A Midsummer Fête in the Pueblo of San Juan

MUCH time and ingenuity have been spent in seeking traces and proofs of the connection between the Pueblo Indians of Mexico and the ancient Aztecs. The connection is no doubt real, but the links are hard to find ; and I wonder that the archæologists, by way of recreation and diversion from their arduous labors, have not made a collateral research as to the connection between the Pueblos and the mud-sparrows, of which traces and proofs are plenty wherever either mud-sparrows or Pueblo Indians have builded.

The mud - sparrow, I believe, builds now only two-story houses, while the Pueblos run them up sometimes five and even seven stories high; and the mudsparrows do not go in and out, up and down, by ladders, but neither would the Pueblos if they had wings. The ladders are only an arrangement necessary during a stage of imperfect development, and may be done away with later.

Meantime, so far as any architectural argument can go to prove relationship, it seems clear that the mud-sparrows come in somewhere among the Toltecs, Aztecs, and Pueblos; very likely were first, and the instructors of them all ; for there are certainly not on the earth any two types of building more like each other than the mud-sparrow’s nest and the Pueblo Indian’s house. Material, the same: mud. Method of treatment, the same: building up in layers, wet, left to dry by the sun. Shapes, similar ; in some instances nearly identical.

Does archæology often make out three points so strong? And whoever has seen a Pueblo Indian woman, up on a ladder, plastering the inside wall of her house, might be tempted to add a fourth point, — of the similarity of implement and handling. She has her wet mud in a bowl before her, on a round of the ladder, dips her hand in, claws all she can, and with a swift and dexterous stroke slaps it on the wall, and dabs it down. Handful by handful she patiently keeps on, until her hand is crusted thick with mud, and looks far more like a bird’s claw than like a human hand. The dabs which a mud-sparrow, building, gives with its beak to each little morsel of mud it adds are wonderfully like these strokes of the Indian woman’s hand. No one who has seen both motions can fail to recognize their kinship to each other. And I think no one familiar with mud-sparrows’ villages can come suddenly upon an Indian pueblo without being at once reminded of them. It was my first thought at my first glimpse of the pueblo of San Juan.

We had just crossed the Rio Grande at a point where its meadows were brilliantly green. Rising abruptly out of this vivid green meadow, and barring our way, like a colossal ant-hill, stood a great drab mound, with broken lines, suggesting walls and roofs at top. Our road led right up and into this mound. Not a green leaf, not a green blade; blank, shadeless, shadowless, drab, dust or sand under foot on all sides, shifting, solid: piles and banks of it, shifting at each step or each breeze; walls and banks of it, solid, and perforated here and there by small openings. These solid walls and banks, we presently perceived, were in tiers, — tiers of terraces; and the perforations were of various sizes. Each terrace was spread out, flat at top, and a few feet wide ; at back of this another straight terrace, spread out, flat at top; this, again, surmounted by a third; and so on, till in some places they were five stories high. Queer strips of lattice-work stood on these terraces, slanted, tilted, propped irregularly here and there; they also were of a drab color, as if walls, roofs, ladders, all had been run, wet mud, into a fretted mould, baked, and turned out, like some freaky confectioner’s device made of opaque, light-brown cough candy. At intervals on these terraces, or on the ground near the base of the walls, stood low oval mounds of the same baked drab mud, shaped like the half of an egg-shell, with an aperture left in the small end. To have seen a big swallow’s head sticking out of any one of these would have seemed only natural. There wrere also here and there on the roofs, lifted a few feet above them, queer little thatches of brush; ragged and unfinished, like the first rough platform of twigs and mud the robin lays for her nest.

