This post on pueblo dances in Northern New Mexico first published in December 2010 was updated on 11/18/2015
One of the greatest cultural resources in New Mexico are the pueblos, home to indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. All but one of the Eight Northern Pueblos are within an hour’s drive of Santa Fe. Taos is a little further.
The pueblos continue to follow traditional spiritual practices as they have done for uncounted generations. Today, many are intertwined with the Catholicism the Spanish forced them to embrace. Ceremonial dances are a vital part of pueblo life. Many fall over the Christmas holiday season and are open to the public. The exact meaning of the dances can only be guessed at by outsiders; they are private about their religious practices. Dances are often part of larger ceremonies not shared with outsiders. These may have gone on for days prior to the public part of these rituals. Click here for a schedule of pueblo dances during the Christmas holiday season.
Northern New Mexico pueblo dances held at Christmas
Buffalo and Deer Dances are celebrations of thanksgiving to the game animals for making themselves available to the hunters to feed the People. Without these they would starve. The dances may also be part of traditional Solstice ceremonies that existed long before the Spanish came to the “New World”.
Los Matachines reflects the assimilation of Christian influence on the pueblo peoples. The dance, believed to have originated in Spain at the time of Moorish occupation, was brought to the New World by the Spanish settlers. It was used by the Franciscan friars to channel what they considered heathen dances into an acceptable and reverent format. Los Matachines is also danced by people of Spanish descent. It has been performed at Bernalillo, north of Albuquerque, for over three-hundred years. Among the Pueblos, Santa Clara and Jemez use drums for Los Matachines; other Pueblos including San Ildefonso use fiddle and guitar, harking back to the dance’s Spanish origins.
The Turtle Dance seems to have at least two interpretations. According to Jill Sweet, it is a celebration of the fertility, youth, agriculture and rain. According to a discography from New World Records, the Turtle Dance, represents the life-cycle, the end of the old year and beginning of the new. In Masked Gods, Frank Waters, southwest writer and frequent observer of Pueblo life, writes that the Taos Pueblo version of the dance is a representation of the emergence from the third world, water. Because the Pueblos consider the dances to be sacred, we may never know their exact meaning. Spiritual matters are not shared with outsiders. Observers can only guess.
Christmas Eve pueblo dances
Christmas Eve brings torchlight processions and dances at a few of the Pueblos. (Please note that dances and Pueblos dancing can vary from year to year. Check with the Pueblo for current information)
Nambe– Buffalo Dance starting in the afternoon.
Ohkay Owingeh– Las Matachines bonfires lit at sundown
Picuris– Las Matachines arrive starting late afternoon; Bonfire dance at night
Tesuque dances before and after Mass.
Taos Pueblo On Christmas Eve There is a Vespers service in St. Jerome’s Church at 4pm followed by a candlelight procession carrying the statue of the Virgin around the Plaza. Bonfires are lit and the men shoot rifles into the air to celebrate Christ’s birth. The Taos Pueblo begins events in late afternoon and charges their regular admission for these. Christmas Day admission to the Pueblos is free.
Christmas Day pueblo dances
The Pueblos listed below traditionally hold dances on Christmas Day. (Dances can start anytime from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. You can get a rough time and the dance they are performing by contacting the Pueblo directly.)
Ohkay Owingeh Las Matachinas at about 11:30am and 4:30pm (times are approximate)
Picuris Las Matachinas
Santa Clara Check with the Pueblo about a week before
San Ildefonso Las Matachinas starting at approximately 11:30am and ending about 3:30pm
Taos Pueblo Check in mid-December to see if they have dances open to the public
Other dances around the holidays
12/26/15 Ohkay Owingeh has the Turtle Dance at about 10:30am
1/1/16 Picuris Pueblo Transfer of Canes to new pueblo officials and various dances
1/6/16 King’s Day Celebration many pueblos will dance either the Antelope, Buffalo or Deer dances
These dances are part of each pueblo’s spiritual practice and are religious ceremonies. It is a privilege to attend, and an honor to be allowed to share these ceremonies that are deeply central to their lives. If you go, it is important to follow proper etiquette. Taos Pueblo recently closed to visitors on feast days because they didn’t respect the simple rules.
Highlights of etiquette for pueblo dances
Pueblos are sovereign nations and have their own governing bodies and rules for visitors.
Don’t bring cameras
Absolutely no photos are allowed. The best thing to do is leave your cameras and cell phones in the car. Some pueblos will confiscate cameras and phones they believe were used to take photos. These will not be returned.
Don’t talk to dancers
Don’t walk across the dance plaza
Don’t ask questions about the dances
or any other aspects of pueblo life as some things aren’t shared. If you do ask and don’t get an answer, let it go.
Don’t speak during dances
These are sacred ceremonies.
On feast days, only enter a private home by invitation
Dances start around 10am in most cases (except Christmas Eve) and continue to mid-afternoon with some breaks. These are approximate times; these sacred rituals have their own time frame. They start when they start and they finish when they finish. You are free come and go as you please. Dances may change from year to year as may the pueblos holding them. Always check with the pueblo in advance as times change and dances are sometimes cancelled or not open to the public.
There are also dances, feast days and pueblo events open to the public throughout the year. Check this schedule for a listing of feast days. It’s suggested that you call the pueblo the week before the dance to make sure the public is welcome. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque has dances on weekends.