The Shalako ceremony of the Zuni Indians of New Mexico is, according to Frank Waters, a writer of mixed Cheyenne and Southern Caucasian ancestry, a rite that assures the transformation of winter’s death into spring’s rebirth. The ritual is expected to bless the Zuni people with the sun’s light for another year. It is also a dramatic interpretation of what the Zuni religion means to the people. As one Zuni chant tells it:
The ones who are our fathers
Masked god priests,
All the masked gods.
At their precious mountain,
Their precious lake,
Perpetuating what has been since the first beginning,
Have assumed human form.
All observers describe the Shalako ceremony as a magnificent spectacle; Waters, who lived in Taos (site of one of the oldest pueblos), said simply that it is “one of the greatest Pueblo ceremonials.” American ethnologist Walter Hough, in fact, found the various Pueblo kachina dances, of which the Shalako ceremony is one, “the best round of theatrical entertainment enjoyed by any people in the world, for nearly every ceremony has its diverting side, for religion and drama are here united as in primitive times.” Leonardo Shapiro, an innovative stage director about whom I’ve written several times on ROT and who adapted the deities’ name for his theater company, told me that the ceremony, which he saw while living near Taos in the 1970s, was “the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever been in.”
Zuni Pueblo, on the Zuni Indian Reservation, is in the southwestern panhandle of McKinley County in western New Mexico, near the border with Arizona. The pueblo, home to about 6,500 people (1,500 families), is 35 miles south of Gallup and about 150 miles west of Albuquerque. The area was problably settled about 1,300 years ago (the Zuni say they have been there for millennia), though the current pueblo, the most populous of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico, has been the home of the tribe only since the 16th century and the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Coronado. (Taos and Acoma have been continuously inhabited for about 900 years. It is debatable which is the oldest.) The Zuni people, the most traditional of the Pueblo tribes, have a unique language, unrelated to any of the other Indian languages including the other Pueblo tongues; history; and culture.
The Shalakos are messengers between the spirit world and our own. They are the spirit figures of the Zuni pantheon who mediate between humanity and the gods of rain and prosperity, the principal Zuni deities. (The word means ‘rain bringer’ in the Zuni language. Remember, the Zuni are a desert people—rain is a powerful force in their culture.) The Shalakos come to the human realm to collect the people’s prayers and take them back to the rainmakers at the end of the ceremony, thus connecting the mortal world to the spirit realm. The ceremony reenacts the Zuni creation story; just as the flood of the Judeo-Christian Bible signifies rebirth and renewal, so does the Shalako ceremony.
Life for the Zuni is inextricably bound to their ceremonial art and performances. The Shalako ceremony, on the ninth day of the winter solstice to mark the Zuni new year, involves the entire village and reestablishes the people’s prospects for prosperity, long life, and fertility for the year to come. But spirituality is not the sole focus of these ceremonies at the center of Zuni culture. Most have a strong aesthetic component as well. Literary and social critic Edmund Wilson, who witnessed the ceremony, observed, “Here, too, one finds theater and worship before they have become dissociated, and the spectacle suggests comparisons in the fields of both religion and art,” noting a resemblance to Russian ballet under Diaghilev. “The public rituals constitute the most important esthetic expression of the people,” wrote Ruth Bunzel, an early 20th-century anthropologist who studied Zuni culture. She continued:
Not only are they “artistic” in the superficial sense, in that they embrace the types of behavior which we arbitrarily lump together as “the arts”—ornament, poetry, music, the dance—but they provide the satisfaction of the deeper esthetic drive. . . . Zuñi rituals have a style of their own that belongs to ritual as an art.
The Shalako itself—the word refers to the deity, the masked dancer, the mask itself, and the ceremony—is a nine- or ten-foot-tall figure, towering above the villagers and the “manager” each dancer needs to keep from toppling over. The Shalako mask, perhaps the largest in the world, is magnificent to behold:
The masks are turquoise-colored, with a crest of eagle and macaw feathers, and horns with red feather pendants, ball eyes, long snouts which open and close; long hair, a collar of raven feathers and fox skins, dance kilts, and white blankets are also part of the costume. The mask is carried on a pole, simulating a creature ten feet high. The masks are accorded great deference and are consecrated with cornmeal before each use. Each mask is associated with one of the six kivas [underground ceremonial chambers].
The personator looks out through a hole in the embroidered white blanket covering his body. His garments are expanded like a 19th-century belle’s hoop skirt with flexible wooden strips. Beneath the Shalako costume, the personator, his face painted, wears a black shirt trimmed with colored ribbons on his shoulders and sleeves and a black wool loincloth fastened with an embroidered sash. His legs and thighs are bare and his knees are painted red, his calves yellow. He wears high, red buckskin moccasins; only his legs are visible below the Shalako mask. (There are actually two personators for each Shalako: an “older brother” who carries the mask into the village and a “younger brother” who carries the basket of prayer sticks before the god. During the night-long ceremony, the younger brother will relieve the older brother when he’s tired of dancing. At the end of the rite, the roles are reversed.)
According to Zuni belief, those who wear the masks of the Shalakos are transformed into the spirits they personate. The mask of a Shalako, or any kachina, is sacred and magical. It's been ritually cleansed and rededicated, anointed with cornmeal and prayed over. It's been ceremonially given life. No one, not even the wearer who manipulates the strings that roll the eyes and clack the beak—he’s constrained from looking up into the cone-shaped mask above his head—must see how the mask actually works except the designated manager. The wearer’s not only possessed by the spirit and assumes the personality of the god he represents, but, the Zunis say, through him the god has become a human being. A masked personator is untouchable, dangerous to other humans until the paint is removed. But alongside the sacredness of the mask, it is also a work of art in the same way that the ceremony is both a religious ritual and theatrical entertainment. Both physical appearance (that is, beautiful bodies) and performing techniques are integral to the conduct of the personations—and those chosen each year are judged on how well they look, dance, chant, and sing. Members of the tribe aren’t averse to giving the participants performance reviews or, like our own John Simon, criticism of their physical attributes.
The Shalako personators are ordinary Zunis chosen during the preceding year and they prepare extensively for the ceremonies. Other villagers simply join in as the familiar ritual unfolds and still others, including outsiders, participate merely by being present. (There were a few specific exceptions to the Zunis’ inclusiveness: because of their violent suppression of the Pueblo culture, Spaniards—and, by inheritance, Spanish-Americans—are not welcome, and certain Indian tribes who have been historically hostile to the Zunis, such as the Apaches, are excluded. In recent years, the Zunis have restricted their ceremonies to outsiders considerably.) The six Shalako personators, one for each of the compass points plus up and down, enter the village escorted by the Long Horn kachina, who has curative powers, after the way is prepared by “mudhead” clowns, called koyemshi. The ceremony, at the end of a year-long ceremonial period when prayers sticks are planted in February, May, October, and November, lasts all night and progresses throughout the village as the Shalakos make their way to the specially prepared houses in which they will spend the night. The progress of the Shalakos, who perform a distinctive dance and run ceremonial foot races, is accompanied by singing, clowning by the koyemshi—some of it pretty low—and prayers. Villagers line the route or watch from the flat roofs of the adobe pueblo houses. The adults all know, of course, that beneath the costumes are fellow villagers (possessed though they may be), but the children are protected from this knowledge until they are initiated as adolescents; for the young, these figures are their pueblo’s gods. The proceeding, which recapitulates the story of the people’s arrival at Zuni and the founding of the pueblo, is a kind of circus-cum-mystery play.
The koyemshi (the Hopi call them tachuki), portrayed as witless, impotent, and grossly misshapen spirits—they represent the idiot children of incest—entertain the villagers with comic and often obscene interludes. Their masks are like knobby helmets made of soft cotton colored with pink clay from Sacred Lake, with bulbous lumps (filled with seeds, cotton, and dirt from the pueblo streets) on their heads and protruding eyes and puckered lips. The use of the earth gives the clowns magical power over the people so the koyemshi can claim their respect and veneration. Sometimes there are feathers sprouting from the knobs. The clowns’ bodies are also painted pink with sacred clay, and the only other costume is a short, black kilt. There are 10 of these sacred clowns, considered brothers, but each has his own personality, reflected in the imagery of the mask and the antics he performs. One, for instance, speaks gibberish when he tries to say the ritual prayers; another’s cowardly, lagging behind the group and hiding under ladders; another can only laugh; and so on. The clowns sing and tell jokes about the villagers; play games of beanbag, tag, or leapfrog; perform magic tricks; chase the Shalakos; and generally do anything to make people laugh. Ironically, the koyemshi masks are the most dangerous in the Zuni religion: no one dares even to touch them for fear of going sexually crazy.
Kachinas among the Pueblos and Hopis are spirits who mediate between the human and spiritual worlds, and may be interpreted as spirits of the dead, among other things. Frank Waters, who wrote both novels and non-fiction books about the Indians of the high desert of northern New Mexico, writes:
Kachinas thus are spirits. Spirits of the dead, spirits of all the mineral, plant, animal, and human forms that have traveled the Road, spirits of the mythical heroes, the stars, clouds, color-directions . . . . The kachinas, then, are the inner forms, the spiritual components of the outer physical forms, which may be invoked to manifest their benign powers so that man may be enabled to continue his journey. They are the invisible forces of life. Not really gods, but rather intermediators, messengers.
