Indian life.

“When I go to the dances, it really helps me – it’s just a blessing to be there,” said Joyce Begay-Foss, director of education for the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and a tribal liaison for the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. “The people are dancing for the earth, and for the people, and for the whole world; they’re dancing for rain and corn and animals and many things. There’s just this reverence that is there, a natural reverence.”

In addition to feast days, pueblos also hold a variety of dances and ceremonies such as bow and arrow, deer and buffalo dances, and the matachine dance, a ceremony that incorporates both Spanish and Native American origins.

Indian Country

New Mexico contains 19 pueblos in total. The upper region of the state contains what is known as the Eight Northern Pueblos, a loose cluster of Tiwa and Tewa-speaking tribes (Taos, Picuris, Santa Clara, Ohkay Owingeh, San Ildefonso, Nambé, Pojoaque and Tesuque). The farthest of these northern pueblos, Taos, can be reached in less than a one-and-a-half hour drive. Most of the pueblos to the south (Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Sandia, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Zia and Zuni) are a short drive from Santa Fe, while others (Zuni will take just over three hours to reach) are a little more remote but no less rewarding.

New Mexico’s native influence doesn’t end with the pueblos. The Jicarilla Apache Nation, consisting of descendents of semi-nomadic Plains Indians, is headquartered in Dulce, which is located on the northern edge New Mexico. A large swathe of the Navajo Nation takes up the northwest corner of New Mexico, where the Diné people reside.

Etiquette

All pueblos give visitors a chance to witness the celebration of native customs, faith, however not all pueblo events are open to the public. Before visiting a pueblo event, play it safe and reach out to the tribal governor’s office or visitor’s center. Whether it’s a dance or feast day, decorum and sensitivity is imperative. Ringing cell phones and loudmouths are often the main offenders, said Begay-Foss. “Many visitors are great but I think some people could be a little more respectful,” she said. “There is etiquette when you go to a tribal community. Even aside from dances and feast days.”

(Please view our pueblo visitor’s etiquette guide for some helpful information.)

(View a listing of feast days, dances and other pueblo events taking place in pueblos around the Santa Fe region.)

Below is just a small sampling of feast days and special events taking place throughout pueblos in New Mexico throughout the year.

Feast of San Diego (and more) at Tesuque Pueblo
Nov. 12 and throughout the Year
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In the soft red foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains lies the Tesuque Pueblo, which dates back to 1200 AD and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Sometimes cited as one of the most traditional of all the Tewa speaking Pueblos, the ancient ceremonies practiced by this community have been loyally preserved in spite of the pressures of alien cultures.  In November, they celebrate with the annual Feast Day of San Diego, the Harvest dances, and in December, the Deer and Buffalo Dances, resplendent in costume and authenticity. Midnight Mass and the Christmas Day Celebration, the Three Kings Day festivities in January, and the Corn Dance on the first weekend in June are all open to the public.

San Estevan Feast Day at Acoma Pueblo, Sky City
September 2, 2015
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One of the pueblo's major events, this feast day ushers in the Harvest Dances. Driving to Acoma is a fantastic commute through some of New Mexico’s most dramatic scenery– Sky City is an extraordinary ancient pueblo that sits atop a 300-foot mesa. Not surprisingly, this is a designated National Historic Site. If you are a bicyclist, on September 3, the day after you’ve received abundant fuel from the Feast Day, you can participate in the Tour de Acoma, a 100-, 50-, and 25-mile bike tour that covers the breathtaking lands. That is, assuming you can still get on your bike. The pueblo also offers an annual Christmas Eve luminaria lighting with entertainment and refreshments.

San Francisco de Asis Feast Day at Nambe Pueblo
October 4
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A stunning natural entryway is your introduction to this beautiful pueblo, also famously noted by the exquisite Nambe Falls. (It’s a spiritual center for the Tewa-speaking tribes.) The San Francisco de Asís Feast Day takes place in early October, an extraordinary time of year for an after-feast hike on two 20-minute paths to the top of the falls. One path will take you by petroglyphs.

San Lorenzo Feast Day at Picuris Pueblo
August 9
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Tucked in the dramatic scenery of the High Road, the Picuris long ago built adobe cities seven stories tall and was once among the largest and most powerful tribes. The wrath of De Vargas and ongoing raids caused an enormous decline in their population. If you call well in advance, you can arrange for a guided tour of the ruins on the old Pueblo site and visit the San Lorenzo de Picuris Church, built in 1770. The buffalo herd and organic gardens are another example of rebuilding heritage. The popular San Lorenzo Feast Days are August 9 and 10, with crafts, dances, races, and pole climbs.  On Christmas Day, the Pueblo celebrates with Danzas de los Matachines, one of the more colorful and least understood dances of Northern New Mexico, because the dance comes as a blend of two seemingly opposing traditions, Spanish and Native. It’s a Southwestern anomaly scholars continue to puzzle over.

Feast of San Geronimo at Taos Pueblo
September 30
Map

Continuously inhabited for almost 1000 years, Taos Pueblo is a standard part of American history curriculum in schools around the world. Words are useless in describing what you see visiting here, a mixture of mystery, quintessential pueblo architecture and antiquity, situated against the masterly backdrop of the Sangre de Cristos. One of their biggest Feast Days is the Feast of San Geronimo on September 30, and all schools in the county are closed for this official holiday.  Visitors to Taos Pueblo for the annual bonfires and Procession of the Virgin on Christmas Eve will follow the canopied statue through the village plaza shortly after dusk, accompanied by loud rifle shots and hymnal songs and prayers.  The little girl dressed in white in this procession is known as La Malinche.

Shalako Dances at Zuni Pueblo
Last Weekend in December
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Registered as a National Historic Landmark District, Zuni Pueblo is the largest in New Mexico set within wild sandstone scenery and famed for jewelry designs and small stone animal carvings known as fetishes. The massive Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission, originally dating from 1629, features impressive murals of 30 ancestral Zuni spirits known as kachinas. The most famous ceremony at Zuni is the all-night Shalako dance held on the last weekend in December. While the Shalako dance is closed to outsiders, the Zuni Pueblo offers other enchanting public events, such as the Zuni Tribal Fair in late August, which features a powwow, food and arts.

More Info

"Showing Respect, Etiquette when Attending Native American Dances and Feast Days"
"Native American Pueblo Dances, Feast Days, Festivals and Special Events in New Mexico – A Schedule"

For more information,  consider visiting the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque for more education and calendar events. The center is directly run by a council made up of representatives from all pueblos, so you get an experience not only fueled by academia but also direct personal experience. Their calendar contains a variety pueblo events like powwows, feast days and film fests. Dates for celebrations and non-tribal access to events may change, so double-check for updates, contact information, and directions.

​Postcard reference image from the The Tichnor Brothers Collection of the Boston Public Library