Clowns, Priests, and Festivals of the Kâ'-kâ

From "Zuñi Breadstuff", Millstone 10, no. 8 (1885): 141-44.

PERHAPS the most sacred, though least secret of [Zuñi] esoteric societies, is the Kâ'-kâ, or great dance organization-truly the church of these pagan worshipers, if church they may be said to possess, for in it are included priests, laymen and song-leaders. The public celebrations of this Kâ'-kâ consist of wonderfully fantastic dances, in which gods, demons and the men of ancient times are dramatically represented by costumed actors. Inside one of the estufas, or subterranean council chambers, which, on occasions of great moment are embellished with fringed and plumed bows strung across their entrance-ladders, rituals are repeated, prayers and sacrifices offered during a whole night preceding the public appearance of the actors. But during the day the worship consists almost wholly of dances to the time of loud invocation chants and wild metric music. To describe the various features of this worship would be to give a history of the whole Zuñi mythology and delineate a hundred diverse and striking costumes and maskings. In each celebration, however, certain elements are constant. Such are the clowns--priests annually elected from the membership of the Kâ'-kâ, and disguised as monsters, with warty, wen-eyed, pucker-mouthed pink masks [see fig. 7] and mud-bedaubed equally pink bodies.

First appear the dancers, some fifty of them, costumed and masked with such similarity that individuals are as indistinguishable as the birds or the animals they conventionally represent are from each other. Large-jawed and staring-eyed demons of one kind or another marshal them into the open plaza of the village under the guidance of a sedate unmasked priest bearing sacred relies and prayer-meal. One of the demons sounds a rattle and howls the first clause in the song stanza; then all fall into line, all in equal time sing the weird song, and go through the pantomime and dance which invariably illustrate its theme. When four verses have been completed, the actors, bathed in perspiration, retire to their estufa to rest and pray, while the priest-clowns appear with drum, cabalistic prayer-plumes and the paraphernalia of guess-games. They begin the absurdest, most ingenious and witty of buffoonery and raillery, generally managing, nevertheless, to explain during their apparently nonsensical dialogues, the full meanings of the dance and song-the latter being often couched in archaic or jargonistic terms utterly incomprehensible to others than the initiated among the audience which throngs the terrace-tops. To merely see these clowns, without understanding a word of their incessant and really most humorous jabber, is to laugh immoderately. To understand everything, withal, is to sometimes wish from sheer excess of laughing, that the dancers would file in and thus put an end to their jibes and antics.

Figure 7. Clown's Heads

If these clowns accompany certain most beautiful corn-dances of late autumn, then each bears a bundle of beautifully painted and feathered toy bows and arrows, or hideous dolls, with all sorts of bread-loaves and cakes depending from them. The bread tied to the bows has usually the forms of deer, antelope, rabbits, turkeys or other game animals, while that attached to the dolls-unless these be of a certain kind-has the shape of delicately-made cakes of all forms other than such as above described, with sometimes the effigies of infants or men and women interspersed. Toward evening when all the spectators are gathered in full force, the clowns take up their burdens of toys, and go searching cautiously and grotesquely amid the children as though afraid of the person they sought. When one of them finds the object of his search, he stares, wiggles, cuts capers and dodges about, approaching nearer and nearer the wondering child and extending the toy he has selected. Finally the half-frightened little one is induced by its mother to reach for the treasure; as it clutches the proffered gift the clown suddenly straightens up and becomes grave, and delivers a long loud-toned harangue. If the toy he has just handed be a bow and arrows, it is given to a boy; if a doll, to either a very little boy, or a girl. The bow and arrows symbolize the hunt whereby the little man shall in later life provide the food rudely represented by the eatable effigies tied to it. The doll with its fanciful loaves is emblematic of housewifely dexterity and, with the addition of the little human effigies, of the duties and cares of maternity. So, too, the lectures delivered with the presents correspond to the functional character of the toys represented.

It is with these dolls, carved in imitation of the personae of the sacred dance, that the Zuñi child is first taught the simpler of the myriad weary prayer formulae which, as a member of the Kâ'-kâ he will have to become familiar with by and by. With them, also, the little maiden is first initiated into the mysteries of the matron-life she will some day presumably lead, as well as into the less profound rites of food consecration and hospitality.

As the Zuñi New Year approaches, the dances increase in number and variety. The ten clowns appear at night eight days before the grand festival, for the last time in their yearly service. They tell the people who assemble by torchlight to listen to their final ludicrosities, that the great feast day is at hand; that the men must make new garments for the women, and the women renew their houses with whitewash and cleaning for the men; their larders with fresh he'-we, he'-pa-lo-k?ia and other breadstuffs, for the strangers who are sure to flock in from the neighboring tribes to participate in the lavish festivities, witness the elaborate ceremonials and barter for the products of the Zuñi looms and kitchens.

