Hopi Indians practice a dance for a ceremony in the dance plaza of their village.

He Arrived a Skeptic, But Left a Believer in the Power and Wisdom of Hopi Rain Dance

Thomas Mills
2/22/12

In mainstream culture, there are still many jokes, cartoons and conversations about Natives dancing to make it rain. Whenever there is a drought or even a few dry weeks, someone will say, “We need those Indians to do a rain dance for us,” and everyone will chuckle and maybe one guy will get up and hop around with his feeble impersonation of a rain dance.

I lived on the Hopi reservation for four years in the early 1970s managing the Hopi Cultural Center on the Second Mesa, and until that time, I was just like everyone I knew—skeptical about the rain dance. The rumor in Winslow, Arizona—where I grew up—was that the Hopi called the weatherman to see when it was going to rain and then did their famous snake and antelope dance.

During my time with the Hopi, I learned that they have never been relocated, changed their religion or beliefs, or asked anyone for help. Their land, in what is now northeast Arizona, is so desolate—with no running water, obvious resources or fertile ground—that no one has ever wanted it. They settled at this location because their Guardian instructed them to do so. They say they have been there since their arrival on this continent, after they traveled across a large ocean on small rafts, always heading east, landing on the backbone of this continent and then traveled north to their present location after a great flood. Although they could have chosen any site—with running water and fertile ground—they passed through all these sites on their trek to northern Arizona.

I had been on the reservation for eight months when the first snake and antelope ceremony I witnessed was performed during a scorching and dusty August. (The Hopi believe that running antelope make the sound of thunder and that sound brings the rain clouds; they believe snakes have the power to suck the rain out of the clouds. That’s why both animals are included in the dance.) During the ceremony, a huge black cloud formed over the village, and as rained poured down upon the dancers, I thought, What a coincidence! Other clouds formed off to the south and poured rain on the Hopi cornfields as they passed above the ground.

A few days later, I asked one of my friends on the reservation how the date of the snake and antelope dance was selected. He told me it was determined by observing the sun as it rose over the horizon—the sign was when it passed over a specific point on the Munya-ovi cliffs east of the village. My friend told me that the snake and antelope ceremony always lasts 16 days, and the main purpose is to bring rain for all four races of man—black, yellow, red, and white—for their crops to prosper. The actual dance is held on the last day.

So no weatherman was involved, just 16 days of fasting and prayers. The Hopi believe they have a four-day window before and after the dance to receive their rain. If no rain comes in that time period, they know the dance was not performed properly or that someone in the ceremony did not have a pure heart and everyone will suffer. The Hopi ceremonial cycle is conducted every year, regardless of how little (or how much) rain has fallen that year.

During my second summer on the reservation, it was very hot in July and many of my Hopi friends were worried about their crops. There was no rain in sight, and the corn had barely broken the surface of the ground. This, I thought, will be the test.

Two days after the dance, it rained.

My third summer on the reservation, in addition to the snake and antelope dancers, the male and female—brother and sister—Salako Kachinas danced between two lines of their Cloud Kachina companions; I don’t think I have ever seen anything to compare. Two beautiful Kachinas dancing in unison, surrounded by clouds, as the rain poured down on the village. (It rained so hard that the plaza where the dance was taking place was flooded.) That year, the crops were bountiful for everyone in the village. (The Salako dancers appear every four years, when the Hopi clan responsible for the dance requests their presence.)

By the fourth year I was a believer. There was no doubt in my mind that summer that it was going to rain after the snake and antelope ceremony—and it did.

The two Hopi villages that alternate hosting and performing the snake and antelope ceremony no longer allow non-Hopis to attend the dance. The last year I managed the cultural center the village of Shongopovi was allowing everyone to attend, and I can only describe it as a stampede. Thousands of people tried to push and shove their way into the small Hopi village. Little respect was shown to the peaceful people who lived there. The elders had no choice but to close the dance to non-Hopi to perform the ceremony in the proper manner.

This type of disrespect has been prevalent for many years. In 1902, a Mennonite minister and missionary named Henry Voth used spiked shoes to make his way down the kiva ladder to record every detail of the snake and antelope ceremony at the small Hopi Village of Mishongnovi on the Second Mesa. In a book he co-authored, The Mishongnovi Ceremonies of the Snake and Antelope Fraternities, published that same year, he wrote: “Fourth Song. Polihungwa now left the circle and turning around faced the fire, where he lighted the larger cloud blower. After the pipe had been well-lighted, he passed in a sinistral circuit to the rear of the sand mosaic, where he stooped down over the falling rain symbols and, placing the large end of the pipe in his mouth, forced great clouds of smoke from the smaller end upon the symbols. He then squatted down on the west side of the picture, then on the south, and then on the east, forcing smoke upon the colored cloud symbols and then also into the medicine bowl. By a curious coincidence, rain clouds had been gathering in various directions overhead, and while they were singing this song which related to the four colored clouds, and asking them to bring rain, the patter of rain was distinctly heard outside on the kiva hatchway.”

That was more than 100 years ago, and everyone knows that these ceremonies were taking place long before the white man set foot on this land. Many people have witnessed the power of the snake and antelope dance for hundreds of years and have seen it bring rain. When will mainstream culture listen to Natives?

Today, my white brothers have huge rattlesnake roundups that have become like ceremonies. Thousands and thousands of snakes are captured and killed to make a few dollars. At Sweetwater, Texas in March of last year, more than 30,000 visitors came to watch and party when rattlesnakes weighing a combined total of 1,700 pounds were rounded up, milked, killed, skinned and eaten. The year before, more than 4,000 pounds of snake meat was collected and in 1982—the biggest harvest ever for this event—more than 17,986 pounds of rattlesnakes were taken. The haul has steadily decreased every year since 1982, but organizers of the event don’t think that’s because they have sponsored the slaughter of just about every rattlesnake in the Southwest. Rather, they blame the cold weather. “Next year will be better,” they say.

Every hunting season, the best and the biggest antelopes are taken just for their horns, which are mounted and hung on a wall in someone’s rec room. The antelope have about as much meat as a domestic goat, and it is very tough and dry. In other words, they are killed for sport, not for sustenance.

So it does not surprise me that these areas of the country—with fewer and fewer snakes and antelope to bring the clouds and rain—are in the worst drought in modern history. But still I hear people joke, “Hey, let’s get the Indians to do a rain dance!”

Unfortunately, they don’t know how right they are. And while they’re thinking about how hot and dry it is in their town, they might also consider restocking the snakes and antelopes they have almost exterminated, canceling the rattlesnake roundups, and joining their red brothers in saying a little prayer in hopes that the rain, the snakes and the antelope will return.

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