Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Origins of the Snake Dance

Snake Dance at Orabai 1921 (click to enlarge)

note: The view of rattlesnakes here is a very Southwest Native American viewpoint. This legend goes from the Southwest, all the way to the Great Lakes. When you look at it from the viewpoint of people whose very lives depend on the successful storage of corn and other staples, it's not hard to see why the snakes, who eat mice, rats, and other grain feeders are often revered as protectors. Our opinion of the rattlesnake is very close to the Egyptian opinion of the cat. They are allies in our struggle to survive in a harsh land. When the white folks wanted to have "Snake Roundups" in Arizona, we fought to get that practice discontinued. We defended our cousins successfully. Cousins do that for each other.

The Snake Brothers

A long time ago, so long ago that it is not even recorded on the walls of a canyon or a cave, so long ago that it is not recorded in the Winter Counts of our people, four brothers went out to hunt. They found a single buffalo and killed it with their arrows.

As soon as they had made that kill they heard the buffalo speak in a human voice that said "Take this meat to feed yourselves, but when you have eaten, take the skull, the skin, the sinews, the hooves and tail and put them all together again, each of them in the proper place."

The three older brothers did not want to heed the voice. They said "This is not a true vision. This is just our hunger talking. This skin will make a fine robe for winter, the sinews will wrap our bows and sew our clothing well."

The youngest brother finally had to gather all the parts that the voice had told them to gather and challenge his brothers to fight for them. The brothers were too busy feasting on the fresh meat to want to fight and they gave the youngest brother all the parts of the buffalo that were not meat.

Youngest Brother then took the skin, the skull, the sinew, hooves, and tail, and he put them together again just as the voice of the buffalo had commanded. Then he stepped back and began to sing a song of thanks to the mighty buffalo who had given his life and his flesh so that the people might live and flourish.

As soon as his song was finished the skin that had been sewn back together grew up into a fine big buffalo bull that snorted, stamped the ground and ran off into the hills. In the settling of the dust cloud the buffalo left behind Youngest Brother saw Monster Slayer standing there. Monster Slayer's face was hard and angry looking. His eyes softened a little when he saw Youngest Brother. He told Youngest Brother, "You did well to listen to the voice of the vision. Come with me now."

Youngest Brother followed Monster Slayer to where his elder brothers were sitting around the fire talking about how they were going to go to where the skin had been taken and gather it up to carry the meat home. The elder brothers never saw Monster Slayer standing there. They did not see when Monster Slayer took out his bow and drew a crooked lightning arrow from his quiver. They did not see when Monster Slayer shot an arrow of crooked lightning into their camp.

The first thing that they did notice was when one of the elder brothers tried to stand up. He cried out "I cannot stand. My legs have grown together!" Another brother said "When I try to move my feet there is a sound that is being made." The eldest brother said "My skin is all covered in scales, my arms have grown into my side!"

This is when the brothers finally saw Monster Slayer standing there. They still had heads like humans and they asked him "What has happened to us? Why are we turning into snakes?"

Monster Slayer told them "You refused to listen to the voice of vision. That buffalo was me, I was in the form of the buffalo to bring gifts to your people. I have just finished killing the Giant Snake Monster who was keeping your people out of the canyons. Now, you, young men of the people, are going to take the Snake's place. You were foolish not to listen to the voice of vision, which was my voice trying to give you a great gift, but you were also very generous and thinking of your people because you were planning to take all the meat but that one meal back to them, along with the skin and the other parts. For that, I have made a place for you, up there, in that cave. Go there now and wait for your brother to come back for you. First he will come alone, then he will bring all your people."

The brothers were new to being snakes. They were also the size of humans still, they had a very hard time moving themselves to where Monster Slayer had told them to go. Youngest Brother watched them struggle and he asked Monster Slayer if he might help his brothers. Monster Slayer nodded yes.

