Notes From My Knapsack 7-9-15
Ceremonial occasions and fried food
What a pleasure it was to attend a community event recently, where the citizens gathered in the middle of the village, and former residents returned from far and wide.
It was a delight to see the festivities begin with a foot race that involved both young and old, more for the pleasure of participating than for the chance that most or any would win a prize.
Then the familiar glow of seeing honored emblems come forth to lead a procession, pride of place given to those who have served honorably in years past in the military, aged faces yet proud eyes staring straight ahead, as behind them rose the music and that began the dancing and in and among us all the costumed participants began a journey, through reshaped and almost unfamiliar streets between the homes, a path used for generations on this day, in this way.
Soon there would be food, especially fried food, and meals shared both standing up and sitting down, strangers cheek by jowl with lifelong residents, everyone reaffirming the values and meanings and turning of the year in this annual celebration.
I would understand perfectly if you thought I was talking about the Fourth of July, down Broadway through the village of Granville. But actually, I was first referring to a stop my family made on vacation back in June, as the feast day celebrations began June 23 and 24 at a place now returned to its own name, Ohkay Owingeh, formerly called San Juan Pueblo. Along the upper Rio Grande River in northern New Mexico, north of Santa Fe, the Pueblo villages scatter from Taos up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains down to Albuquerque and southern Pueblos like Sandia and Zuni.
Since Juan de Oñate encountered a pueblo he named for his own patron saint, San Juan, in 1598, the people of Ohkay Owingeh had calmly adopted, and adapted the Catholic faith presented to them, and brought to St. John's Day, also known as Midsummer's Day in some cultures around the world, their own Buffalo Dance ceremonies. They begin the day before, with a footrace around the "kiva" or ceremonial house in the heart of the community, and then the elders and veterans in their proper garb come out to sing their songs with drum and chant and stomp, rustling fresh cut cottonwood branches that did indeed sound like the gentle rain was falling already.
Then the Buffalo Maiden and two Buffalo Spirit dancers came out of the kiva, and in each plaza of the village, in stately procession not unlike a parade, the accompanying drummers kept the heartbeat of Ohkay Owingeh loud and strong, with the dance carrying to all who watched meanings both obvious, and hidden; the reasons for some of the practices are well-known, and for a few simply "the way we've always done it."
Is it any different for us on July Fourth? Why do we let so many politicians wave at us? Do they represent the ritual invocation of democracy for the people, or is it just about the candy for the kids? Is the race in the morning a distraction and modern addition to the day, or a new expression of old hopes for this nation on the move?
And for ritual behavior, the bands and the floats and the . . . bare-bellied people wearing giant hats over their torsos (are they our Koshare dancers?); we've got it all, right down to the need to get in line with strangers and feast until dark.
All across America, communities have their rituals, and we can begin a new cycle of the year having performed our own last week.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about community rituals you have known at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.