They’re often represented in Indian ceremonies as masked dancers who personify them or as elaborately carved and decorated dolls. (The masks are sacred but the dolls are given to children to help them recognize the spirits of the Pueblo pantheon.) The Long Horn kachina is the human counterpart of the rainmaker spirits, the rain priest of the north. He heads the rain priesthood and is the keeper of the Zuni ceremonial calendar. A projection on the right side of his mask accounts for his name and symbolizes long life. The Shalakos are kachinas.
The men who perform in the ceremony are chosen during the year before the Shalako performance. During this year, these men must live exemplary lives. They meet periodically through the year to learn the long prayers they will chant, dance, make ritual offerings, go into retreats, make pilgrimages to distant shrines, offer monthly prayer sticks, run foot races, fast, and abstain from sex. Eight days before the Shalako—the final ritual episode lasts 14 days, this year from 5-18 December—the ten koyemshi announce publicly that the ritual will be held and then go into seclusion. Four days before the procession, the Long Horn kachina makes a proclamation and a group of six, the Council of the Gods, begins a four-day retreat. On the day of the Shalako ceremony, the Council of the Gods enters the village, sprinkles cornmeal, and plants prayer sticks at six shrines, aligning Zuni Pueblo with the six directions. The Council goes to a special house where they perform chants and dance through the night. In the freezing dusk, the Shalakos approach the pueblo and pause on the plain on the south bank of the Zuni River before proceeding into the village.
Ruth Bunzel characterized the appearance of the Shalakos as “the most impressive moment in the [Shalako] ceremonies”:
As soon as it is quite dark the six [Shalakos] cross the river quietly and then suddenly rise out of the river bed, each surrounded by a group of singers from his kiva, all singing antiphonal songs. . . . The songs are magnificent, and the sudden appearance of the six giant figures in the moonlight is superb.
Waters picks up the vivid description of the highly theatrical rite in Masked Gods:
Then suddenly they came. Out of the wide, white universe, out of the myth and legend, out of the depths of America itself.
They came filing into the open plaza, shaking their gourd rattles, uttering their strange cries. A line of figures part man, part beast, part bird. Bare bodies splotched with paint, sinuously bending at the waist. Wearing ceremonial kirtles, a ruff of spruce around the neck, and dancing in moccasined feet. But glaring with bulging eyes from great wooden heads—heads with long bird beaks and toothed snouts, square heads, round heads, cloud-terraced heads bearing the symbols of lightning and rain, and hung with tufts of eagle feathers.
How brilliant their clear colors against the snow! Beautiful, so beautiful. But so horrible and frightening too.
They began dancing. Shaking their rattles at the cringing children. Glaring at the stolid missionary. Crying at the pipe-chewing trader. Dancing back and forth before the rapt boy seeing them for the first time. No longer man nor beast nor bird, but embodied forces of earth and sky swirling across the sea of snow from the blue mountains on the horizon, shaking the remote and rocky island, stirring awake the archaic wonder and mystery and pristine purity of man’s apperception of his cosmic role. Dancing as gods have always danced before their people. Masked by the grotesque, but commanding that comprehension of the heart which alone recognizes the beauty within.
Suddenly it was over.
The Shalako ceremony, which lasts all night, ends in special Shalako houses built by the families sponsoring that year’s rite. When the Shalakos arrive in Zuni Pueblo, they plant prayer sticks in shrines and go to the ceremonial homes where they will spend the night. After the procession, the masked deities and their attendants arrive at the ritual homes where they conduct rites and are entertained. Bigger than regular Zuni dwellings, there are usually eight ceremonial houses: six for the Shalakos, one for the mudheads, and one for the Long Horn kachina. The house includes a long room hung with pelts, skins, blankets, and gaily colored calico to decorate and brighten the whitewashed walls. It is a stage set for the ritual drama that will be played out here. The Shalakos bless the houses and pray that the tribe will prosper, live long, and be fertile. When each Shaliko enters his house, he sits by the prepared turquoise altar, decorated with eagle feathers, at the end of the long room and ritual reed cigarettes are passed around. (A similar ceremony has unfolded earlier at the houses of the koyemshi, who also perform magic tricks and clever sleight of hand, and the Long Horn kachina.) Smoke from the cigarettes is blown in the six directions so “that the rain makers may not withhold their misty breath.” (Breath in Pueblo belief is the symbol of life.) The personator removes the mask revealing the costume and body decoration beneath. This is followed by a two-hour ritual questioning of the personator by the host and his family, friends, and attendants. Spectators from outside begin to flow in while a few look in through the windows and move on to another house; some come and go throughout the long night and some, mostly the very young, catnap. (Those that doze off are awakened gently by the Shalako who clacks his beak over them.) In the early evening, the Shalakos chant elaborate prayers which hold magical and spiritual significance in their very words. The delivery of the chants is important as well, however, because oratory is a notable skill among the Pueblo and the personator will be judged on his art as well as the faithfulness of his recitation. This is followed by a feast prepared by the pueblo women (and paid for at great expense by the sponsor). Around midnight, the dancing, which lasts until morning, starts.
