Jemez 1

Film Scenario:  Corn Dance of the Jemez Indians 

RE: Paper/Project

For: Dr. Irving I. Zaretsky

CSBR 30A: Religion & Ritual in Film

Date: 12/5/1974

By: Henry E. Hooper  


The Jemez Pueblo: Geographic & Ethnographic Background

The native Jemez people passed to the upper world through the narrow passage from the bottom of the lagoon. Their myths are rich in mother earth, grain, and the river.

A village on the north bank of the Jemez River, the Jemez Pueblo is about fifty-five miles northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico, twenty miles northwest of Bernalillo and forty miles west of Santa Fe. Their Pueblo habitat is naturally bounded on the south by a range of mountains, on the west by the Rio Grande River, and on the east by the Pueblos of Cochiti and Santa Clara.[1]

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Map of North Central New Mexico


Historical records point to the Jemez Nation migrating from the Four Corners area in the late 13th century. By the time of European contact in the 1540’s, the Jemez Nation was one of the largest and most powerful of the Puebloan cultures, occupying numerous villages that were strategically located on the high mountain mesas and the canyons that surround the present pueblo of Walatowa. These stone-built fortresses, often located miles apart from one another, were upwards of four stories high and contained as many as 3,000 rooms. They now constitute some of the largest archaeological ruins in the United States.[2]

Situated between these “giant pueblos” were literally hundreds of smaller one- and two-room houses that were used by the Jemez people during the spring and summer months as base camps for hunting, gathering, storage and agricultural activities. The cultivation of squash and corn were very successful in the fertile river areas.[3] 

According to ancient tradition, the Jemez people had their origin in the north at the lagoon called “Uabunatota” or “Hua-na-tota” (apparently identical with people from Shipapulima and Cibibe of other pueblo tribes.) The mythology says that these people came from lower worlds up to the lagoon whence they slowly drifted into the villages of the upper tributaries of the Rio Jemez — the Guadalupe and San Diego Rivers. The people finally settled in the sandy valley of what is now Jemez proper, which they still occupy today. The Jemez villagers call their home “‘Walatowa,” which is a Towa word meaning “this is the place”. [4]

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Jemez Koshare Elder


The Jemez people’s first European contact was with the infamous Spanish Conquistadors. The year was 1541. When the Coronado Expedition entered into the area, exactly 40 peaceful years went by before contact between the two groups was experienced again. The Rodriquez-Chamuscado Expedition entered the area in 1581, followed by the Espejo Expedition in 1583.[5]

In the year 1598, a detachment of the first colonized expedition under the direction of Don Juan de Oñate visited the Jemez. A Franciscan priest by the title of Alonzo de Lugo was assigned to the Jemez people and he had them build the area’s first church at the Jemez Pueblo of Guisewa (now Jemez State Monument on State Highway 4 in Jemez Springs). According to Jemez’s intricate oral history, as well as early written Spanish records (Espejo Expedition 1583), the Jemez Nation contained an estimated 30,000 tribal members around the time of the Spanish contact, indicating that the population of the Cañon de San Diego was probably three times larger than what it is today. Unfortunately, the peace between the differing cultures did not last long and the Jemez population soon became decimated as a result of warfare and diseases introduced by the Europeans. One particular revolt pitted the Jemez against the Spaniards, who repressed the revolt by hanging twenty-nine Jemez men in the village plaza.[6]

During the next 80 years, numerous revolts and uprisings occurred between the Jemez people and Spanish, primarily due to Spanish attempts to Christianize the people by force, and congregate them into just one or two villages, where the Franciscan missions were located. As a result, numerous people were killed on both sides, including many of the Franciscan priests.[7]

By the year 1680, the hostilities resulted in the Great Pueblo Revolt, during which the Spanish were expelled from the New Mexico Province. This temporary expulsion was accomplished through the strategic and collaborative efforts of all the Puebloan Nations. This was the first and only successful revolt in the United States in which a suppressive nation was expelled. By 1688, however, the Spanish had begun their reconquest of New Mexico under the leadership of General Pedro Reneros de Posada, acting Governor of New Mexico. Although the Jemez Pueblo held out, the Pueblos of Santa Ana and Zia were conquered once more, and by 1692, Santa Fe was again in Spanish hands under the control of Governor Diego de Vargas.[8]

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Jemez Pueblo ruins now on Federal Land


Four more years would pass before the Spaniards completely subdued the Jemez Nation and its people placed under clergy and military rule. The Jemez elders were removed from their old village and concentrated into the single Pueblo of Walatowa, which is sometimes called “The Village of the Bear.” The Jemez tribe continues to live in Walatowa to this day. As a result of the village move, the most significant of the ancestral sites are now located just out of view of the Pueblo on federal lands and are no longer controlled by the Jemez people. Nevertheless, these sacred ancestral lands are held in the highest esteem by the Jemez people. Not a week goes by that the Jemez community fails to say prayers and make religious offerings to their original pueblo site. [9]

In the year 1838, Jemez culture became diversified when the Tewa-speaking people from the Pueblo of Pecos (located east of Santa Fe) resettled at the Pueblo of Jemez. The Pecos Indians wanted to escape the increasing depredations of the hostile treatment by the Spanish immigrants and the Comanche culture. Readily welcomed by Jemez ancestors, the solidarity with the Pecos culture was stronger than their differences and the two cultures rapidly integrated. In 1936 both cultural groups were legally merged into one Jemez Indian Tribe by an Act of Congress. Today, the Pecos culture still survives at Jemez and their shared traditions have been preserved: the Pueblo of Jemez still honorably recognizes a Governor of Pecos.[10]

Today there are approximately 3,500 surviving native Jemez people and about 65% of them live in or near the Pueblo. The Jemez culture is best known for two traditions: 1) their ceramic pottery, particularly their Storyteller figures, and 2) their ceremonial dancing.


Storyteller Pottery

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Jemez Ceremonial Corn Dance

As of the year of this essay, the people of the Pueblo love to dance. Jemez villagers dance just as the rest of us breath: it comes naturally to them. The present generations live up to their dancing tradition and try to place the emphasis on the rituals and storytelling of their annual ceremonies. The main reason for the dances is to show their gratitude for the bountiful harvests. And what is the most abundant and important crop? Corn! 

