When I was 11 years old, my dad arranged for our family to travel to Second Mesa on the lands of the Hopi Nation to see the annual Snake Dances. For a little girl with a snake phobia, this was a mixed blessing: the opportunity to witness a rare cultural event combined with a waking nightmare. Yet I'm so grateful I went and had the opportunity while this ceremony was relatively open.
In RIDE THE RAINBOW HOME, Jim takes Meg to see the annual ceremony. She is like I was: uneasy (read, terrified) in the presence of snakes. Here is a little of what happens, just as the ceremony is about to begin.
It had been nearly two hours since their arrival at the pueblo. They'd walked down from the place designated for the off-mesa visitors to park through narrow alleyways between the walls of the first American apartment buildings, some of them nearly a millennium old. The pueblos rose two and three stories high, built of stone and adobe. People reached the upper levels by climbing handmade ladders, and even the oldest Hopis seemed comfortable scaling their way up and down.
Many doors had been open as they came through and Meg had seen into the Hopi homes, their floors hard- packed red earth, some flagged in stone; their walls whitewashed and sometimes painted in dark geometric shapes. Lines were strung across the walkways, some draped in drying laundry, others hung with strips of raw meat that would soon become jerky.
They had finally come to the flat surface near the pueblo where Hopi men—some in ceremonial dress, others in jeans and flannel shirts—had designated the area for the dances and had carefully warned each watcher that cameras or recorders would be confiscated. Jim explained that the snake dances had not been photographed since 1911 and surviving photographs were few.
“I wish I’d seen them,” Meg said. “That might have helped to prepare me for this.”
“You’ll be fine,” Jim assured again as he took her hand. “You’re stronger than you think, and besides, I’m here too—if you need me.”
“Thank you,” Meg whispered. She found a tender sweetness in both his confidence and his support.
Now they sat in the proscribed circle, waiting, Meg's stomach tensing more with each passing moment.
“You know you’re lucky to be able to see this,” Jim said, gently stroking her fingers.
“Lucky? How’s that?”
“Look around you. How many white faces do you see?”
She looked and counted. “Not many.”
“These dances used to be open to tourists, if they behaved themselves,” Jim explained. “Now they’re only open to outsiders who have been specifically invited. It’s a long, sad story why, but let’s just say that some visitors didn’t behave themselves very well. The Hopi take these ceremonies very seriously. Even those tribal members who don’t generally practice the Hopi religion see this as a primary way of holding onto their ancient culture—well, this and using the Hopi language.”
Then he added, “And before you ask, no. I don’t even dream of speaking Hopi. Navajo is an Athabascan language, Hopi a Shoshonean tongue.”
Meg smiled. “Not at all the same, I gather?”
Jim shook his head. “I’m glad you get that. Lots of people think that just because I can speak the one, I should automatically be fluent in the other. That’s a lot like saying that someone who can speak Korean should be fluent in Mongolian just because they’re both Asian languages.”
Meg laughed. “I’m glad I knew better than that. It sounds like you’ve been around that block before.”
“A few times,” Jim said, but his voice was calmer as he went on to tell her that the snake dances had been closed to most outsiders since a popular comic book had characterized their deities as “evil kachinas,” or avenging spirits back in 1992.
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