The drumming is inescapable. It’s a sound you feel in your gut, like thunder from a summer storm. Its rumble fills the pueblo, resonating off adobe walls, shimmering in the white-hot sun, guiding the moccasined feet of the dancers. It asks the clouds looming over distant mountains to come closer. It calls to them for rain.
The drum bodies are made of cottonwood, sanded to a smooth blond and stretched over with cowhide. A line of men beat them with drumsticks—tumbe feh in the Tewa language. Some of the younger men wield their tumbe feh with a fervor that makes the muscles in their arms stand out, but Arthur Cruz’s style is different. He lets his right arm fall with the weight of gravity, so measured that after hours of drumming and singing in 100-degree heat, he barely breaks a sweat. After more than two decades of this, he still gets lost in the rhythm.
On this, the feast day of St. John the Baptist, northern New Mexico’s Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo is filled with people—extended family, friends, Anglo and Hispanic visitors. The pueblo is one of six in the Tewa Basin, a bowl in the high desert intersected by the Rio Grande, and although the day’s festivities ostensibly honor a Roman Catholic saint, they are just as much a celebration of the summer solstice. All weekend, people gather in homes to share bowls of posole, enchiladas, red chile, yams with marshmallows, chocolate chip cookies, potato salad. There’s a footrace one afternoon, and a carnival hums just outside the pueblo, the Ferris wheel drawing neon circles above 500-year-old adobe buildings.
But the defining event of the weekend is the dancing. Again and again, Tewa drummers, singers, and dancers make their way around the kiva, a ceremonial building at the center of the pueblo. Sometimes the dancers move like shambling buffalo; other times they imitate Comanche warriors from the east, hollering and whooping in feathered headdresses and bone breastplates. Always there is the drumming, accompanied by songs as staccato as the drumbeats themselves. I watch with other guests on Arthur Cruz’s shaded front porch, absorbed in the music but understanding nothing of the lyrics.