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Jemez farmer


Jemez is a collective society, rather than an individualistic one, and the Koshare (Shamans of the Pueblo) urge the villagers to participate in one of two ceremonial dance traditions: either by performing the dances or by assisting in the preparation ceremonies. The Koshare request that all villagers participate as fully as possible for several important reasons. The Jemez believe that total Pueblo participation is necessary in order for the tribe to have a plentiful harvest, to preserve their health, and to receive the blessings of the expiring year.

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Jemez Boys and Tablita Girls


According to Frank Water in Masked Gods, the Native Americans want to present themselves ceremonially before Mother Earth. The rhythmic moving of the dancers is a prayer for rain, fertility, and for abundant crops.[11] They are called Corn Dances because the ‘Earth Mother’ and the ‘Corn Mother’ are often synonymous. The dances are sometimes referred to as “Tablita Dances,” because the women so often wear colorfully painted and tufted headdresses, called Tablitas. The dances are also called “Rain Dances” because the participants attempt to invoke cloud cover and restorative rain through a ritual of mimetic magic.

The Jemez people are patriarchal, with the families living in the clan of their father’s ancestors and only marrying people from other clans. They hold totemic affiliations with animals, as they have groups represented by bear and deer clans, but there are also religious ceremonial chambers, called kivas, that are affiliated with minerals and vegetables, such as turquoise and squash. The intermixing of these traditions helps separate different blood groups, but also to ally the groups with each other. While their meetings are often held strictly by gender and clan, their dances are always performed as a village, proving that the Pueblo derives its strength from many parts.[12]


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Emerging from a Kiva in Bandelier National Monument, NM



Film Scenario: Corn Dance of the Jemez Indians [13]


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Jemez Pueblo Corn Dance


On this mid-morning the air appears still among the sandy, red hills of northern New Mexico.[14] The camera slowly takes the viewer on a panorama of the dark red and blanche white layers of sandstone, which alternate on the surrounding cliffs. There are patches of green juniper and dry grasses near the arroyos of the lowlands, where thy have access to some of the scarce amounts of rain water.

Gradually, moving over the mesa, the audio portion begins to pick up the pulsating beat of the ceremonial drum, as it echoes in the valley like an ancient call of the gods. The beat gives life to the otherwise, lifeless, lumpy mud hills.

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Collared Lizard on the Red Rocks


The camera moves more swiftly as it picks up other signs of life: a lizard darting from one patch of shade to the next; a hawk circling lazily in the sky above. Then the movement is towards “the river,” the source of all life in the area. There is a low mud town between the lumpy mud hills and the chocolate-brown curve of the river.

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Jemez River, courtesy George Pearce


Near the town are a few scraggly corn fields, and a grove of ancient cottonwoods loom overhead. Beyond the area is the pale, piñon pine and cedar-splotched topography sloping up and away from the river. It rises slowly to the blue tinted mountains in the far distance.

It is high desert (over 6,000 feet) and the sun is very hot this time of year as it beats down on the rows of squat, flat-topped houses. The camera travels into the lanes between the houses at the eye level of a pedestrian as he walks the alleys and sees the dust eddied and blown in the empty streets. A quick glance at a dog sprawled in the sunlight, biting at its fleas. Only the sound of the solo drum, full-toned now, betrays the negation of life in the scene.

Suddenly the camera shows the long, wide street that serves as the town plaza. A blast of sand is swept up by the wind and as it settles, the camera focuses in on what up until now was the hidden and working anatomy of this desolate town.


This is the Indian Pueblo of Jemez, in northern New Mexico. Not far from Santa Fe, the state capital, this pueblo is still practicing the ancient rites they performed in the 13th century, when the village was first settled. A proud people of tradition, the Jemez are trying to hold on to the prayers and rituals that were practiced by their ancestors. This is the first week in August, on the feast day of St. Dominic, an important date on the Catholic and Indian calendars. The pueblo is performing its chief dance of the year, the Summer Corn Dance, in reverence for the occasion.[15]

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Hemis Kachina at Jemez Corn Dance


At the near end of the plaza stand a high, cylindrical adobe kiva (ceremonial chamber,), whose smooth walls are interrupted by a flight of terraced steps. The camera moves into focus on a file of dusty, painted dancers. In front of the dancers is a small green shelter facing the plaza and in it, on a rude altar sits a white cross bedecked with evergreen boughs, bright colored cloths and silver.

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Jemez Kiva


The camera turns to face the plaza and looks down the dusty street to the kiva that rises at the other end of the plaza. Out of it, to the beat of the drum, is filing a long line of ceremonial dancers. In front, marching up one side of the street comes four rows of old men in their brightest colored shirts, tails out over gaudy flowered, full legged pajama pants, and each carrying a sprig of evergreen. The camera focuses in on one man, Tom Honig, who is beating one of the ceremonial drums, which is tied with a leather strap around his waist.

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Koshare drummers accompany a Pueblo Dance


Old Man Honig:

Each year we dance and chant with pride on the occasion of our Corn Dance. I am Tom Honig and I am one of the town elders who chants in the chorus of Koshares. I have been appointed to beat a small drum among the chorus, while another man, the head Koshare this year, beats a larger drum in the plaza center. Besides the drums we also carry some ceremonial instruments that are unique to us as town elders. One is the town flag, which is a replica of the ancient flag borne to battle by the brave Aztec Priests. There is also the “coatl” or serpent-staff that has a ceremonial fox pelt and a hand-woven kirtle hanging from it. On top of this coatl are parrot and hummingbird feathers.  These feathers represent the Huitziton – the crest of our god of war. We carry each of these things with respect throughout the three days of dancing and prayer.[16]

The camera picks up each of these items – the flag, coatl, pelts, and feathers, as Tom Honig mentions them. When he finishes the list, the camera follows the two lines of dancers, perhaps 150 men, women and children. These dancers struggle forward against the wind and they stand in stark color contrast with the dull-grey walls of the town; they are life emerging from the monotonous sand and stone.


