Steve Paul

Solace from the Chiefs among the buffalo dancers

Steve Paul
Steve Paul

I’ll confess to having been a little depressed. My partner and I had arrived in this high desert city just in time to pull up to a bar, order green chili cheeseburgers and watch the second half of the Chiefs playoff game against Indianapolis.

First play of the half: interception! The brilliant momentum of the opening half continued for the good guys. And then, of course, came the slow and bitter leakage to loss and disappointment.

We picked up some wine — bubbly pink for her, red for me — and spent the rest of the night sulking in our rental casita.

It took until Monday to sense that I’d found a cure for the funk.

With a friend, an expert in Indian culture, we drove about an hour into the desert southwest of here to the Jemez Pueblo. We got there just in time to watch the annual Three Kings Day Buffalo Dance unfold on the village’s long, sand-covered plaza. For the next three and a half hours — about the duration of a televised football game, that is — we were mesmerized by this ancient ritual, which I’ve come to believe is among the most extraordinary spectacles anywhere on the American landscape.

The dance consists of a repetitive series of processions, each lasting about 30 to 40 minutes, by alternating groups of participants — kind of like teams representing the pueblo’s two kivas, or male religious societies. A line of seven drummers enters from one end of the plaza, followed by a chorus of chanters. Soon they are joined by a corps of animal figures, dozens of men and boys in the guise of antlered deer and rams. With bells on their hips, the animals create another layer of sound above the deep drums and voices. And then, from the other end of the plaza, a pair of buffalo dancers appear along with the ritual buffalo maiden. The three figures step in unison, rattles in hand, and eventually approach and interact with the drummers. After one such group leaves the plaza, the other slowly makes its way in and keeps the drums and the dance ritual going.

Each successive procession can seem similar to the last or can present surprising variations. This year’s dance at Jemez had more variety, even moments of humor, than the first one I watched two years ago. There was blue sky above, not much wind, and hundreds of spectators, most of them Native Americans, lined each side of the plaza, in chairs, on porches and on second-story balconies. Some of the pueblo’s women at times joined the ritual on the sidelines, swaying, moving their arms slowly, and occasionally dropping bits of white corn meal on the ground in an act of prayer.

This is all — as I, a complete outsider, understand it — in the service of transferring energy, strength and mystical power, which guides the lives of the Jemez people (and those of the other Pueblo tribes in the Southwest that hold buffalo dances and similar rituals at various times of the year).

Near the conclusion, we watched from one end of the plaza as the drummers, singers, dancers and animal figures pulsed like a single organism far down the way. Eventually they proceeded down the length of the plaza towards me and through a narrow passageway to a smaller open space, where the last act took place in a compact oval. With spectators all around, the animals surrounded the buffaloes and the buffalo maiden in a last expression of spirit, love, prayer and tribal community.

Everyone, with or without a religious tradition, has a touchstone, something that grounds us in real life. This particular drumbeat connection to the earth and to the inner spirit of human beings and their fellow inhabitants of the planet is a mystical occasion — and a post-football healing — like none others I’ve known.

It felt absolutely right to announce a new year with the sight and sound of buffalo spirits and with a rare and authentic kind of hope.