Prayer in Motion

Awhirl with Hopi spirit dances in Arizona
By Jake Page
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The buzz of anticipation is like that before the curtain rises on a Broadway show, but the audience is altogether different, and this show has been running some six or seven centuries.


The set is a dusty plaza surrounded by one-story houses of yellow sandstone or cinderblock under a deep blue sky. This is a Hopi Indian village, perched some 600 feet above the surrounding high desert in northeastern Arizona. Old ladies in shawls sit on folding chairs while little kids in T-shirts dart here and there like fish in an aquarium. On the rooftops, teenagers fidget.

Within minutes, the plaza has filled with spirits, maybe 40 of them, bedecked in buckskin moccasins, pine boughs, white cotton kilts, bronze bodies streaked with earthy colors, multicolored, beaked faces, eyes glittering from slits. They chant like a low, distant wind while a drum thumps, metronomically adjusting everyone's pulse. Turtle shells go plok-plok and sleigh bells go chink-ch-chink, fixed to the monotonously stomping legs of the spirits as they dance this way in a long line, turn, dance that way—over and over, rattles in hand.

All day in the sun, punctuated by short breaks, the spirits dance their slow, outlandish dance amid the hypnotic sounds of chanting and the drum. These are the kachinas, the spirits of nature, benevolent figures who spend half of each year in the Hopi villages and half the year 100 miles away on the visible peaks of the old volcano, where they rehearse the all-important matter of bringing rain. Now, virtually every weekend in late spring and early summer, the kachinas appear in at least one of the 12 Hopi villages, bringing gifts of food to the adults, traditional toys to the children, and interceding in the spirit world for timely rain.

As the dance wears on through the two days of the weekend, clouds materialize in the cobalt air over the sacred San Francisco Peaks and break off, hastening toward the Hopi mesas and the cornfields below. They come in answer to the songs of the kachinas. The wind gusts up in the plaza, little clouds of dust swirl and fall. And more than likely it will rain.

The Meaning in the Dance

A Yale art historian once called these kachina dances the most profound work of art ever devised on the North American continent. For this is sacred art, played out in a cathedral as large as the sky, and as one watches these dances, one can perhaps glimpse another plane of reality, where rain clouds are more than just meteorology.

Not long after the dance has begun (which is usually about 10:30 in the morning), all hell breaks loose. Ill-dressed louts descend into the plaza from the roof of a building and spend the day trying to disrupt the solemn dance of the spirits. These so-called "clowns" summon unsuspecting members of the audience out to participate in their games and the old Hopi ladies hug themselves with barely controlled mirth as each earthy sin unfolds.

For the clowns are acting out the sinful nature of humanity. They gossip, they fight, they covet, they are gluttonous, they commit adultery (figuratively but—if they decide on you—scarily), and they succumb finally toward the end of the dance to the most serious sin—hubris—taunting and even emulating the kachinas. They are then severely punished by another array of kachinas who have burst upon the scene, fierce-looking whipper kachinas, and finally the clowns repent.

It is a morality play, then, like the plays performed in the medieval cathedrals of Europe. It is a coarse and scary but also very funny feature of the liturgy. But at Hopi, a smile is considered sacred, laughter a great blessing. And given the ineffable vitality of the entire affair—simultaneously raucous and devout, orderly and chaotic, spiritual and low-down—one feels transported, perhaps to a medieval time and place.

Published: 17 Apr 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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