This is not a show by the Jemez for the tourists, for few spectators are allowed. Rather it is a single day of dance in a three day ceremonial by which the “corn of all the people” must be lifted up from Mother Earth. The food is for everyone; therefore, everyone is expected to participate.

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Corn Dance at San Felipe Pueblo


The men coming from the kiva are naked to the waist and painted a light turquoise color.  In their hair they are wearing a few blue and green parrot feathers. Each of them is wearing a white Hopi ceremonial kirtle, which is embroidered with red and black and green beads. The kirtle is tied with a red and black wool sash, the long fringe dangling from their right knees to their ankles. At their backs, swaying between their legs, hang the ever-present fox hides. On their legs tinkle straps of small bells, sea shells and hollow deer-hoof rattles. They have sea shells and a kerchief around their necks, which add to the tremendous rattling sounds of the ceremony. Their ankle-high, fawn-colored moccasins are trimmed with white and black skunk fur, and they carry turquoise gourd rattles in their right hands and sprigs of evergreen in their left hands.

The women dancers, alternating with the men, shuffle along in the eddying dust, their squat, heavy figures were covered by a loose, black wool mantas, beautifully embroidered around the hem in red, and belted around the waist with a green and scarlet Hopi sash. Each woman carries a turquoise-blue tablita on her head, held on by a string that passes underneath her chin. The women wear heavy silver bracelets and rings, large silver squash-blossom necklaces, and strings of turquoise and coral around their necks. On their feet they wear Kaibab moccasins which are wrapped with white cloth that extends from the ankle up to their knees. They carry sprigs of evergreen in their hands. 

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Tuvahe, Jemez Portrait by Edward S. Curtis


Old Man Honig:

The male dancers carry with them symbols of each of the clans of the Jemez people – the fox, the skunk, the deer, the coyote, and the bear. The gourds and shells, for the most part, are ceremonial pieces that they have collected and traded for with other tribes over the generations. We are good traders, offering our corn and our pottery to the Hopi, for example, in exchange for their wool sashes. The colors we use in the wool come from the native plants and natural vegetable dyes we have collected around our Pueblo. The women wear the turquoise-blue tablitas around their heads and that is why we sometimes call this the Tablita Dance. A tablita is a thin wooden tiara, up to a foot high, shaped like a doorway, painted with cloud symbols and tipped with eagle down. Each of the tablitas is hand-made by the female dancer.

And everywhere is evergreen. The evergreen sprigs are the symbol of everlasting life. Last week we went up into the spruce forest of the distant Pecos Mountains and we collected the sprigs. We brought them back with us to the mud flats, where we honor life and grow our crops.

The camera shot moves to the top of the buildings, at roof level now, looking down on the ceremonial scene. The two dance groups are fully out of their kivas and have turned to face each other. They have stopped momentarily. 

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Santo Domingo Corn Dance


Between the lines, the flag carrier dips his long pole coatl over their heads and the drummer begins again to beat their instruments loudly. The complicated patterns of the Corn Dance follow the idiosyncratic patterns of the village elders and they may vary slightly from year to year.[17]

The outside ends of the rows of old men halt and curve around to form a semi-circle facing the two lines of waiting dancers. Tom Honig, with his small drum, and the other drumming Koshare are now in the center of the circle.

Soon the dance resumes with the great belly drum thumping, and the fifty old men beginning their chants. The dancers, in rhythmic movements, draw together like segments of a chopped-up snake. In two long rows the stable and stolid women alternate with the foot-pounding men and athletically leaping boys. The two rows move into four shorter lines as the women step back to face the turning men. Now in a great, slow-moving circle, the dancers break into two smaller circles, each woman shadowing her man step for step.

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Jemez Architecture, by Edward S. Curtis


The camera focuses on the powerful down-sinking stomp of the men, insistent and heavy, followed by the brief bursts of double-time foot stomping and drum beating. Stomping from one beat to the next and marking time with a bent knee, the men keep up the dance for many minutes, without a word and with vigor. But from the grey-headed men and the submissive women, there is only a barely lifted flat foot and a subtly shaking body.

There is an instant’s pause, occasionally; then a shrill yell, a quickening rattle of the gourd, and then a faster pace. The thunder throb, the blood beat of the great belly drum, the chorus of old men…it is a full body experience. The men’s voices are raspy and slurred, as they swing their spruce twigs and keep up the chant.


The four lines and circles of dancers move slowly and continually in changing patterns. The half or quarter turns of the dancers are always to the left; the right arm, the rattle hand, raises and sweeps over the head of the men. The dancers are speaking to us. In their expressive pantomime the men are communicating their story with symbolic gestures and sign language. 

Old Man Honig:

The lowering arms indicate the descending clouds. The zig-zag motion of the arms overhead symbolizes lightning. The jerky hands lowering palm downward are bringing the falling rain, and the gentle uplifting hands are lifting up the corn shoots, lifting up the stalks, pollinating the flowers and growing the corn.


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Yellow Corn 

There is an alternation of the dance groups filing to and from their respective kivas and onto the dance plaza. One group files out from the Turquoise kiva, dances for half an hour or more, then files back into their respective kiva, while those from the Squash kiva emerge to take their place on the plaza. The Turquoise group is referred to as the Summer society and represents the will of men of the Pueblo; the Squash group is associated with the Winter society and represents the will of the women.

In the process of the day, the half hour dances seem to become longer and longer, and the dancers become more and more tired. The sweat on their bodies is visibly dripping. At times even the strongest men appear to have sunken into an almost unconscious state from the mesmeric beating of the drum. The wind, dust, and the compiling exhaustion add elements of true grit to the long day of dancing. Although only some of the men show signs of final fatigue, most of the young, athletic boys and girls appear to be near fainting from all of the activity.

The camera picks up the signs of weariness and fatigue on the faces and in the steps of the dancers. It is evident that a few members of the Koshare male chorus are the support group, reaching out and becoming assistants to the ever-tiring dancers. They are very watchful to correct a child’s misstep, to hitch up a little girl’s tablita blown off in the wind, or to fasten a little boy’s knee strap. The dancers are not supposed to hesitate until the end of the dance. And when a youngster squats down in final exhaustion, the camera shows one of the elders bending down to pick them up; even carrying off some via piggyback to the side to rest.[18]

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Jemez Family descending a ladder


As the Turquoise group returns into their kiva and the Squash group assembles on the plaza, the camera switches to other scenes of Jemez Pueblo life. The scenes accompany the narrator’s words followed by the monologue of the elderly Tom Honig.


