June 2014

Pueblo Feast Days


Matthew J. Martínez


The sharing of food among family, friends and guests is one of the oldest practices of Pueblo people. Prior to European contact in the 1500s, there existed 100 villages. Indigenous peoples of the Southwest planted crops of corn and squash and hunted deer, elk and antelope, to name a few. Daily activities centered on praying for and cultivating good crops, so that all life would be healthy. These are some of the original forms of observances that the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico continue to practice as a way of life. Due mainly to warfare and disease, many of the original villages are not currently fully occupied but still remain part of the Pueblos’ remembrance to a larger collective ancestral history. Today, we have 19 pueblos that maintain a strong cultural tradition of dance and celebration.


The Tewa word for dance, shadeh, literally means to be in the act of getting up or waking up. To participate in dance is to recognize the role of humans with the surrounding natural world. This awakening, in a sense, renews relations with all living things. Most of the pueblo dances occur throughout the year, based on seasons that involve planting and hunting rituals. The most public of pueblo dances are known as feast days. With the exception of Zuni Pueblo, each of the villages has an annual feast day. The Franciscans, who missionized New Mexico in the late 16th and 17th centuries, named each pueblo for a different Catholic saint. It is believed that each of the patron saints was likely chosen for several reasons, including proximity to a specific date. Unlike other types of dances that may be closed to the public, feast days occur every year on the same date and are generally open to visitors.


Shadeh connects the human place to the movement in the sky, to the other simultaneous worlds below, and to the energies that embrace mountains, sky, plants and animals. Dance becomes the centered place—a centering within as well as outward to all life’s directions. The plaza or bupingeh is the “middle-heart place.” It is often the central place where the community gathers to observe the various dances that involve asking for and receiving life. Having respect and an open heart during dances are important steps toward appreciating feast days and Pueblo customs.


Feast day events vary across the pueblos but generally begin with activities such as village clean-up, food preparations, song and dance practices. Some pueblos, such as Ohkay Owingeh, begin the evening before their feast day on June 24th with village races and a Buffalo Dance. Similarly, San Ildefonso Pueblo has short evening dances the day before its feast day. For all pueblos, the actual feast day includes a Catholic mass that is held in the morning. Because of historical, and often tenuous, relations with the Catholic Church, all pueblos have a church located near the center of the village. Most Pueblo people practice aspects of both the Catholic religion and Pueblo belief systems.


Some of the most favorite and unique food served at feast days includes baked bread, pies and cookies. These are commonly baked in outside ovens called hornos in Spanish or panteh in Tewa. What is not commonly known about these seemingly traditional Pueblo ovens is that the Spanish introduced the horno in the 1500s. These were originally derived in the Middle East and were carried into Spain by the Moors. Over time, the indigenous peoples and Hispano families of New Mexico incorporated hornos as a staple in cooking local cuisines.


It is important that visitors to the pueblo feast days inquire ahead of time regarding rules and regulations. For example, certain village activities may be closed to the public in preparation for the day’s events, and most pueblos do not permit recording or photography. In the event that photography is permitted at one of the pueblos, please see the proper tribal officials for permits before proceeding with pictures. For a complete calendar listing of feast days and etiquette, visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s website at www.indianpueblo.org


Feast days and community celebrations are times of the year for families and friends to share in life’s beauty. As one enters the village on a feast day, the heartbeat of the Earth is physically felt when the plazas vibrate with moccasined feet moving on earth to the beat. Pueblo people thus honor the passing of time and seasons by dancing as a reminder to awaken and to participate in the connected flow of life around them. This is a blessing for everyone, so that all things living can be healthy and balanced.



Matthew J. Martínez, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Pueblo Indian Studies and director of the Northern Pueblos Institute at Northern New Mexico College in Española.




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