This is what one sees at the first glance, on looking at an adobe pueblo. After discovering their plan and the arrangement and uses of the odd structures, they can never again wear precisely the same expression. The tiers and terraces are the stories and roofs of the houses ; the holes are doors and windows opening into rooms under the terrace roofs ; the strips of lattice-work are ladders, the only means of going from one terrace to another above or below ; the little oval mounds are ovens; and the queer brush thatches are the Pueblo Indian’s pleasure-bowers, summerhouses, arbors, sheltering him from the sun, when he would lie down on his terrace roof. Also, being thrifty, and driven to expedients in his narrow quarters, he sometimes uses these thatches as dryingground for red peppers, which make a fine show, topping off a pile of the drab terraces. There were four or five of these terraced piles, some larger, some smaller, yet without any regularity, and a small open plaza. On one side of this was an old church, also of adobe: long, low, with two square, white-washed towers, and an archway on the front.

When we drove into this plaza it was swarming with Indians and Mexicans, — a kaleidoscope of all the hues of the rainbow. On the terraces were standing hundreds of the Indians, all decked in the gayest colors : bareheaded, wrapped in blankets, motionless, most of them, as statues. The gorgeousness of the pictures they made, relieved against these walls and banks of drab, and kindled by the brilliant blue of the sky overhead, could never be told either by pen or by brush. It was a dazzling blaze of color. Adding to the bewilderment of the scene came the sharp, plaintive notes of the old bell hanging in the white archway of the church. It was Saint John’s Day, and the bell was ringing for morning mass.

Not the least among the adroit and kindly diplomacies of the Roman Catholic church, in her proselyting, has been her method of grafting her own ceremonials on the days and observances she found already established and beloved among the peoples she sought to conquer. From this habit of hers have come by degrees strange transitions and transformations in calendars and ceremonies; saints’days being kept on pagan sinners’ days, and fast days on feast days, with increasing confusion, century after century. Nowhere, perhaps, can this sort of antithesis be better seen than in the pueblos of New Mexico on the fête days which the church aud the Indians keep together.

We were too late to get admission to the church by the front door. A closepacked throng filled the approach to it, and rows of Indians, armed with guns, stood on guard on either side. By mysterious turnings, gates in walls, stable yards, and inner courts, we were led round to a side door used by the priests. Just as our guide was about to open one of these gates in a mud wall, it was suddenly flung open from the other side, and there leaped through a huge Indian, wrapped in a scarlet blanket, two thirds of his face covered thick with vermilion paint. A more startling apparition, coming of a sudden, and so close, could not be imagined, or a more splendid picture than he made for the half second that he stood framed in the drab-colored gateway. He was evidently as much startled as we, at first; but in a moment there spread over his face a broad, kindly smile, in which all his fierce savagery seemed to melt away at once.

The mud floor of the church was crowded with kneeling and squatting Mexicans and Indians; silent, devout, sad-eyed, their faces were studies. The blackness of their hair and their eyes might almost be said to darken the place. The women wore shawls on their heads, sometimes close drawn around their faces, sometimes held gracefully with one hand, sometimes allowed to fall free. There is a mystic spell about a shawl on a Mexican woman’s head : it never comes off; it may trail on the ground at one side, but the other end will cling on, if it is only by a fringe. Some of the well-to-do ones, who evidently considered themselves in full dress, wore white cambric sun-bonnets, the full crowns and the long capes fastened on by shining steel buttons at each plait. It seemed inexplicable that they could not perceive how much better the raggedest beggar woman there looked, who bad a shawl over her head, than they did in their stiff white bonnets.

Even up to the chancel rail they had crowded, and on the very steps some of them were squatting, every one with upturned face and a look of rapt attention. On the highest step, leaning against the rail, sat an old man, — so old that when his eyes were shut his face looked like the face of an Egyptian mummy. His long gray hair floated in the air. Hugged up between his knees he had a guitar, which looked as old as he ; his right hand lay on the strings, as lifelessly as if it had fallen there, out of his control; every now and then it clutched the strings, and brought out a few wailing, spasmodic notes, these also seeming to be out of his control. Opposite him, at the farther end of the rail, knelt a woman, older still, if possible, than he ; everything about her might have been centuries old except her eyes. They glowed out from under shaggy white eyebrows like coals of fire, fierce, revengeful, insatiate. Her bony arms crossed on her breast, her rosary hanging untouched, her head propped against the wall, the fierce eyes devouring every motion of the priests in the chancel, she suggested unfathomed and unfathomable mysteries of hate and suffering.

