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New Mexico pueblo dance celebrations incredible cultural experiences, but be respectful

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The buffalo dance  (Journal)

The buffalo dance is a winter dance, performed in many of New Mexico’s pueblos when the weather gets cold. (Journal)

Visiting a Native American pueblo is a treat any day, but on feast days or days when dances are being performed, visitors are in for a truly special cultural experience and a sense of going back in history.

The eight northern pueblos — Nambe, Ohkay Owingeh, Picuris, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Taos and Tesuque — all invite the public to visit during certain special events. Most have dances around Christmas and New Year’s Day as well as feast days to honor their patron saints.

“It’s an incredible cultural experience, and the beauty of their regalia is amazing,” says Mark Trujillo, director of Indian tourism and tribal liaison for the state Tourism Department.

But visitors must keep in mind some rules of etiquette. The dances are not a show or performance. They are sacred rituals, and it is an honor to observe them.

“They have to watch them with respect, just like we would go into our house of worship,” Trujillo says.

But the feast days also are celebrations.

“If you’re fortunate enough, you might stand next to one of the residents of the pueblo and strike up a conversation with them,” Trujillo says. “And they might say, ‘Come and eat at my house.’ … They’re very gracious people.”

If invited to a pueblo resident’s home, it is good manners not to linger after eating because they likely will be feeding many people that day, he says.

An intertwining

When the Spanish came to New Mexico in the 1500s, they brought with them their Catholic religion and their saints. Missionaries introduced pueblo people to the saints, and the Native American beliefs and customs became intertwined with the Spanish beliefs. Feast days bring pueblo members together to commemorate the saints, but also to celebrate their native traditions.

San Ildefonso celebrates its feast day Jan. 23 in honor of the patron saint born in A.D. 610 in Toledo, Spain. It begins with an evening vespers and Mass followed by a procession through the bonfire-lit plaza the night before.

Dancers begin arriving at sunrise Jan. 23.

“They’ll come from our hills into our plaza area,” says Denise Moquino of the pueblo visitor center.

There will be buffalo and deer dances as well as the Comanche dance off and on throughout the day, she says.

“Families will invite people that they haven’t seen,” Moquino says. “There’s a lot of food, visitors. It’s just a nice time. … Visitors are welcome. They’re more than welcome.”

But photography is not allowed and pets, alcohol and firearms should not be brought to the pueblo.

Virgin Mary

At Taos Pueblo, visitors on Christmas Eve can watch the procession of the Virgin Mary.

“It’s not very long,” says Ilona Spruce of the pueblo visitor center. “They bring the saint out of the church and they take her around the north side of the village.”

The next day, the pueblo will have either matachines or deer dances. The matachine is a Spanish dance performed in many Southwestern communities. The deer dances, in which dancers wear deer hide capes and heads, are sacred to the pueblos.

“They hold a lot of significance with us,” Spruce says. “It’s also representative of the season. It’s hunting season.”

Taos will have deer dances Jan. 6 if they aren’t held at Christmas. Otherwise, there will be buffalo dances.

“It’s a winter dance,” Spruce says. “All the pueblos kind of do a buffalo dance that time of year when it’s cold.”

Contact information

Nambe: 505-455-2036 or nambepueblo.org

Ohkay Owingeh: 505-852-4400

Picuris: 575-587-2519

Pojoaque: 505-455-3334, poehcenter.com

San Ildefonso: 505-455-3549

Santa Clara: 505-753-7326

Taos: 575-758-1028, taospueblo.com

Tesuque: 505-955-7732

Pueblo etiquette

Pueblos invite the public to their sacred ceremonies, and it is a privilege for non-pueblo members to be included.

With that privilege comes the responsibility to follow the local customs.

“What we really promote is that you treat our home as if it were your home, respect the space and respect the people as well,” says Ilona Spruce of the Taos Pueblo visitor center. “You’re there to observe and see what’s going on. You’re not there to participate.”

All pueblos have their own rules for visitors, but here are some general etiquette guidelines:

Do not take photographs, sketch, paint or make recordings without permission.

Do not bring alcohol, drugs, weapons or pets onto the pueblo.

It’s OK to ask questions, but don’t press for answers.

Silence is mandatory during all dances and ceremonies.

Do not applaud after dances or ceremonies.

Enter pueblo homes and other buildings by invitation only.

Leave cell phones in your car.

Tribal communities don’t use the clock to decide when to begin activities. Be patient.

If you go

Here is a schedule of upcoming events at the northern pueblos from the state Tourism Department. Visitors should call ahead to confirm the events are happening and open to the public.

Nov. 12: San Diego feast day at Tesuque Pueblo.

Dec. 11-12: Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe feast day at Pojoaque, Tesuque and Santa Clara pueblos.

Dec. 24: Christmas Eve Mass followed by buffalo dance at Nambe Pueblo. Torchlight procession and Los Matachines dances at Picuris and Ohkay Owingeh pueblos. Dances after midnight Mass at Tesuque Pueblo. Sundown procession of the Virgin Mary and bonfires at Taos Pueblo.

Dec. 25: Christmas Day dances at Tesuque, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Picuris, Ohkay Owingeh and Taos pueblos.

Dec. 26: Turtle dances at Ohkay Owingeh.

Dec. 28: Holy Innocents Day children’s dances at Picuris Pueblo.

Jan. 1: New Year’s Day dances at Picuris, Ohkay Owingeh and Taos pueblos.

Jan. 6: King’s Day Celebration and dances in honor of new tribal leaders at most pueblos.

Jan. 23: San Ildefonso feast day with buffalo and deer dances throughout the day.

Jan. 25: Picuris Pueblo feast day.

Feb. 2: Candelaria Day celebrations at Picuris Pueblo.

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