The Jemez Corn Dance ceremony, like most Pueblo Indian traditions, takes many weeks and months of planning and preparation before it can be performed. It is true that much of the jewelry and many of the costumes were made many years ago, but a large percentage of the goods used in the ritual have to be handmade or bought and gathered each year. A youngster, for example, must be fully adorned in the ceremonial clothing if he or she has never participated in the dances before. The weaving of the cloth and the dying of the wool is no easy task. The paints, wooden altars, and spruce boughs are the most obvious items needing to be replaced annually.

Old Man Honig:

Each year, several weeks before our Corn Dance, our pueblo gets together to go and collect the different items for the ceremonies. One group will go to the river bank and collect the varieties of clay that will be used in the mixing of body and ornamental paint; another group will go to the trading posts in the area to see if they can purchase the needed fox pelts, gourds, rattles, shells and anything else that we may need for the dances; and still another group will go to the mountains in the Pecos Wilderness and collect evergreen spruce branches from the higher altitudes and tall altar poles from the young aspen trees.

For about a month before the dances we gather in the town plaza to practice the steps of the rituals which are sometimes forgotten over a year’s time.  Every young person must show competence and confidence in the dance steps before he or she can participate in the ceremonials. It is a privilege to dance with the Jemez and the young people must pass through some rites of passage before they are accepted as full members in our dances.

The women have the hardest and most time-consuming jobs in the dance preparations. They must clean all of the clothing worn by members of her family. And she has to repair any item that is in need of work – patching a blouse, repairing a tablita, replacing any torn or missing feathers, repairing a torn kerchief or kirtle. These jobs take time and patience and must be done with the right intentions, because each person represents the pride of the community. If one person looks disheveled, it reflects badly on everyone. If one person is not fully prepared with the dance steps, then everyone suffers. If a woman takes pride in her work, then she will make sure that everyone looks and acts properly. In other words we need total Pueblo concern and participation in order to preserve our prayers. We all want a bountiful harvest, a long life, and eternal blessings on our lives from Mother Nature.

While the camera is off viewing the jewelry making, dance practices, clothing repairs, and spruce collection, the sound of the ceremonial drums is silent. When the camera finally returns to the dances once again, the powerful drums are the first thing the viewer hears. The booming sound of the hollow drum brings us back to “the reality of the dance.” Before we actually see the ceremony again, we notice that the Jemez Indians have also spent hours of preparation on the morning of the ceremonials. The camera takes the viewer on an intimate journey through the homes and kivas to see the Indians dressing for the day of dances. After a time of prayer and abstinence in the kivas, the men are decorating and painting each other; the women and children are also preparing mentally and physically for the day of dances in the privacy of their homes.

The scenes of the Indians in their homes and kivas are interspersed with a few flashbacks of the families plowing the fields, tilling the soil, planting the seeds, and tending the crops. The short flashbacks remind us that these are a people from and of the soil, their Mother Earth. The flashbacks keep the viewer aware that there are practical benefits expected from the summer dances. (The flashbacks should be of sufficient length to show that the ceremony centers around the care for the crops and corn, but they are not so long as to distract the viewer or interrupt the presentation for the Jemez people preparing themselves for the day of dancing.)

The beating of the drum is now accompanied by the actual dance ceremony itself.  It is now later in the day, but the drum is beating with the same intensity it was before. The shadows are growing longer and dusk is swiftly approaching, as the dancers continue. The male dancers are still leaping and stomping their copper and turquoise bodies in time with the drum. The women, with their tablitas secure, are almost as steady as they dance between the men. The disposition and demeanor of the dancers has remained almost unchanged throughout the long day of rituals. Except for the momentary mistakes and fatigue, it has been a prayerful and joyous celebration.


Even at this late hour, after a long day of dancing, the Jemez Pueblo is still performing in long lines, as flexible as corn stalks and yet as straight as rain.

The camera is once again atop the adobe homes viewing the dances. Now toward sunset, the two dance groups, the Turquoise and the Squash, begin to emerge in one last celebration together. The copper and blue tinted bodies are celebrations one final proclamation of their union with Mother Earth. The camera sees the totality of the action and does not focus in on an elderly man of the Koshares or a single dancer as it did before. Now it is about the collective: one hundred singing old men, three hundred dancers, two dipping poles, and two great drums. This is the culmination of sounds and persons and colors braiding into one ending chant, representing the blood-beat of the day.


The sounds of the drums and chants and rattles are intensifying with the coming darkness. The dancers are not seen as well as they are heard. As if by a miracle the rattling of the gourds and the lowering of arms is in unison with an occasional flash of lightning and the groan of thunder in the distance.[19]

The chanting and singing and rattling build up and up in the volume of the film sound track until at their crescendo, they suddenly stop. There is a pause in almost all of the sound, only an occasional jingling bell or shake of a rattle is heard. Then the camera moves slowly down to the level of the pedestrian on the plaza level. The Indians are now silhouetted on the horizon, the sun is setting.

People can be seen on top of the building terraces above the street throwing gifts down to the dancers. The gifts are barely visible as cigarettes (packs of Bull Durham), fruit (apples and oranges), and candy (licorice, hard candy, and chewing gum) are tossed to the dancers and children.

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Acoma Pueblo


Old Man Honig:

There is a custom of throwing gifts from the roof tops to the dancers. The custom stems from the old practices of the Acoma Pueblo. The ceremonial Kachina dancers would throw away everything that they had on except their Kachina masks in order to indicate the lack of materialism, which they wanted the people of the pueblo to emulate. Only perishable goods are thrown down to the dancers and these are distributed by the participants to member of the families at the family meal that same evening.