The shrines were gay with tawdry flowers, and high candles burned on all sides. In front of the rail were half a dozen shabby little flaring, smoking tallow tapers, — tokens of expiation or entreaty from some of the poor souls who squatted close behind, watching their struggling flames with piteous earnestness. Ten priests, gorgeous in white robes and brilliant vestments, were there to assist in the mass. On occasion of these fêtes, the priests from all the mission stations within reach gather together, to add dignity and splendor to the observance.

The Santa Cruz church, one of the oldest in the country, is only twelve miles distant from San Juan. Here, cherished with great pride, are still to be seen vestments sent over by queens of Spain in the days when Spain thought to found a new Spain here. Only a few miles beyond Santa Cruz stands another mud church, built in the name of Santa Clara, over two hundred years ago.

A young French priest has these parishes in his keeping, and is working today with the same simple, unquestioning, inexhaustible faith and indefatigable energy which made splendid the lives and the deaths of the earliest Jesuit missionaries in California and Mexico. He is a man of culture, and used, in the Old World, to surroundings of refinement. Delicately wrought silks and satins, with embroideries of the finest that women’s hands can do, come to him often from France, with the love of women of degree who are his kin. He wears them as reverently and gladly in masses said in these mud churches of the Pueblo Indians as if it were in the Madeleine of Paris.

Moving back and forth among the priests, assisting in the ceremonies of the mass, were two Indians, wrapped in their blankets, and wearing the fringed leggins, necklaces, and decorations of their race. One of them swung the censer ; the other had the charge of the robes, and helped in all the changes ; the dexterous manner in which he contrived to keep himself wrapped, in true Indian fashion, in his blanket, while using both hands to robe and disrobe the priests, was marvelous. The sharp contrast between these purely savage figures, the simplicity of the lines of their drapery, their barbaric faces and decorations, the immobility of their countenances and attitudes, and the complications of genuflection and pose and adornment of the priests was impressive: and the savage man stood the comparison best. There was but one drawback on the dignity of his bearing, and that was one for which he was in no wise responsible. Exactly in the middle of Ins red blanket, conspicuously branded in black, were the letters U. S. I. D. To see these huge black letters, every now and then swinging slowly into view, stamped on the Indian’s back was ludicrous enough ; and the slower the motion, and the more majestic the attitude, the more ludicrous became the letters. It was too bad. Perhaps to the Indians, and even to the Mexicans, the letters might have seemed decorative, and of value as symbols of the power and goodness of the “ great Father in Washington ; ” but to eyes enlightened as to some of the doings of the United States Interior Department, and aware of the cost of such blankets to their wearers, the label was a strange mixture of sad sarcasm and joke.

Whenever the Indian in the chancel rang the bell, at the elevation of the host, the Indians outside fired their guns. The first of these volley echoes gave us a momentary shock of real terror. How could one suppose it to be part of the religious ceremony? A softer and more assonant reply came more than once in the sudden whirring above our heads of the wings of doves, that flew in, and once, in a sweet sort of reverent irreverence, alighted on the top of the big crucifix. After the mass came a short sermon in Spanish by an old priest, with a fine and benevolent face. His voice and gestures were impressive, and the smooth, open vowel sounds full of melody. It was easy, in spite of ignorance of the Spanish language, to gather the meaning of much that he said. Love, charity, charitable giving, were the burden of his commands to the people ; the latter being difficult of fulfilling, it would seem, by most of the poor souls who listened to him.