The distinctive dance includes sharp clacking of the Shalakos’ long snouts and birdlike swoops from one end of the room to the other. The feathered headdress atop the 10-foot mask almost brushes the ceiling beams of the ceremonial room. The glow of the fire serves as stage lighting for this spectacle, the flickering firelight animating the features of the mask. The spectators are rapt, staring up at the giant figure in the fire’s glow. The Shalako swoops up the street, gliding and dipping with seeming effortlessness. As ungainly as the giant conical figure seems, it moves with surprising grace and fluidity. The top of the giant figure, the huge eyes rolling in their sockets, towers above the heads of the crowd until the Shalako swings around and returns to the house. The experience is said to be mesmerizing and even many non-Indians have reported that they fell under the hypnotic spell of the dancing gods.
The next morning, the Shalakos run a cermonial relay race in which the masked personators run back and forth between 12 holes in which they plant prayer sticks. Like many Pueblo rites, this race is not to see who wins—winning or competitiveness itself is not a Pueblo virtue; it is a race to show endurance. If the Shalako personators can complete the race after dancing all night, they prove that the Zuni people are strong and faithful enough to prosper for the next year and pass their strength on to their children. (In fact, the whole ceremony is an endurance test as well as a celebration and a spiritual renewal.) After the race, a test of whether the Shalako personators have kept their sacred vows during the past year, the spirits return to their home in the west as the people, gathered again on the roofs, watch silently as the giant gods, accompanied by music and singing, leave the village and fade into the distance. There are several more days of dancing and singing, but the Shalakos have gone for another year.
According to the general philosophy of Pueblo peoples (and many other American Indian cultures), everything is connected. Health and wellbeing is the consequence of a universe in harmony; we become ill or our society suffers crises when the forces of the universe are out of balance. The Shalako rite is one effort to put things back into harmony, and the Zunis believe that the benefits of the ritual accrue to everyone in the community, participants and spectators alike, and even to those beyond the pueblo borders. Between those conducting the ceremony and those for whom it's performed, for instance, there's a constant evocation of sharing. The Shalako prayers constantly speak of adding to someone’s heart—the center of the emotions and “profound thought”—and breath—the symbol of life, the way spiritual substance is communicated, and the source of mana, or divine power. The celebrants add to the hearts of their “fathers” (the gods), the gods to the hearts of the celebrants, the celebrants to those of the people, and so on. It's a ritual passing of spiritual power. It's further significant that, though the Shalako ceremony is specifically for Zunis, strangers (with the exceptions noted earlier) were welcome: “Verily, so long as we enjoy the light of day,” a Shalako prayer promises, “We shall greet one another as kindred”; another refrain vows: “And henceforth, as kindred, Talking kindly to one another, We shall always live.”
The Shalako ceremony is a loving enactment for the people of Zuni of their religion and their history. It's a celebration of the coming new year and a prayer, expressed in action, for continued prosperity, fertility, and long life. It's an offering to the gods in thanks for their favors in the past and to ensure their continuing benevolence and protection. But it's also a ceremonial for the dead. At the winter solstice, the earth is on the verge of dying: the sun will withdraw from the skies for increasing parts of the day, the warmth and light will diminish, the plants and animals disappear from the land. But the Shalakos assure the people that it's only a temporary withdrawal and that renewal will come again when the sun is reborn. A new year has begun.
[The name Shalako has several spelling variations—the Zuñi language has no written form so transcriptions differ—but this is the most common one. (Anthropological texts may use forms that often include diacritical marks.) Kachina, too, had various spellings. The ceremony itself is sometimes called “The Shalakos Are Coming” or “The Shalakos Come.” I’ve provided a selective description of the elaborate event that is the Shalako ritual; I’ve omitted considerable elements and there’s no discussion at all of the underlying religion and philosophy of the Zuni culture of which the ceremony is a part. For further particulars on this ritual, the interested reader is directed to the many anthropological studies, the most detailed of which are arguably Ruth Bunzel’s Zuni Ceremonialism (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992) and Matilda Coxe Stevenson’s The Zuni Indians (New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., ). Somewhat more literary descriptions are provided in Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1931) by Erna Fergusson; Frank Waters’s Masked Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism (Chicago: Swallow Press 1950); Edmund Wilson’s Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations: Zuñi, Haiti, Soviet Russia, Israel (New York: Oxford University Press 1956); and, Pueblo: Mountain, Village, Dance (New York: Viking Press, 1975) by Vincent Scully. I’m sure the Internet also has many sites with information on the Zuni and their ceremonies.]