At the end of the Corn Dance the participants know that this is prayer time.  But this is not prayer as most of us know it. It is a collective supplication. It is not communal only in the sense that everyone participates, but that each is a part of the whole. It is a unification and release of psychic forces through a rigorous discipline and into a communion with the forces of all creation [20]  These are not people humbly beseeching the gifts of life. They are calling upon forces of life made manifest in man as in earth, demanding by the laws that govern both, an interchange of the energy potentials in each.

Suddenly it is over. The forces of power that were called upon in the Corn Dance are ended. They rush back into a vacuum – unseen. One cannot see the energy being exchanged, but one feels and knows that the exchange has taken place. This is the secret impact of the Corn Dance. It is the validity of its perpetuation from the prehistoric past that calls Mother Earth to new life.

The camera fades swiftly with the setting sun in the west.


Credits roll


End of Film



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Jemez Eagle Dancer


Post Script

“Dancing,” says William Butler Yeats, “is the motion of desire in the lower, mortal world, as singing is its sound symbol. David, before the ark, symbolizes the masculine before the feminine, the energetic before the secretive.” Dancing is important to the Jemez Pueblo, as it is to many other people throughout the world. I know this fact from a visit as a guest at the Corn Dance Ceremonials. The Jemez dance and they are proud of it. The dancing has an assertion of religious and ritualistic conviction, so I feel that it is worth discussing in this course. I do, though, have many problems that I would like to discuss, concerning my experiences among the Jemez and other native American Indians.

The Jemez people forbade anyone to take pictures at their Corn Dance ceremonies, starting about ten years ago. They also forbade the taking of notes at the ceremony. (I witnessed one of the Koshare elders confiscating a notebook with lots of writing in it from a boy in our group.) My own notes were secreted away in our group van. They would not let an ousider Anglo take detailed notes, much less make a film of their ceremonial dances. The Indians have strong dislikes for anthropologists and they have no qualms about letting us know that fact. They are dancing for themselves and Mother Earth; and they are not out to “entertain the Great American TouristS” or GATS!

Image result for picture of land of enchantment

This film scenario is my effort to take a hard look at the Jemez Pueblo. My concern is that they did not and do not want such intrusions. Most “hard looks by whites” of Indians are Anglo slants at the truth, as we see it. As I thought more about the exercise, I wondered, what about other pueblos? There are eighteen others in New Mexico, one of which may be very welcoming to a white Anglo filmmaker. Dances vary greatly from Pueblo to Pueblo, so why was I ‘hung up’ on this one?

The answer is that I have attended other Corn Dances. I distinctly recall one at Taos Pueblo, and it was, in a word, horrendous. At least this was the impression I received. The lines of dancers were ragged, the costumes were poorly made and flimsy, the women danced without tablitas, and the performers in general were irreverent. They wore gaudy piano scarves and Mexican shawls, covering up their jeans and blouses. Girls giggled and the boys were angry and sullen. The small groups, as a whole, lacked dignity and a sense of rhythm. The spectators were not that much better, coming and going and talking, but mostly just looking for shade or a cool drink. 

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Real Indian Stuff, Taos Pueblo, courtesy New York Times


I have heard from some other reliable sources, people who live in the area, that the “closed to the public” Corn Dances are special. The dances in San Juan and Santa Clara are nearly as bad as Taos. The plazas are always baking hot, clouded with dust, and swarming with GATS. The dancers in these other Pueblos lack homogeneity, focus, and intensity. The dances at Jemez are supposed to be quite good, only to be excelled from time to time by the dances at Cochiti and Santo Domingo, with the dances at Santo Domingo being the best.

There were several things about the dances that I have seen that indicate to me that the conditions at Taos are not unique. At Jemez there were many more tourists and “hotdog-cotton candy-coke” types standing around than ever before. The GATS were obnoxious, walking across the plaza at their whim, because they felt like it. They stood right in front of the altar, talked with their friends, and paid little regard for the dancers and drummers who stood right next to them. The male dancers have short hair, are overweight, sweat a lot, and look pretty much like the average American male in a bathing suit. They are not the lean Indians of the past. In a sense they have come close to “white assimilation,” at least in appearance.

There are several older Koshare, like the character Tom Honig in my scenario, who have strictly followed the rituals of their ancestors, but the number is becoming fewer and the distances farther between. The fact that the Corn Dance can be performed in 1974 at all is a tribute to the convictions of the elders to fight the status quo. If they are doomed for mass assimilation, one would have expected it long before now. Mass assimilation is a topic of great concert for the Indians, because many tribes have amalgamated into the larger white population and nearly disappeared. Life on the reservation, as any Navajo will tell you, with its high alcoholism, theft, and unemployment, is no picnic.

The tight-knit Pueblos, however, are a different story. They have been exceptions to the trends of assimilation. Throughout the years they have created nearly impermeable community structures. The few cracks in the walls of this structure have slowly been chinked and mortared with the influence of white society, but the process has been non-linear and it has been slow, very slow.

Jem 9

Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico


When I first started this project, I wanted to take up this problem of assimilation and study how it had affected the people in the Jemez Pueblo. I have found out that much of what I had to say would not be said well in the medium of film made by a white man. I fact, if I had included my arguments in the film scenario, they would have detracted from the underlying story, The Corn Dance, and would have broken down and withered away, like so much dust or tumbleweed. They would have made for a bad story told from the wrong perspective – typical white man solutions to red man issues.

Instead of taking on assimilation, I chose to present the Summer Corn Dance as a straight narrative, with a narrator and an interpreter. I chose this approach for several reasons. First I liked the use of the outside voices as shown in the film, “Circle of the Sun.” Also Philip Garvin’s use of narration was an influence on my choice. I did not like the films that used either little or no narration, such as in “Sucking Doctor,” “An Ixil Calendrical Divination,” and “Divination by Chicken Sacrifice.” Nor did I like the single anthropological narrator, as in Mead’s “Trance and Dance in Bali,” and “Were Ni! He is a Madman.” One of the reasons for not using the “no narrator” technique in filming (shown perfectly in “Shango” and “Yanvallou”) is because I don’t know enough about the Jemez Ceremonial Dances to make such a film. I also did not want to have a constant, distracting background drum, as used in “Were Ni! He is a Madman.” Rather, I felt that the chanting and rattling and natural music coming from the Jemez Corn Dance were compelling, but that a break with narration was important. And then the drum would be added again only when the viewer was actually watching the dance in progress.