As soon as the services ended, the throng poured out of the church in an irregular procession, in the middle of which, under a canopy, were carried images of Christ and the Virgin Mary and Saint John, the patron saint of the day. The Indians with guns ran alongside, firing at intervals; green branches were waved; wild Indians on horseback, splendid in paint and feathers, dashed back and forth ; the little bell tinkled ; the close-shorn heads and black robes of the priests flitted in and out among the streaming long-haired visages and red and yellow and blue wrappings and trappings of the Indians. The whole plaza seemed to surge and glitter under the hot sun, as the crowds ran to and fro. The sacred images were set in a small booth, built of green boughs; there to remain all day, to receive any offerings which the devout-minded might wish to make to them.

This was the end of the church’s part of the fête. The Indians were free now to keep the rest of the day in their own fashion. In a few minutes, hundreds of them had clambered up and out on the ledge-like roofs of their strange, terraced houses ; standing, squatting, lying down, they grouped themselves, from end to end of the town, as if with no other thought than of pictorial effect. It was a scene to make an artist beside himself with delight,—no two groups on a level; no two groups alike; men, women, children, babies, every living creature of them all wrapped and decked in brilliant colors, which were thrown into a positive splendor of relief by the soft, pale, half-brown, half-yellow color of the walls behind, above, and below them. Over it all a sky of blazing blue, such as only a Southern latitude, Southern summer, and Southern sun together could make.

From roof to roof, group to group, scrambling up and down the break-neck ladders, swinging ourselves, we hardly knew how, from ladder to terrace and terrace to ladder, over parapets and chimneys, we roamed about, high up in the air, among them, and looking down on the glittering spectacle below. The heat and the glare reflected from the baked mud surfaces were almost intolerable ; the air felt like the flapping of red-hot wings in one’s face, and to step for a second out of shade of an umbrella made one dizzy and blind. Yet the Pueblos basked in it, bareheaded, as content as lizards.

With no more distinct invitation than a succession of friendly beckoning smiles, we entered one of the low doors. The mud floor had been swept smooth and clean for the festival day. There was no furniture excepting low cushions or divans ranged round the walls. These were their beds, rolled up and covered with gay-colored blankets. Rough-hewn log posts, whitewashed, supported the roof. Clay vessels, of curious shapes and colors, filled with water, stood in the corners. The fire-place was a raised stone platform, square, and roofed over with a dome of adobe. Near it was the family mill, — an oblong stone trough, five or six feet long, divided into three compartments ; in each of these was a flat stone, perhaps two thirds the size of the compartment. When meal is to be ground, the leisurely Indians sit down on the floor by these mills, put the grain into the trough, and slowly rub it fine with the flat stones.

The lady of the house was short, fat, swarthy ; silent, but more radiantly hospitable than one would have thought it possible for a speechless hostess to be. A dozen Indians, men and women, were squatted around the room, against the walls ; motionless, grave, their bright dark eyes following our every motion. With the keenest observation, they actually embarrassed us by their stillness; but their expressions were friendly and gentle. The women wore leggins of deerskin, as white and smooth as the finest kid ; moccasins of the same, or of yellow buckskin ; short black petticoats, gay bead belts, blouses of white, or black, or bright calico, ear-rings and necklaces of silver and coral beads. Their coarse black hair came short and straight over their foreheads to their eyebrows, as correctly and evenly “ banged ” as if it had been done by a civilized barber of fashion ; behind, it fell long and loose over their necks.

Hanging from the middle of the ceiling was the baby, strapped tight into a tiny wooden trough-cradle, a low wickerwork hood covered with white cloth over its head. There it swung, back and forth ; out of harm’s way certain]} , and as comfortable as in a cradle on rockers. Its eyes were the only things it could stir; arms, legs, feet, hands, all strapped tight to the board. The mother understood no English, except that which we spoke in praise of the baby’s pretty bright eyes ; of that she understood every word. When we left the house all the men and women rose and accompanied us to the door, and stood there silent, smiling, and nodding their heads to our good-bys.