One by one Youngest Brother dragged the snakes up to where Monster Slayer had told them to go. Just before their heads turned into snake heads the eldest brother told Youngest Brother "It is the plan of things that we have become snakes. We will always be a part of our people. We will always look out for them and will do what we can to help. You were the wisest of us when you listened to the voice of the vision and we did not. Do as Monster Slayer commands. Come to us at the proper time. Ask for our help and we will give it to you." As soon as he was done speaking his human head changed into the head of a great snake. All the brothers went into the cave. Youngest Brother sat there for a long time. He sang a song of mourning for the thing that had happened to his brothers. This was his song:
My Brothers I sing for you
It was your fate to be turned into snakes
You are still my brothers
I will always love you
I will come again
At the appointed time
Remember me, brothers
I will remember you
When he was done singing, he cried for a while. When he was done crying he stood up. Before he left he raised his right arm to salute his brothers. Then he gathered up all the meat and all his brothers clothes and weapons. He went back to where the people were staying alone. He told the people "You can see that I have come home alone. My brothers are not dead. They have been turned into snakes. I know the place where they live and we will all go there together at the appointed time."

Four changes of the moon had passed. Youngest Brother was preparing to go on a war party. Some people had been raiding our cousins, the Tohono O'odamm, and they had asked for help from the Apache. While he was painting his face black and red for war Youngest Brother heard a voice inside his head that told him to go to where his brothers were.

He went there alone. He stood before the mouth of the cave and said "I have come here alone, just the way Monster Slayer has told me to do. I have come for your help my brothers. I am about to go on the War Path."

Inside the cave there was a great sound of snakes. Three huge snakes stuck their heads out of the cave. Youngest Brother knew that these were his three brothers. He was afraid, but he was also glad to see them alive. He sat down in front of them and he bowed his head. He put his arms out before him with the palms raised up and said "My brothers, it is good to see you again. Our people are all well. I am going to war to help our cousins of the valley. I have come to you for your help."

The biggest snake, the eldest brother, was given the power of human speech for just that one moment. He told Youngest Brother "We have been waiting for you. I have a gift ready. This is the gift of Snake Medicine. Come close to me when I am done speaking and I will kiss you like a brother. Do not be afraid, my kiss will hurt, but it will not kill. It will give you speed, and stealth, and patience, and wisdom. It will make you strong in battle and wise in council. It will give you vision to see beyond your eyes reach and understand what lies beneath the surface of things." Then, his human voice disappeared again and he was only able to hiss.

Youngest Brother then went up to the eldest brother snake. He picked him up and kissed him behind the head. The kiss of the snake was painful, but Youngest Brother began to dance with the snake. Just as his brother had said, he began to see beyond the reach of his eyes. He saw the vision that was intended for him. He got very tired and lay down to rest. While he lay there the visions kept coming to him. He knew that this was vision and not a dream because he was not asleep.

When he felt his strength had returned he saw that the snakes had left him a bow. This bow was unlike anything he had ever seen. It was made with two different kinds of wood, and had a piece of buffalo sinew glued into the middle between the two different woods. When he picked up the bow he saw that there was a quiver of arrows there too, along with a spear. Youngest Brother took them all back with him. He went to the other men who were ready for war and he told them "I have been given these new weapons and a new vision by my brothers. If I use these weapons, and follow this vision we will be the victors in the coming fight." The men all used Youngest Brother's bow to make bows like it for themselves. This is the famous Apache compound bow. It is small but very powerful.

It was exactly as promised. The fight went well and the people who had been raiding our cousins left the land. The Tohono O'odamm gave the Apache gifts of food, blue stones of turquoise, and beads from white shells and coral to take back with them.

When they returned to the people Youngest Brother told them all "We need to go back to my brothers and tell them what has happened. We need to give them thanks for their help."

This was done. Every one of the people went to where the snakes were living. They all were invited by the snakes to take them up and learn the dance. All the people who danced were given the vision of the snakes. They saw that the snakes would guard the corn, squash, and beans that the people had stored. They saw that each summer they should gather the snakes and bathe them with water and blue cornmeal and pollen. Then they should dance again. Then, the rains for the year would come with the southern winds.

This is the story of how our people came to live with the snakes. This is why we don't kill them. The snakes do their part, and we do ours. This is the way it is supposed to be. This is the way that things are.

Yexaaiidela, go deya, tc'iindii
(having been prepared, he walks, they say)