Published on August 4, 2011 by Amy
The Shalako Ceremony is performed in late November or early December and takes place after the crops are in. This ceremony is the most important event of the year for the Zuni Indians of New Mexico.
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According to Zuni legend, their ancestors emerged from the underworld to the earth’s surface and searched for their “center.” This is where they would find water and security. The Water Spider led them to an anthill, which he proclaimed was the center of the earth. The Water Spider instructed them to build their village there.
The Shalako, who are believed to have first at Zuni around 1840, retrace the wanderings of the Zunis from the center earth to the modern pueblo. The Shalako are the God’s messengers and run back and forth all year long carrying messages, as well as bringing moisture and rain when needed. When they leave, they also carry the Zunis’ prayers for rain with them.
The timing of the Shalako Ceremony is crucial!
In former days, the Sun Priest’s duty was to ensure that the Shalako Ceremony coincided as close as possible with both the Winter Solstice and the full moon. Eight days before the ceremony, the Sun Priest would pray and fast, making pilgrimages to the Sacred Thunder Mountain to talk with the Sun Father. On the ninth morning he announced the approach of the solstice. This was done with a low, mournful call.
Today, everyone knows when the ceremony will be held. The Shalako Ceremony attracts more outside visitors than any other Zuni festival. Preparations begin a year in advance.
Each of the Shalako must be housed and entertained during the festival. The cost of this can make such a financial burden on a family, it will take them years to recover. Other members of the village help each host bring in his crop and fix up his house. But, the brunt of the cost falls to the individual. In some cases, an entirely new home must be built to accommodate the Shalako dancers. At the very least, the existing house must be replastered.
Eight days before the ceremony the Mudheads (clown-like figures that wear mud-daubed masks that look like deformed human faces) announce the arrival of the Shalako. On the morning of the ceremony (very early) the “impersonators of the gods” and their assistants leave the village quietly. They hide their masks and other stuff under blankets as they go.
The Fire God (who is usually a young boy) has his body painted black and spotted with red, yellow, blue and white. Along with his ceremonial father, they visit each house that the Shalako will be staying at and leave two prayer-plumes in a a box. These prayer-plumes symbolize the original man and woman.
The Council of the Gods arrive next, making the same rounds that the Fire God did. They pause in front of each house to dance and shake bunches of deer bones. The Council includes Sayatasha, the Rain God of the North. It also has Hu-tu-tu, the Rain God of the South. Both of them enter the house designated for Sayatasha through a hatchway in the roof and are greeted by the host and his family. The host (and his family) sprinkle the Gods with sacred meal. Food is then put out for the Council members and everyone eats.
By the time the Council of the Gods leave, it is sunset and time for the Shalako to appear and perform their dance. Spectators gather behind a barbed-wire fence set up in an open field. The Shalako appear just at dusk. Six huge figures (who tower above their assistants) wear headdresses with eagle feathers that fan out like the rays of the sun. They carry their masks on long poles that are hidden under blankets. The same man who carries the pole also manipulates the mask’s bulging eyes and clacks its wooden beak.
Each Shalako has two assistants: A manager and A man who relieves him when he’s tired of dancing while maneuvering the heavy superstructure. The changing of dancers takes place behind the blankets so that the spectators can’t see what’s going on. And, the children will not know that their images are not really gods.
The dancers take a lot of pride in balancing their masks and never missing a step as they bend their knees, dip their heads and then straighten up. When the ceremony is near its end, each Shalako enters the house that has been prepared for him, and a welcoming ceremony is performed there.
More dancing starts at midnight in the Shalako houses. The men take turns handling the heavy, swaying masks. The departure of the gods takes place around noon. The Fire God goes first, followed by the Council of the Gods and then the Shalako leave with their swooping motion and clacking wooden beaks. Long lines of spectators watch them leave.
Because the Shalako are messengers to the gods, their departure is the final prayer for rain to fill the rivers, wells and springs before summer comes.