As we turned to walk down the roof, there suddenly appeared, within a few feet of us, coming up through the roof, the head of an Indian, crying, “ How! how ! ” in a hoarse, grunting voice. He sprang up through the opening, ran like lightning across the roof to the parapet, over the edge, and out of sight in a twinkling: naked, except two long narrow strips of calico floating down before and behind ; painted from head to foot, in bands of lead color with black stripes and white polka spots ; a fringe of hens’ feathers down each leg, where the outside seam of trousers would come ; his long black hair stuck full of hens’ feathers ; a wreath of green cottonwool! leaves on his head, and a cottonwood hough in his right hand. He was an eldritch creature to pop out on one in that fashion. It is not too much to confess that we jumped back in some terror; but before we had recovered our breath, “ How ! how! ” came a second, a third, more, all through the same opening : tumbling up in a helterskelter crowd, all grunting, ejaculating, and waving their green boughs. A dozen of them had darted out, across, and down before we could believe our eyes. These were some of the braves for the war dance, which was to be the great feature of the day. On other roofs we could see similar irruptions of the same impish figures, darting out and down the ladders, their feet seeming barely to touch the rounds. Soon we saw them gathering in two long straight, parallel lines, just outside the highest part of the wall. All eyes were fastened on them ; even little children crawled to the extreme edges of the roofs, and lay down flat on their bellies, with their heads lifted like turtles, looking over and off.

There were two rival bands to take part in this dance, a hundred in each band. After the two double columns were arranged in line, fifty rods or more apart, they began to move slowly toward each other, sidewise, with steps which were little more than a shuffling of the feet in the sand, — certainly, they did not move more than the width of the foot at each step ; their bodies slightly bent forward ; their arms close at their sides ; heads up, swinging slightly at each shuffle ; the cotton-wood wreaths and boughs waving ; the drums beating a dull, monotonous note; gourds rattling ; and loud, discordant voices all grunting and whooping: it was a finer Bedlam than Bedlam itself could have shown. They stood so close together that their arms and legs seemed to touch ; this gave to the whole column, in its slow, shuffling motion, an expression like that of a huge snake wriggling itself along. It seemed to take an interminable time for them to move a few yards. As the columns came closer and closer they quickened their speed till the second of meeting, when they fell back instantly into the same slow, vibrant shuffle, and retreated from each other to their first position. They repeated this twice, and then broke up, preparing for the races which were to follow.

The Indians themselves appeared to be more interested in these than in the dance. They crowded up close to the course, and cheered or groaned derisively at each success or failure. Sometimes the friends of a runner, as they cheered him, would lean forward and beat him with cotton-wood boughs. Conspicuous everywhere among the lookers-on were the mounted Apaches, — splendid, dashing creatures, with scarlet cheek-bones and scarlet blankets, and their long hair twisted into braids with strips of fur, till it looked like jabots of cats’ tails down each shoulder. Often a man and a woman rode together on one pony ; and they bad come fifty miles to see this fête. From one of these conjugal “mounts” I bought a couple of beautiful baskets which they had made. The Apache basket is as hue a thing in its way as the Navajo blanket; it holds water as well, and is as artistic in its devices of color. Neither the man nor the squaw understood or could speak one word of English, except “ dollar.” But this and fingers were all that they needed to compel us to give them their own price for the baskets. The gentle Pueblos were less exacting, or else more anxious to get money. They were ready to sell the ear-rings out of their ears and the bangles off their arms, usually for the prices offered them. There was one thing, however, the women could not be induced to sell: not one of them would part with her necklace. And no wonder, for they were necklaces to be coveted. They were made of cut coral beads and beaten silver crosses ; sometimes twenty or thirty crosses on a necklace. Some of them were very old ; they had belonged, the women said, to their grandmothers. These older and finer ones had, in addition to the little crosses, one large one, also of silver,— the old Jesuit cross, with the heart of Jesus at the bottom. The coral of these beads had been carried from the California coast across the deserts to the Navajo country, and bartered there; and the silver came out of old mines, of which the Indians know the secret; but who taught them to work the coral and the silver there is no telling.

