What does it mean to be invited into a home that is not one’s own? If a treasured friend, the visit can be a continuation of a relationship forged on trust and common interests. If a stranger, the honor is doubled.
The wife and I had just tucked into the feast when the kitchen door of the very modest home opened to reveal two elders of the pueblo. The two marched in through the kitchen and didn’t glance at the occupants of the table.
“More white people coming,” announced the leader.
He looked at the two of us.
I responded with a smile, “None taken!”
The Native American aunts, nephews and sisters gathered around us burst into laughter.
Ohkay Owingeh is the name of a pueblo located approximately 45 minutes north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It sits in a valley dominated by the upper Rio Grande, and the surrounding land announces itself to the beautiful drive toward historic Taos. The pueblo is fairly new, having been founded around the year 1200. That’s right, gentle readers, way older than these United States of America.
For many years, Ohkay Owingeh was known as San Juan Pueblo, in that the Roman Catholic missionaries and conquistadors conveniently renamed all the New Mexico pueblos for their favorite saints. Some pueblos keep the European names. Others change back to the original language. In this case the language is known as Tewa.
The pueblo’s name means “Place of the Strong People.”
The Deer Dance is ancient in origin and an occasion for a sacred day in which families get together, cook delicious dishes and then assemble at the pueblo plaza to observe the dance.
The bride and I were there because one of her University of Mexico-Valencia staff members is a terrific young man named Andre Blue Bird, and he invited us to the Deer Dance. We rightly considered this an honor and agreed to assemble at his family home, enjoy food and fellowship and then attend the dance.
Now here’s the deal: the ceremony is sacred, and in being so, I feel that as a writer I need to be respectful in how much of a description to share with the general public. I do feel that I can offer a few pertinent observations, however.
The plaza of the pueblo is unpaved and surrounded by one and two-story adobe homes, all linked together. Some have modern doors and windows and others are more rustic. A stone church dominates the eastern side of the plaza.
Friends, it was frigid that Sunday afternoon. Snow was falling on the mountains surrounding the valley, and occasional wisps of snow sprinkled the onlookers.
The plaza was awash in vivid color. Men and women wrapped Pendleton blankets of every color around them as they greeted each other, wrangled kids and kept eyes out for recalcitrant teenagers. Many wore their finest jewelry, and I spotted some spectacular squash blossoms (extravagant turquoise necklaces) on many folks.
The dance itself was stunning, featuring over a hundred men of all ages resplendent in outfits befitting the occasion, all to the dance’s theme. The square reverberated with the sounds of drumming, chanting and the tinkling of bells. More than a few spectators reflected the rhythms of the event in their bodies as they watched relatives offer their heritage for those in attendance.
Our host stood by us with his nephew perched on his shoulders. I had about a hundred questions, of which fifty were inappropriate. Andre would respond with a smile and an “I can’t tell you that.” Understood and acknowledged.
The dance ended and pueblo residents returned to their homes to continue the feast day in traditional fashion.
My wife brought a peach tart to the pottery-filled residence. We had a huge peach crop this past summer, and we froze bag after bag of peaches for just such an occasion. It felt right that we were bringing fruit from our own New Mexico orchard to a place of such history and welcoming charm.
One would have thought we presented the family with gold bars. Upon our leaving, we were presented with freshly-baked bread, containers of food, some of which were constructed from old recipes, and even handmade jewelry.
On the drive home we reflected on the honor of being invited into the home of strangers, and the idea that we leave as friends. They were emphatic in asking us to return, and their hugs were enthusiastic.
Whether in a cold northern New Mexico valley or a Silver Creek ranch-style home, to be invited into the bosom of friends or strangers is a tradition that one can never belittle. Peace.