Last Sunday, I drove south at dawn to meet my dear friend Margaret (currently visiting in Santa Fe) at the Ohkay Owingeh pueblo to observe a sacred Deer Dance festival. It was absolutely incredible.
Arriving early, I passed the sacred fire in a field where the dancers had gathered during the night, and prepared themselves in the smoke of several large logs (the logs continued to glow all morning). Several times, as I first approached the dancers, I had the impression that I was really watching a great herd of deer moving far off in a meadow; their movements also brought to mind videos of antlered animals such as caribou, moving across a landscape en mass. Closer up, I realized that every antler tip had a downy (under) feather tied to it, which transmitted the body’s every tiny movement into a fluid little air-dance of its own, adding to the feeling that I was watching real animals (which move so fluidly…). During their great entrance, a shaman led the deer forward, their faces smeared with red-brown pigments, by sprinkling a tiny trail of cornmeal ahead of them. Every dancer was slightly bent forward, walking over two sticks, graceful as deer legs. There were between 150 and 200 dancers of all ages, arranged by age — from toddlers (one sucking on a pacifier as he danced!) to the deer shaman, who was an elder. A few “hunters” walked among the dancing deer, firing guns into the air, and young deer seemed to charge and veer as he neared. In later dances, these hunters appeared in another role (painted with what I’d call Kachina-like features). I believe there were more dancers than “watchers” — and this also felt like a very local event. Between dances, they entered a kiva building. It felt like the dancers were really dancing for themselves, for their community. This really was not a tourist event. I felt honored to stand among them, feeling the drum in my own chest, and tasting the dust that rose from their feet as the deer danced in the plaza between old adobe buildings with blue mountains for a backdrop.
I did not take any photographs or sketch during the festival, but found I couldn’t get them out of my head. A few days later I made a couple sketches, to remind myself of certain details (some details remain vivid — others fade — this always intrigues me, how and what I remember….).
Here is a portrait of an Ohkay Owingeh deer dancer, taken by photographer Mike Spieth: