Native American/First Nations Music–Hopi Snake Dance

In the U.S. Southwestern desert, in the land the Pueblo tribes known as the Hopi inhabited for what may have been millennia–land we now call “Arizona”–rain storms are few and far between. Being people who relied on farming for sustenance, the Hopi needed rain to survive. Certainly they had to do all within their power to bring the rain they required for their crops.

Fortunately, the Hopi have it figured out. ith just the right dance steps, performed by just the right dancers at just the right time, the community can communicate with nature and convince the skies to open up and provide rain.

The Hopi accomplish this by participating in a yearly sixteen day spiritual period that culminates in the SNAKE AND ANTELOPE DANCE which, if done correctly, brings rain. The period starts with nine days of rituals and fasting in which soon-to-be snake dancers spend their time with the priests in the “kiva,” a meeting space common to Hopi villages that is dug so deep into the ground that one must enter by ladder from above. On the tenth day the “Snake Priests” smear themselves with red paint, take a stick, and eagle feather to use as a whip, a bag and a little food and climb out of the kiva to embark on a hunt for snakes. They collect snakes for four days, eventually bringing them back to the kiva where they stay in the company of the most honored priests. All treat the snakes with great respect, washing and caring for them as if they are treasured house guests.

On the sixteenth day of the period the community gathers to watch the Snake Dance. During the ritual, two groups of dancers, one dressed to represent the antelope, whose running makes the sound of thunder and invites the rain clouts, and the another the snakes, who are able to suck the rain out of those clouds, participate. There are no drums but musicians do keep time with rattles and other shakers. The dance step seems simple–left right left right, 1-2 1-2 on the beat–but, as mentioned above, Pueblo music is quite rhythmically and vocally complex. Singers use “vocables” instead of literal lyrics, and stop and start according to complex rhythms.

During the Snake Dance–according to this first-person description of the dance from 1927– the Antelope Priests climb out of the kiva and into the communal plaza in a line, stomping in time with the beat, circling the plaza four times. In the center of the plaza is a structure made of cottonwood boughs, about ten feet tall and six feet in diameter. Before the structure there is a board that covers a little pit which represents the entrance to the underworld. As the dancers pass the structure they stomp on the board to let the spirits know the Snake dance is about to begin. The Snake Priests come out next and vigorously
circle the plaza four times, their right feet stomping higher than the left. They then face the Antelope Priests. The Snake Priests have wands made out of feathers. They tap the wands in the air rapidly in time with the rhythm, which seems to vary in count. Then, an old man who is experiencing his initiation into the Snake priesthood passes out snakes to the Snake Priests, some of who hold them, others of whom wave their wands in front of the snakes’ heads. The Snake Priests then pass them to each other, not concerned about bites because, after all, they have drunk potions making them immune to the poison of the venomous ones. (Warning: Kids, you ARE NOT a trained Hopi snake handler. Whether or not they are actually immune to the venom of snakes, you certainly aren’t.) At a point in the ritual, dancers even hold the snakes in their mouths. (Warning: Kids, and all those who are not trained as Hopi snake handlers–DO NOT put a snake your mouth. Bad idea. Even if you really really really want to bring rain.) At the end of the dance, if the dance has been done correctly and the sixteen day ritual properly timed, dark storm clouds fill the sky, thunder claps and the skies open up to provide crops with the necessary rain.

Do you not believe the Hopi Snake Dance brings rain? Read this account from Indian Country Today entitles “He

Arrived a Skeptic, But Left a Believer in the Power and Wisdom of Hopi Rain Dance.” You should also know indigenous people all over world have been controlling the weather for eons. See “Indigenous Weather Modification: Examples,” which includes a detailed description of the Hopi Snake Dance.

So there.

In class we’re going to do a basic version of the Hopi Snake Dance and see if we can conjure up rain in the classroom. We will sing and dance along to a track found on a 1957 Smithsonian Folkways recording known as “Indian

Music of the Southwest” called “Mudhead Kachina.”

KACHINAS can refer to Hopi sacred objects that are meant to represent spirits, and also to the spirits themselves. Hopi artisans create kachinas that look like and are about the same size as dolls, though these are not mere toys. Each has a particular design that has come to represent a particular kind of Hopi spirit. Kachina.us provies a step-by-step description of how one makes a Hopi kachina doll, and also introduces us to several of the kachinas, such as the eagle kachina, the morning singer kachina and the joyful, flute-playing kokopelli kachina.

The Mudhead Kachina (kachina.us introduces us to it here) plays the role of the clown during Hopi rituals. A dancer portraying a mudhead kachina will wear a mud-covered mask that covers his entire head and will entertaining the crowd with his antics. The mudhead kachinas usually provide comic relief during community events, but they will occasionally have their own dance.

In class, while we won’t exactly dress like Mudhead Kachinas, we’ll bring their spirt of fun to our respectful version of Hopi Snake Dance.

More information about Hopi dancing:
Watch grainy black and white footage from 1913 of the Hopi performing a rain dance for visiting dignitary Teddy Roosevelt | Watch a Hopi butterfly dance, which is also meant to cause rain | Read a description of the Zuni rain dance | The pdf liner notes from the Folkways record, “Indian Music of the Southwest,” provide descriptions of the Hopi rain dance as well as information about dances and music from other tribes throughout the Southwest.

More information about kachinas:
Ryon Polequaptewa introduces us to kachinas (the mudhead kachina comes in at 3:50) | Earl Denet tells us more about kachinas: “the kachina is the spirit of the things around us…The kachina is the tree, or the rocks, or a cloud floating in the sky…..”

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