After the races ended, many of the Indians withdrew into their houses, and the Mexican element became more noticeable in the throng. Compared with any other human creature except an Indian, the Mexican is a triumph of the gay and picturesque ; but by the side of these Indians he was tawdry and cheap. Tawdriest of all were the richest,— they who could afford to wear silks and satins and jewelry. There was a sharp lesson in the insignificance of all these in the presence of the wild blanket, leggins, feathers, paint, of the savage; also in the contrast between the repose of the Indian’s stillness and the laziness of the Mexican’s. The Indian, motionless, was always and everywhere statuesque; the Mexican, motionless, looked always and everywhere inert.

The grandest dame there of Mexican blood was a widow, who had recently recovered a small sum of money from a railway company, for the death of her husband by an accident on their road. She had apparently expended most of this money in providing herself with a black satin gown, and a negro wench for a servant. The satin gown was profusely decorated with jet, and so long that it trailed far behind her, and lay on the dusty ground, hardly less gray than the dust itself. Only a few inches back of the edge of the satin train minced along the negro, in fiery pink from top to toe, — pink gown, pink hat, pink roses, pink parasol; all, evidently, old finery which the mistress had discarded for her black satin weeds of woe. The unconscious caricature in the wench’s strutting step, as she followed her mistress up and down the street, was inimitable and indescribable.

As the day wore on, the heat grew hotter and hotter. Walking was like stepping on hot iron plates ; along every roof and wall edge the scorching air shimmered dizzily, as around a furnace mouth ; to look up was like turning one’s face toward a foundry cauldron in full blast. Still, the Indians, bareheaded, bare-skinned, basked, content as lizards. But we were forced to seek shelter. We took refuge in the only building occupied by whites in the pueblo, a long, low adobe house; the whole front a shop, crowded with the most multifarious merchandise. Behind this shop was a room used as a bedroom by the traders. They kindly placed it at our disposal, and, as we entered it, its dark refreshing air seemed like the cool air of a subterranean vault; but it was only by contrast with the white heat outside. Even in this room the mercury was well up in the nineties.

Here we presently found ourselves, half involuntarily, the centre of a commercial crisis in the community. The news had run through the town of our readiness to buy decorations of one sort and another ; and as soon as the Indians discovered our place of retreat, a stream of speculators set in. At first it was infinitely entertaining : the silent, shy, intent, eager creatures, crowding and holding back all at once ; seeming stolidly indifferent to the occasion, but standing doggedly still until their ornaments were observed ; shaking their heads and laughing, and now and then speaking a word; counting over and over again the silver moneys paid to them ; joking freely with each other, no doubt at our expense, and perhaps to our great discomfiture, if we had but understood what they said. The scene was as exciting as it was novel. But when it came to the pass that there were twenty, thirty, or more of them crowding in and around us at once, and that, familiarity having had time for its own peculiar swift and prolific breeding, they began, in their turn, to stretch out curious hands, finger our ear-rings or belt clasps, and ask roguishly, “ How much ? ” or make signs that we should barter them for theirs, we were forced to put up again some of the restraints we had removed. But they were gentle as children, and went away quickly as soon as they understood that we wished to be alone. Gradually the village quieted down; long, low, white-covered wagons, full of Mexicans, crawled away across the meadows, at a pace as slow as was compatible with motion at all; parties of Apaches galloped off, swift and splendid as Bedouins in the desert; groups of green-wreathed Taos Indians set off, lithely running, on their sixty miles’ journey home; the San Juan women came out of their houses with gay pottery vessels on their heads, going down to the river for water, for their evening meal. The saints were taken out of the green booth, and carried back to the church, richer by a few melons and sacks of meal and a basket or two than they were in the morning. As we drove away, the sun was sinking in the west, sending red and gold beams across the Rio Grande meadows, and kindling the pale walls of San Juan into a ruddy glow.

The scene was closed, the day nearly over; already they both seemed unreal, incredible, — phantasms wrought by a spell. And with each day since, the memories of them have seemed to vanish farther and farther into a shadowy realm of unreality, as if they were but the recollections of some strange Midsummer Day’s Dream.

H. H.