Turtle Dance at the Taos Pueblo

Christina and I went to the Taos Pueblo today to watch the Turtle Dance. It is a sacred dance and no cameras or cell phones are allowed on site all day.

I’d learned that the dances begin either at dawn, at 8, or at 10. We decided to be there by 10, because even if they started at dawn, they’d still be going on, and the day would be a bit warmer. We parked, leaving purses and cameras in the car, and walked onto the plaza area. Off to the side a dance was under way, having started immediately after the pre-dawn church service.

The dance was done by a line of men, all of whom were bare-chested in the 18 degree morning. There were about twenty-five in the line, and at each end was a boy of maybe age nine or ten. The rest of the dancers were all ages, up to perhaps middle to late sixties. They were all dressed in a similar fashion.

The men wore dark shoes, maybe moccasins, and had fur around their ankles. They all wore white leggings, some with black dots all over them and some with other designs. I read on-line that they are crocheted.

Each man had fabric wrapped around his waist, held in place with a colorful sash. Most of the men wore white fabric decorated, usually, in red, green, and black, but four of them wore black fabric with red and white designs.

The fabric simply fell from the waist in front, but in back I could see one or more colorful sashes, and there was another  separate fabric hanging from the waist, about a foot wide and eighteen inches long. Each piece was different and colorful. In addition, many men had the pelt of a small animal tucked into the waistline, with the animals’ tails hanging nearly to the men’s ankles.

Each man carried a white rattle in his right hand and a sprig of pine in his left. Rattles, at the end of a wooden stick, were painted white and appeared to be the size and shape of a small turtle shell. Some men wore a white necklace or a piece of leather with bells as a bandolier.

Each man had a similarly painted face. The paint was a white stripe, beginning under the ear, running down the cheekbone and across the chin, then up the other side to the ear. Some stripes were pure white and others were subtly decorated, mostly by having spots of less paint.

The head and hair were decorated also. The hair was pulled back but not visible due to more fabric at the back of the head. On top of the head were small boughs of pine with a cluster of brown and white feathers. Standing up from the head was a feather, usually orange but sometimes turquoise, likely parrot feathers. There were two tall brown eagle feathers also, and an occasional man had two brightly colored tall feathers.

In addition to the dancers, there were four other men: one, perhaps an elder, was dressed in black head to toe, topped with a black tunic belted at the waist. Pine boughs were tucked into his belt. The elder danced back and forth in front of the line of men. Two others were also in black, and one was the drummer. They all sang except for the two young boys – likely their voices weren’t deep enough, but there are probably other reasons for their not singing.

The dance and chanting went on for fifteen or twenty minutes. Then they’d stop and walk in a line to a different spot and begin again. The crowd followed along behind.

In addition to the many visitors, women of the pueblo watched the dancing. Some joined the crowds, their long skirts swaying side to side as they walked. Rather than wearing jackets, they had blankets draped around their shoulders. A few women stood on the flat roof of their home to watch.

This was an intensely beautiful and spiritual time for me. I longed to have photos, but I surely understand and respect the tribe’s desire to not allow them. I felt honored to be allowed to watch.

The photo below is not mine – remember, cameras were not allowed. It’s from http://www.newmexico.travel/dev/native_american/pueblos/taos.php

505-taos-pueblo-in-snow

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