Jem horse

Jemez, Mountain Hawks


In many ways this scenario could be made into a film that consists of photographs and a sound track, as in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” but I feel that there is enough important movement and action in the film scenario to warrant the use of the motion picture technique. I recall in my third film review that I felt that the movie, “The Old Order Amish,” was not worthy of being made into a film. The scenes of the Jemez men dancing and stomping their feet at vastly different tempos, the flags and feathers flying, the rattles and thunder cracking, would be nearly impossible to capture in a still photograph. Therefore, I would insist on a motion picture. The film would also have to be in color, because of the tremendous emphasis the Jemez Indians place on color contrasts. The sepia and black and white photos are interesting, but the color is magic. From the introduction of color pictures in the scenario, I realize how much is lost when looking exclusively at black and white representations of the Corn Dance.

There are some implicit and perhaps justifiable assumptions that I am making when I undertake this project. One is that the Jemez Indians are a proper subject of study and that I can show how these people live, interact and socialize through my manipulation of the camera. I assume that I can use a variety of symbols and symbol forms to communicate to others my message: the feelings around and significance of the Jemez Corn Dance.

I have assumed that better communications between the “whites” and the “reds” was a positive, a good thing: that knowing all about the Jemez Corn Dance will automatically benefit us. I also assume that it will be beneficial to everyone and there will be no harm (the Hippocratic Oath, after all). From what I know of film and the Jemez Indians, these assumptions may not be all together valid. Perhaps I should, as Sol Worth and John Adair did, give a camera to the Jemez Indians and have them make a film about themselves. Perhaps if I better understood the visual modes of expression and communications, I could do this with film. Yet, I would still have questions and doubt in my “success.” As we have discussed in this course, there is the problem of having an idea, verbalizing that idea, and communicating it on a piece of celluloid called film. Will all of the parameters fit together? Will the producer, the film, the viewers all see the same things? Will the sender, the message, and the receiver be successful in communicating the same ideas? Will it be OK if they garble or miss the point of the film? A lot of study has yet to be done to answer these questions, but a lot of successful communications has resulted from the medium of film, even if the exact mental processes are not fully understood or known ahead of time.

A film made by the Jemez Indians themselves is known, of course, as a “bio-documentary.” It is a film that can be made by a person who is not a professional filmmaker and who tries to communicate how he feels about himself and his world. It is like a self-portrait in the painting visual arts. It is a subjective way of showing the objective world that a person sees. It is a glimpse into what that life is “really like.” In addition, because of the specific way that this kind of film is made, it often captures feelings and reveals values, attitudes, and concerns that lie beyond conscious control of the filmmaker.[21] By having the Indians film themselves I would be having them tie the physical world to the set period in time – something that is difficult to do, particularly for the American Indians.

I see little chance of my making a film or helping in a “bio-documentary,” but there is an important notion that is inherent in this paper and in film itself. Film is language! The literature about film echoes the metaphor, constantly, in book titles like A Grammar of the Film, and statements like “the syntax of film” and “the structure of pictures” and the “voice of the protagonist.” We have accepted film making as a viable form of communications and we will use it as long as the form, vocabulary and message of the film are appropriate to our needs of visual language.


Band - zuni 5

Taos Indians’ Ceremonial


Indian Assimilation

I would like to turn, as this point in the paper, to talk about the “problem” I mentioned earlier of Indian Assimilation. I intend to present a short expose’ on some of the implications that the dominant white society may have had for the Indians and their ritualistic ceremonies. Examples, like the Jemez Corn Dance, can be a good starting point.

The reasons that the American Indians are not fully assimilated into the white culture are many and varied. I would like to take a few of the more obvious reasons and attempt to project how the Indians will fare as separate and distinct people in the near future.

The Spanish-Anglo conquest of the American Southwest consisted of small party exploitation of the Indians, and these many years of exploitation were followed only later by migration of the conquerors, who would surround, envelop and incarcerate the native people. The Indians were kept apart yet too close together for independent renaissance. Only in the pueblo villages were the natives able to live independently of the surrounding white cultures and retain their Indian ‘Ways of Life.’ No Anglo breakthrough could be made into the pueblos, despite attempts to reorganize their communities – the whites could make only minor adjustments in the behavior of the religious, political and economic practices of the Indians. But of equal importance, the Indians retained their own language and did not take on the speaking, writing, nor reading of Spanish nor English. They could easily retreat from the world of Anglos and be “among themselves,” without intrusion.

Jem map

Indian Pueblos in New Mexico


There are signs of small advancements in Christianity among the Pueblo Indians as exemplified by the rude, open, aspen altar with its white cross at the Jemez Corn Dance Ceremonies. But the Indians have taken the Crucifixion of the dying Jesus, and painted it into a plain white cross. And have fashioned the cross and its altar after their own liking: there are spruce boughs and jewelry all over the cross; it is almost invisible beneath the greenery and bling. So the Indians, in this case the Jemez, have taken symbols indigenous to their culture and superimposed them on the white cross. After all, the cross was forced into the Pueblo iconography by the Spanish missionaries. The Pueblos all have Catholic Missions, but the cross is relegated to the sidelines and is treated like a movable guest at the ceremonial dances.

