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The public is often welcome as New Mexico’s pueblos celebrate the season with traditional dances

The heartbeat of drumming signals the holidays as you walk from your car toward the Kewa Pueblo plaza.

Wood smoke scents the crisp morning air as the pounding grows louder. The white adobe 1890 mission church holds the remains of the feast of midnight Mass.

Stop by for a fresh loaf of bread baked in a traditional horno oven at this most traditional of pueblos. If you’re lucky, you may be invited in for a meal of traditional native food mixed with New Mexico chile.

As you wind through the maze of adobe buildings hugging the plaza, the hushed atmosphere reminds you of the presence of something sacred. Lines of dancers move by in traditional dress, some shaking rattles, some singing, some pacing quietly.

Of the many traditions observed during this festive time of year, few can match the beauty and artistry of the Native American ceremonial dances held at many of the nearby pueblos.

Red Turtle Dancers (Pojoaque Pueblo). (Courtesy of Nick Pecastaing for Indian Pueblo Cultural Center)

Red Turtle Dancers (Pojoaque Pueblo). (Courtesy of Nick Pecastaing for Indian Pueblo Cultural Center)

And a number of the pueblos welcome visitors for the dances, another tradition that dates back centuries.

Combining grace and athletic prowess with sacred beliefs gives the dances a quality that is spectacular to behold.

The dances have been passed down for centuries and the moves perfected by years of practice. And they’re plain fun, said Bettina Sandoval of the Taos Pueblo, the cultural arts and education coordinator for the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

“When you dance, you have to play a part so you’re having fun,” she said. “A lot of Pueblo people are together and having fun, that’s what we do best. And most of the time when you dance it’s with friends and family so that’s fun.”

Still, there’s a serious side to the dances, as well, Sandoval said.

“All the pueblo dances are basically done to give thanks to their natural resources that we use throughout the year,” she said. “The deer dance or buffalo dance, they are basically to thank the animal.”

One of Travis Suazo’s favorite memories – and something he looks forward to during the holiday season – is the scent of cedar smoke wafting from wood-burning stoves on Santa Ana Pueblo.

Returning home to the pueblo for feast days and dances holds a deep meaning, he says.

“It’s a gathering of family at that time … and to respect … and make sure traditions continue,” Suazo says.

It’s also a time to honor ancestors, “those who are here now and those that are yet to be born,” he adds.

Suazo, director of museum and cultural engagement at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, explains that the dances signify a period of renewal for the season, a sense of “connection with family and that all people live in balance and … take care of one another.”

Cellicion Traditional Dancers (Zuni).

Cellicion Traditional Dancers (Zuni).

The dances are prayers that the community and world are safe, strong and have happiness in life, he says.

“It’s a prayer that goes out to the greater good,” he says.

The pueblo dances that take place during the winter holidays coincide with Catholic holidays to show the sharing of a connection between the two religions/cultures. Before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Catholic Spaniards looked down on Native Americans’ way of life, he says.

“Our religion and dances were seen as being hedonistic and devil worshipping. But after the Pueblo Revolt, there was more understanding,” Suazo says.

Now, the pueblos celebrate patron saints of the Catholic Church and practice their ceremonial dances. It’s now “an adaptation and blending of cultures,” he says.

While the spirit behind the dances is essentially the same, there are differences, as well, Sandoval said.

“There are a lot of different dances across the pueblos,” she said. “Not all do the same dances. For instance, the butterfly dance is popular in a lot of the southern pueblos and some northern ones, but we don’t do it at Taos. Things like that.”

Sandoval said that some of the dances were brought about because of the Spanish.

“We were basically told that we had to worship a saint that was assigned to us. The way we worship and to pay our respect is with song and dance. Because of that, we created the feast days and the dances. And because this was essentially for the Spanish, they were allowed to come in and watch.”

And over the years, the dances have evolved, she said.

“Sometimes, a lot of times, we’re saying thanks and asking that natural resource to be there for the future generations,” Sandoval said. “It’s turned into respect for mother earth.”

Suazo says that before you drive out to a pueblo on a feast day, be sure to check the pueblo’s website or call ahead to make sure it’s still open to the public.

Haak’u Buffalo Dancers (Acoma). (Courtesy of Caitlin Cano for Indian Pueblo Cultural Center)

Haak’u Buffalo Dancers (Acoma). (Courtesy of Caitlin Cano for Indian Pueblo Cultural Center)

He also says:

  • Wear warm clothing.
  • Check with the pueblo on rules of photography, which usually isn’t allowed, though some pueblos sell permits for a fee.
  • Be sure to check on the pueblo’s overall rules. Cell phones are usually prohibited.


Christmas Eve

Celebration dances at most Pueblos, including:

  • Acoma Pueblo: Luminarias on display from the scenic view point to Acoma “Sky City;”
  • Laguna Pueblo: St. Joseph Mission, Old Laguna. Various dances following the 10 p.m. Mass.
  • Nambe Pueblo: Buffalo Dances after Mass
  • Ohkay Owingeh: Matachines Dance and Pine Torch Procession
  • Picuris Pueblo: Sundown Torchlight Procession of the Virgin Vespers, Mass Procession and Matachines Dances.
  • San Felipe Pueblo: Dances after Midnight Mass
  • Taos Pueblo: Sundown Procession and Bonfire
  • Tesuque Pueblo: Dances after Midnight Mass

Christmas Day

Dances at most Pueblos, including:

  • Ohkay Owingeh: Various dances
  • Picuris Pueblo: Christmas Celebration with Matachines Dances
  • San Ildefonso Pueblo: Christmas Celebration with Matachines Dances
  • Santa Ana Pueblo: Buffalo, Deer and Antelope dances
  • Santo Domingo Pueblo (Kewa): Various dances
  • Tesuque Pueblo: Various dances
  • Taos Pueblo: Various dances
  • Zia Pueblo: Various dances
Cachini Dancers (Zuni).

Cachini Dancers (Zuni).

Jan. 1

Transfer of canes to new pueblo tribal officials: dances at most pueblos.

  • Taos Pueblo: Turtle Dance
  • Santo Domingo Pueblo (Kewa): Corn Dance
  • Jemez Pueblo: Matachines Dance
  • Picuris: Various dances
  • Ohkay Owingeh: Cloud or Basket dance

Jan. 6

King’s Day Celebration honoring new pueblo tribal officials; most pueblos open to public.

  • Picuris Pueblo: Various dances
  • Nambé Pueblo: Buffalo, Deer and Antelope dances
  • Sandia Pueblo: Various dances
  • Taos Pueblo: Deer and Buffalo dances
  • Santo Domingo Pueblo (Kewa): Various dances