Sometime in August of some year…1978, maybe…(I’m terrible with time), we decided to go to Snake Dance in Hopi. This year it would be held in Shongopovi, Second Mesa.

Howard Morgan, the then-famous Albuquerque weather man had been following the long summer drought, and now was forecasting more dry weather, and had even predicted that there would not be, could not be, rain after Snake Dance. His prediction seemed likely; but we weren’t going for the rain, but for the mystery of the ritual, and because we really admired and liked the Hopi, the Peaceful People.

There was one small hitch in the plans: I had picked up a German hitch-hiker at the entrance to Mesa Verde Park, and he’d stayed with us for a few days. We always picked up ride-thumbers there; it was a way to bring the world to us, since many we picked up were travelers from abroad. Among other things, it was always a kick to hear their interpretation of US news; so different than what we accepted it to be from our idiotic reporters and news anchors, and it was wild to get some real perspective from them.

Holger decided he would like to come with us; he was (ahem) a mite hard to dissuade; eventually we gave in. He turned out to be annoying to the Nth degree, and just to show him, I’m going to write him right out of this story. (So there, Holger B.!)

It’s a sixteen-day ceremony, but we planned to go for only the last final two days, and hoped to camp at the Hopi Cultural Center. When we arrived, we discovered it was sort of awful; gravel and bits of glass littered the ground, and it was rather too open to be comforting in any way. What to do, what to do?  . . .

We went into the Cultural Center and struck up a conversation with Edmund Nequatewa, a wonderful man who was working there that day. He would later write a book on his boyhood experiences; he was a storyteller, and that day, spontaneously, he told us the story about why there were no longer any sheep this side of the Little Colorado River (if memory serves; and often it doesn’t). It was a grand story, but he did preface the telling with his discomfort about the timing of telling the tale, as it wasn’t the season approved for stories. Something about the rattlesnakes overhearing them…He said winter was the time for tales, so we should come back then to hear more.

He advised us about a place to camp; he explained carefully which road to take, where to park, where to set up our tent in the cottonwood grove below the cliff. We had come early in order to watch the foot races, which were a tradition with a long, long history; the prizes were considered very sacred.

“I am almost finished here for the day; would you like to come home with me and meet my family? I could show you the rattles I make; you would like them. And you would like my grandson, too.” He tried not to beam too obviously.

We gladly accepted, and followed him in his car across one of the mesas to his small house. His grandson was a treasure, and it was easy to see how much they loved each other. We did buy two of his baby rattles, turquoise green with bolts of lightning, and white fluffy feathers hanging from the tops.

When we left, we followed his directions to make camp. It was a good spot, and we settled in. After dark, we sat by our campfire, and heard voices; kid voices.

“Hello? Who’s there?”
“No one.” Giggle. A few loud whispers and Come on in’s later, we enticed them into the light. Six or seven boys, maybe ten or eleven years old came and sat down.

“This is part of the course for the Antelope foot race,” one said, “it’s tomorrow.”
“The Shell Priests will come soon. They’ll bless the race path; and you shouldn’t look at them.”

Shell Priests? That sounded interesting. Not look at them? Ummm; as if…Well, we would try not to, but…(Oh; and if you’re thinking, ‘Well, I wouldn’t peek, I will say you must be either a saint or a liar.)

They talked about the race, which of their relations would run, who they hoped would win; they were so jazzed! They accepted some food and drink, then left for home and bed.
Sometime during the night, one of us woke, and poked the other.

“Listen! Bells and rattles.” Chuh…chuh…chuh… coming closer…and closer. Bells tinkled softly; they must be tiny…kring…kring…kring.

“We’re not supposed to look.” But we did; there our heads were, right there at the door of the tent; the temptation proved too strong to resist. Two men wearing breech cloths came past us. Turtle shell rattles were strapped onto their arms and legs, suede bracelets and anklets of small bells also shook with each step. A sound of enchantment, a familiar blend of cottonwood leaves rustling in the pre-dawn breeze, the tinkling of water; their moccasinned footsteps were the beating of hearts.