If you ask the Indians what they think of the white man’s religions they do not hesitate to say that there is really no white religion that can satisfy them. The Indians say they are still searching for the heart of the white man, just as they are searching for a white God. Many have concluded that the white god is money, or fame, and as fleeting as those values are. Other Indians have concluded that there is no central god for whites.  As a matter of fact the American Indians have a retort aimed at all of the neo-existential theologians and metaphysicians with a remake of the Nietzsche phrase “God is Dead” with the chant “God is Red!” God is the spiritual force that binds all of the Indians in a community together yet allows them to remain as individual persons. The “spirit” of the Indians is the force behind the psychological drive of the individual Indians. One could project that if the spirit were taken away from the Indian religion, then the religion and the community would fall apart, leaving neither individuals nor Indians, but leaving people like whites.[22]

When you ask the Indians who speak perfect English (all of the youngest generation) what they think of whites, if they answer you at all, will say things such as the following:

“We Indians feel that we must wear false faces when we appear in front of whites. We feel we are on trial and what we say will be turned against us.Normally a happy people, we remain mute until the stigma of inferiority has been lifted from us.”[23]

“Just recently I realized that I hate whites. When the tourists’ buses come through, and they come in here and stare at me, that’s when I hate them.  They call me ‘Injun,’ like on television. It’s a big joke to them. ‘You’re a drunken Injun,’ they say. ‘Injun’ is a degrading word. I hate it.”[24]

“I feel that I am a fake Indian, a ‘buffalo hunter’ to the whites. I am not a human being, not an Indian, but I’m an image of the past. We are prefabricated images that the whites can put up and take down whenever they wish…suddenly busloads of tourists descended upon my store. One lady touched my wrist and asked, ‘Dear, are you a real Indian? I hope you don’t mind me asking, but you look so American.’ A stony silence. ‘I am a buffalo,’ I said.”[25]

Band - jemez

Indian Ceremonials, Gallup, New Mexico


Many of the Indians despise what the white man has done to them. The whites have meant only exploitation. We have all sat back and watched greedy people come in and take advantage of inarticulate and inexperienced Indians. They have plenty of “real life experiences,” but too few in the wiles of the American bigot. The enemy, however, may not be the white man, per se, but the disease of the white dominant culture and society. These poisons of disease are greed, abuse of power, distrust, and lack of respect for “other traditions.” I believe that the Indians would say that they are even more appalled by the way the whites treat each other, than the way they treat the Indians.

Jem kids

School Children, courtesy of John Stoddard


Surprising to most whites is the feeling among the Indians that education, instead of helping, has further separated the young from the elderly in their community. They see the yellow school buses come and “kidnap” their children. The education seems more to be about taking the youth on an odyssey or trek away from the tribe, than teaching them to be leaders back among their people. At least this has been the fear of the elders. I have come across a lot of literature, which attempts to argue to the contrary, but it is still a tough argument to win. Indian spokesmen like Vine Deloria, Jr. are saying:

“When I was working with the prep school program getting these kids accepted, their first reaction to the testing and all that was to be as good white Indians as the missionaries and local school districts taught them to be. These kids weren’t in prep school for six weeks, before they were the most violent nationalists you ever saw. These kids began to write me all the time: ‘Send us books on Indians. We want to learn the legends of our tribe.’ Here they were, in the perfect setting for painless acculturation, and they were racking their brains, twenty-four hours a day, to remember the Indian words they used to know. They began to write to the old people at home to find out the Indian words they had forgotten.”[26]

Apparently the whites had nothing to offer the Indians spiritually, only hoop-la and fancy Cadillacs. The Indians began to be proud of being Indians and realized that their culture has something to offer them that their white classmates could not. They began to fight for their Indian-ness and redness as they had seen the Blacks fight for their blackness. The Indians determined to recommit their internal efforts to make themselves the Indians they once were.

The nineteen Pueblos of New Mexico each has a solid community life and they are just now, with the influx of college educated youths, beginning large development projects. In spite of the vast differences between the generations, the Pueblos have been able to maintain a sense of tribal purpose and solidarity. And the new development projects are being discussed and undertaken only after consensus is reached among the Pueblo leaders and the people of the community.

Jem laguna

Laguna Pueblo


There are many needs of the Indians today. Perhaps we can start with what they do not need. The primary need is not to have someone feel sorry for the Indians. Nor is there a need to create a program by which the Indians are classified as semi-white and socially bleached in any way. Nor is it a new field of study, whereby someone will decide if the Indians and their way of life are feasible. This is not a pity party; neither is it a legitimacy nor feasibility study! The Indians need a new policy by Congress and the States to acknowledge their rights to live in peace, free from arbitrary harassment. They need the public at large to drop myths in which it has clothed the Indians for too long. They need fewer and fewer Indian EXPERTS, as if they were test tube experiments. “What they need is a cultural ‘leave-us-alone’ agreement, in spirit and in fact!”[27]

Ever since the Indians began to be shunted off to reservations, i.e. after they had been forced to march somewhere else to live and die in internment camps, it has been assumed by both the whites and the Indians that the eventual destiny of the Indian people was to silently merge into the mainstream of American society and disappear. The thought of a tribe being able to maintain traditions, social structure, and basic identity within an expanding America like ours would have seemed preposterous. “The famed melting pot, that great sociological theory devised to explain the dispersion of the European immigrant into American society, had cracks in it through which, apparently, the Pueblo Indian tribes were slipping with ease.”[28] The fact that the Corn Dance can be performed in 1974 with few differences from the ways it was practiced centuries ago is evidence enough for me to believe that it will be some time before it dies out, if it ever does. Indians such as the Jemez are a long way from dying and blowing away like tumbleweed.


Jem tumble

Tumbleweed in Red Rock Country



 “‘Santo Domingo Corn Dance for Frank Waters”   

                                       By   R. P. Dickey      

Each beat of the drum’s a round drop of rain,
The stamping of the dancers’ feet is rain,
Their heartbeats and breathing resound as rain,
The fringes on the men’s moccasins are rain,
Their feathers are iridescent sheets of rain,
The toes of the barefooted females are rain,
The women’s hair runs thick with black streams of rain,
The billions of motes of dust underfoot are rain,
The chunks of turquoise lighter shades of rain
Than the needles in hundreds of evergreen sprigs,
The links and clasps and rings of silver are rain,
The ghostly Koshares’ antic movements are rain,
Even the billions of beams from the sun become rain,

And then the actual rain, unto the earth,
For the corn, O always the actual rain,

There it comes, then it comes, and it comes.





Deloria, Jr.,Vine, Custer Died for Your Sins. Collier-MacMillan, London, 1969.

Eggan, F., Social Organizations of Western Pueblos.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1950.

Fritz, H., The Movement for Indian Assimilation, 1860-1890. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1963.

Hodge, F. W., Handbook of American Indians of New Mexico. Greenwood Press, New York, 1907.

Josephy, A. M., Jr., Red Power. American Heritage Press, New York, 1971.

Prucha, F. P. (editor), Americanizing the American Indian. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1973.

