The Moqui Snake Dance

by Unknown

I  ONCE attended an interesting Indian fête in the Southwest at the Moqui (Moki) village in Northern Arizona. It was the strangest spectacle altogether I ever looked upon, and was performed by Indians who are perhaps the least civilized of any in the great Western Territory. No words can fully describe the dance that was given. It was a wild, weird sight and made one with delicate nerves uncomfortable, to say the least. To the Moquis, however, the spectacle was the reverse of unpleasant. An Indian never indulges in noisy approval, but he enjoys laughing as much as a white man does; and in this particular dance the performers were constantly encouraged by their friends.

The Moquis are a people whose origin dates far back. How long ago their present village was built no one can tell. That it is very old is evident from the fact that in 1540 it looked exactly the same to Coronado as it does to us to-day. He could not discover from the Indians living there how long their town had been founded, and as the people have no written history we can only speculate upon the age of their houses. There are seven villages altogether and all of them are built upon the very tops of high mesas, or table-lands, rising fully six hundred feet above the level of a wide valley. The mesas are rarely more than forty feet wide and are so steep that to gain the summit one has to climb a narrow footpath that has been hewn in the rocky sides. The houses are of stone, cemented with mud, and are piled together one on top of the other.

The tribe is given a Reservation by the Government to live on nearly as large as the State of Massachusetts, and on which they have perfect freedom. They raise sheep and goats, and live and dress nearly as they did centuries ago, and have but little intercourse with white people.

An hour before sunset the Indians, robed in their very best, moved toward the town of Walpi that occupies the western end of the mesa. Following the crowd my friend C—— and I reached an open square formed by the walls of the houses on one side and the edge of the mesa on the other. In the centre of the place stood a tall, tower-like stone fifteen or twenty feet high and of a fantastic shape. It was here that the dance was to be held. Every housetop having a view of the spot was covered with Indians, and children had grouped themselves on the ladders that lead from roof to roof. Making our way to a good place we sat down with a party of the natives and waited for the fête to begin. Far below where we were, lay the valley we had crossed, and in the distance were the mountains of Utah and Central Arizona. It did not require much imagination to believe ourselves standing on some high cliff overlooking the ocean, for the valley was like the sea, and the feeding sheep like little boats.

This Moqui snake-dance is given once in every two years. Nearly one hundred Indians take part in it and the custom has been observed for many centuries. It is commonly supposed that the ceremony is a prayer for rain, but why snakes are used no one surely knows. The reptiles are caught during the four days preceding the dance and are confined in the estufas or council chambers until the hour comes when they are to be used. Most of the snakes are "rattlers." Their fangs are not removed and the only precaution the Indians take against being bitten is to paint their bodies with a preparation that counteracts the effects of the poison. At the conclusion of the dance the snakes are carried down to the valley and allowed to go where they will, while the dancers return to the estufas and wash off the paint that has covered their bodies.

Directly beneath where we stood was a bower made of cotton-wood branches. Soon after we were seated an Indian brought three large bags and placed them within the bower. These contained the snakes. The man had barely got out of sight before a party of fifteen Indians filed rapidly into the square. All were naked except for short, reddish tunics reaching from the waist to the knees, and their bodies and faces were thickly painted in various hues. Each man carried a rattle, made by stretching a piece of dried skin over a squash gourd, and a basket of sacred meal, and several wore strings of antelope hoofs around their ankles. Marching four times around the stone pillar, and shaking their rattles all the while, the dancers stamped upon the ground as they passed the snake bower and sprinkled meal upon it. After that they formed a long line and began the rather monotonous dance and song which is given in the same manner by nearly every tribe. The song consists of a few words repeated in a sing-song fashion over and over again, and in the dance the bodies are swayed slowly back and forth and the feet alternately lifted a few inches from the ground.

While this dance was being given a second party, dressed as those who had first appeared, and numbering fifty-seven men, marched into view and began their walk around the stone. These were the snake-dancers, and their coming was hailed with great joy by the assembled spectators. Instead of rattles were carried little wands made of eagle feathers which were moved rapidly through the air in imitation of the hissing of serpents. The men looked wild and sober, as though frightened at the prospect before them, and their faces were blackened and painted beyond all recognition. During the march around the stone pillar a party of maidens, each one wearing a bright red shawl and having her face thickly powdered, grouped themselves near the dancers and stood ready to sprinkle them with the meal which they carried in baskets.

Finishing the march both parties formed into two parallel lines near the bower of cotton-wood boughs and indulged in a grand song and dance which appeared to carry not only the performers but the dancers to the highest pitch of excitement. At its conclusion an old man stepped before the snakes and chanted a prayer, which he had barely finished before there was an unruly rush made for the bower. Reaching their hands into the place each man quickly reappeared with a hissing, squirming, biting snake, which he immediately placed between his teeth while beginning once more his walk around the open square. In time fully forty men had each his snake, and the scene became intensely hideous. At the side of each dancer walked an attendant who tickled the snake's head with his wand of eagle feathers, but in spite of this soothing caress the serpents made savage attempts to bite and get away. One man had his cheek severely bitten and another his hand, while often a snake would coil its body around the neck of its tormentor so that it would have to be unwound by main force. We were glad to be as high above the dancers as we were, for at times a snake would escape and go darting off among the spectators, to their great confusion. The girls who were throwing sacred meal upon the men were often so frightened that they made frantic rushes to get away, but when the snake had been caught, they returned again to their places. For fully half an hour the strange dance was continued, the men holding the snakes growing more excited every moment, and the members of the first party that had appeared giving new life to their song, which was continued without interruption all the while.

At last, perspiring, bitten, excited until their eyes gleamed, the men threw the snakes together into a common pile in the centre of the square, where they formed a hideous mound of squirming forms. Then at a signal, a second scramble took place, and in a moment the pile had disappeared and every dancer held in his hands a reptile with which he ran swiftly down the trail and out into the valley, madly leaping down the narrow path, and later hurrying over the valley, dropping as they ran, the snakes they carried.

By this time the sun had set. Waiting only long enough to watch the men come slowly back to their estufas, we left our housetop and were soon riding slowly away. For another two years the snakes in the vicinity of the Moqui village will go unmolested along their way. At the end of that time some of them probably will figure again in the dance which some strange decree has ordered.