For how many centuries had other Shell Priests made this exact journey, blessing the way with offers of corn pollen, hearing their breaths and the music they splashed along the trail? They didn’t look our way as they passed, but afterward we prayed silently that we hadn’t committed any offense. My dreams were laced with chuh…chuh… kring…kring… Turtle shell rattles; turtles meant healing…(I often dream of turtles…)

We spent the next day on the quietly on the mesa top There were pahos everywhere; small cottonwood sticks, carved with symbols, with feathers tied to the tops had been pushed into the ground. Prayer sticks, whose feathers, when stirred by the breezes, would carry the prayers to their intended gods. From atop this cliff the horizon was forever away, over expanses of desert dotted with sparse vegetation: an occasional twisted and gnarled juniper, some yucca or rabbit brush.

Later we headed to Shongopavi, and as we approached the main square, we were each given a sheet of rules to follow; no photographs, no sitting on undesignated rooftops, general decorum and dress rules; they seemed reasonable and easy to follow. Silence was requested; noise could upset the snakes.

“The snakes will have been collected over the past four days,” Edmund had told us. “Then they will be washed, and sprinkled with sacred herbs in the kivas to keep them calm. Each Snake Priest will choose one from the alter, and hold it as he dances. Another man will act as a Tender, and stroke the snake with a feather to keep it from coiling.” (Arrrgh; okay.)

He told us that both the Antelope and Snake Societies are involved, and each represents aspects of fertility and growth, and their inter-dependence, both male and female principles being honored.

It was hard to see all that happened. There were lines of women who seemed to be sprinkling tribal members with corn pollen, and maybe around the Snake Altar. When the Snake Priests entered, they circled the square several times, then one by one they reached into the pit for a snake, and rhythmically high-stepped in a circle to the chants, shell rattles and drums…some of them, if not all of them, would eventually hold the snakes in their mouths and one hand: rattlesnakes, whip-snakes, and bull snakes. The tenders carefully stoked the snakes with feathers… more circle dancing…

They were painted in earth colors with lightning bolts, and wore turtle shell rattles; I can’t remember any bells.

The air changed…the crowd stilled…rattles rattled…the sun was bright and hot…not a cloud in the sky…trancelike dancing…hushed spectators…snakes dripped from dancers’ lips…the air shimmered with colors…vibrant specks of light…as though over each dancer were a cloud misting down colored vapor…tiny droplets in jewel colors…it went on for hours…it was over in minutes…maybe the Priests dropped the snakes in the center at the alter…women sprinkled them with pollen…they were picked up again…and runners headed south out of the village to the mesas in their chosen directions…to free the snakes who would take the prayers underground…to the gods…who would cause it to rain…if the ceremony had gone well…been preformed properly…all rituals followed…the rain would come…the rain would come…the village would be blessed…the corn would thrive…

The Priests filed back into the Kiva. It was clear and hot. As the last one all but disappeared out of sight…the sunlight dimmed just a fraction…we all must have looked up…a miniature cloud passed near the sun…then over part of it…there was a short crack of lightning…small thunder-rumble…that was all…

It can’t be so; it just can’t be so…we all knew it wouldn’t really rain. It’s only a tiny cloudlet, after all…

The people began to leave; slowly, edging quietly toward the parking spot. We found our car, and drove back to our camping spot of the night before.

When we got there, a group of people were there already, and we went to talk with them. They advised us that this wasn’t a good place for us to camp; we explained about Edmund. They understood, but remained firm, so we left.

We found another campsite in another area, and pitched our tent, ate a little, and went to sleep.

Sometime in the night, it began to rain. It rained softly at first…then harder…by morning water had almost drowned our tent. It rained for three days. During this long summer drought. Incredible; as in not credible.

The ceremony had been successful. The Cloud Callers had caused it to rain; to magnificently rain.

They had put stars and comets and bells and turtle shell rattles into my brain with their active devotion and ritual; they had saturated my skin with colored rain and air and the scent of sage; they’d rearranged the heart of my universe forever. And I decided that if there were people chosen to hold up the sky, or to be keepers of this fourth world, I would trust these folks to be The Ones.

Teddy Roosevelt went to Snake Dance in 1913. Read his impressions here.

[Photo: Hopi Dancers (source: maryn0503 via Flickr)]