Reichard, G. A., Navajo Religion.  Princeton University Press, New York, 1963.

Spicer, E., Cycles of Conquest. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1962.

Steiner, Stanley., The New Indians. Harper & Row, New York, 1968.

Terrell, J. U., The Navajos. Weybright & Talley, New York, 1970.

Van Gennep, A., The Rites of Passage. Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1960.

Waters, Frank., The Man Who Killed The Deer. Sage Books, Chicago, 1942 & 1970.

Waters, F., Masked Gods. Ballantine Books, New York, 1950.

Worth, S. & Adair, J., Through Navajo Eyes. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1972.


Adair, John., & Worth, Sol., “The Navajo as Filmmaker” in American Anthropologist, Volume 69: 76-78, 1967.

Barrett, S.A., “American Indian Films,” in Kroeber Anthropological Society, No. 25: 155-162, 1961.

Tremblay, M-A., Collier, J., & Sasaki, T., “Navajo Housing in Transition” in American Indigena, Vol. 14, No. 3: 187-218, 1951.

Unknown, The History of the Jemez People, as told on the Jemez Puebloan website: http://www.jemezpueblo.com/, 2013.


Dickey, R. P., “’Santo Domingo Corn Dance’ for Frank Waters” as published on the website: http://www.frankwaters.org/tributes_p6.htm  




[1] Jemez oral tradition as told to me by the native Jemez Indians in July, 1974.  I was the Group Leader of the Prairie Trek Expeditions, Group I, as part of the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation, Albuquerque, NM.

[2] The History of the Jemez People, as told on the Puebloan website: http://www.jemezpueblo.com/, author unknown.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The power and influence of the missionaries is often overlooked in the history books, but their persistence in the region is legendary.  From the 1500’s to today, the Catholic missions have had a lasting impact on the native Pueblos and reservations.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Waters, Frank Masked Gods, Ohio University Press, Cincinnati, 1950, page 383.

[12] Ibid.

[13] I was privileged to witness one day of a multi-day Jemez Pueblo Corn Dance.  Much of the writing is from notes that I took while at the ceremony.  I also have notes from some of the people who attended with me, and some research notes on ceremonies in the Pueblos of Santa Domingo, San Felipe, and Taos, which were recorded in stories by Frank Waters and other ethnographers. We had in our group a young man who had had a Jemez pueblo resident in his home in Massachusetts for a year.  That Jemez family was kind enough to allow us to stand as non-Indian witnesses to the dance.  There was a strong African American man who participated in the dance, and I learned that he had been adopted by the Jemez through another native, who served in Viet Nam with him.  We were asked not to take pictures, so I wrote lots of notes.

[14] Waters, The Man Who Killed the Deer, Sage Books-Swallow Press, Chicago, 1970.  My idea of the camera view and the landscape was sparked by reading the characters in this novel.  Although it is about a different pueblo (Taos), different circumstances, different seasons and different story, the idea was pure Waters.

[15] The Patron Saint of the Jemez Pueblo is St. Diego, whose feast day is in November.  The Corn Dance takes place closer to the feast of Santa Domingo (St. Dominic) in early August.  The Corn Dance may also coincide with the Pecos Cow Festival.  From what I heard in New Mexico at the time, the cow festival has far less to do with the religious traditions of a patron saint than the ancestral fulfillment of their commitment to dance.  In other words, the claim of Saint Commemoration by the Catholic Church is trumped by secular and cultural roots, and the religion is becoming weaker and weaker over the years.

[16] Waters, Masked Gods, op. cit., page 384.

[17] The dance patterns of the Jemez have not been recorded in many public places to the best of my knowledge.  I have only been able to find bits and pieces of the Corn Dance of the Santo Domingo Pueblo.  My notes from this past summer differ widely enough from those of Santo Domingo for me to feel justified in relying more on my own notes and memory than on other works.

[18] There is mention of two Koshare in Frank Waters famous book, Masked Gods, Ballantine Books, New York, 1950, who are painted brown and black, and nine others who are painted ashy-grey, with black and white dots on them.  The Koshare’s faces are weirdly streaked with zig-zag lines.  I have heard of such dance figures in the “Mud-Head” Kachina of the Zuni Pueblo, but I never saw them in the Jemez, Taos, or Santa Clara ceremonies I have attended.  The Koshare functions in the Jemez Corn Dance were fulfilled by “regularly attired” pueblo male elders.

[19] I actually saw lightning flashes occur simultaneously with the rattling gourds at the Con and Rain Dance ceremonies.  The physical motion of the Jemez appeared to cause the violent and sudden occurrence in nature!  For me, it was a most mystifying, yet intriguing experience.  It is perhaps the most vivid memory I have retained from the whole summer in the Four Corner States.

[20] The phrase “psychic forces” is unclear and ambiguous and is often misused.  Yet I don’t know how else to express the experience.  As a spectator, and from talking to many others people who were there with me, it seems that psychic forces are indeed called upon by the members of the Pueblo during the ceremonies.

[21] Worth, Sol & Adair, John, Through Navajo Eyes, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 1972, page 25.

[22] Worth, Adair, Through Navajo Eyes, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1972, page 25.

[23] Steiner, Stanley, The New Indians, Harper & Row, New York, 1968, page 139.

[24] Ibid, page 75.

[25] Ibid, pages 90-91.

[26] Deloria, Jr., Vine, Custer Died for Your Sins, Collier-MacMillan, Ltd., London, 1969, page 27.

[27] Ibid, page 244.

[28] Ibid, page 245.

3 thoughts on “Film Scenario: Corn Dance of the Jemez Indians

  1. I am an archaeologist and I would like to find the source for the historic photo that you used for the Jemez Corn Dance. Can you tell me where to find the original publication with it or the archive which holds it? Many thanks.

      • Many thanks for responding. I looked on the internet and couldn’t find this image except linked to your blog. The photo has a single masked figure in the foreground holding a bunch of cane or stalks. It is the photo titled “Jemez Corn Dance” located below the paragraph beginning “This is the Indian Pueblo of Jemez….” ending with footnote “[15]”. The paragraph following starts: “At the near end of the plaza stand a high…”

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