With a few not very delicate jokes (for the New Year is of all others the marrying time in Zuñi) the clowns retire to their secret lodgings, there to remain until sun-rise eight days later, initiating the ten newly-chosen priests into the mysteries of their humor-laden vocation and severe ritualistic duties.

Thousands of sheep are driven in during the ensuing days, hundreds of them and dozens of cattle slaughtered, dissected and piled up in the corner of the newly plastered rooms. Hunters come in from the southern wilds bringing game, messengers speed away to surrounding tribes, bearing invitations to all who may wish to feast from Zuñi plenty or witness Zuñi dancing and beauty. Fires bum all over the house-tops each night cooking he'-pa-lo-k?ia, and all day in the little cooking rooms the he'-we stones are kept hot for the busy bakings. I have seen in one house at such times, twenty sheep carcasses, two quartered cattle, enough he'-we to fill a wagon box, and numerous other dishes of the kinds already so specifically described.

On the seventh evening the cry of the Sun-Priest is heard announcing the approach of "The Gods and the Ancients." At midnight, south of the town near the foot-hills, watch-fires are built to guide these coming personations--the chiefs and priests of the Kâ'-kâ, whose shrill flutes pipe dolefully in the night wind, and the rattles of whose masked attendants sound sharply on the frosty air. All night long, Navajos, Moquis, Pueblos and not a few Apaches, decked out in their finest costumes, and painted with ochre, vermillion, blue powder and marrow until their faces shine like those of Mediaeval Madonnas, ride in from the surrounding country and take up their quarters with welcoming hosts on every hand.

But in the midst of all these busy preparations, the "Meal with the Fathers" is not forgotten. I have said before that husbands abandon their own homes when they marry, to dwell in the houses of their wives. Early on the morning of New Year, however, old men may be seen tottering from place to place, gathering up their married sons and conducting them to homes of their nativity. Arrived there, the mother welcomes them as though returned from a long journey, and the first bread broken on that day of all days in the Zuñi year, is sacrificed in their honor on the hearth around which she has seen these sons, mostly grown middle-aged, frolic or play at the games they now scarce remember.

As the day wears away the Sun-Priest of the Kâ'-kâ--a god pro tem and treated as such--[and] the priests of a lesser degree, bird-like, beast-like, monster-like in apparel and disguise, come from where the fires burned last night, in solemn procession. Amid the showers of prayer meal with which they are reverently received, they consecrate the pueblo, the ladders of new houses and the plazas of the dances they are the leaders of. Later on they are followed by the Sha'-la-k?o, or giant war-priests of the Kâ'-kâ. These demoniac monsters tower far above the new clowns, flute players, and armed Priests of the Bow who herald and conduct their approach. They are ingeniously made effigies, long-haired, bearded, great-eyed, and long-snouted, so managed by means of strings and sticks by a person concealed under their ample, embroidered skirts that they seem alive, and strike terror to the uninitiated.

On entering the new houses they come to consecrate, they crouch low beside the sun-altar and glare out with gaping, clapping beaks and rolling eyes from the dark corner they are ensconced in, or fitfully start up at certain signals from the singer and drummers, like gigantic "Jacks" till their head-plumes fairly brush the rafters and their resounding clappers wake every sleepy child in the assemblage with nightmares of Zuñi devils and perdition. . . .

At about midnight, when fires glare fiercest and brightest in every sacred house in Zuñi, in each of them are stretched out like huge strings of beads across the immaculate floors, the rows and rows of round bowls, baskets and little black cooking-pots which make up the service of a great Zuñi feast.

Yet for long stand these many vessels of tempting viands untouched; for the Sun-Priest, the hereditary Priest of the House, the chief Priest of the Bow, all in turn have to pronounce long-winded rituals over them. Then the black-masked youth personating the god of fire, sweeps in bearing his burning brand of cedar bark, and gracefully swinging it over each kind of food, brushes away, as it were, the impure influences. The Priest of the Bow once more pronounces an invocation, takes a few bits of food from each dish, hands it to attendant juniors, who disappear to sacrifice it, then turns with a smile to the great crowd and calls out:

"Thus many have the days been numbered,
"The days of our anxious awaiting,
"That we might EAT WITH THE BELOVED!"

Whereupon the women echo his last clause and the hungry crowd gathers about the bowls and baskets. Eating is then the main business. Except for the shouts--"Approach with salt!"--"The favor of more meat this way."--"The he'-we is wasted down here"--"I am satisfied, thanks."--and the various appropriate responses, nothing is heard but the clatter of bones on the floor and the subdued smacking of lips; for the feasts of ceremonials are most decorous, and few of the rules for showing one's approbation at ordinary dinners are deemed in place at these, where the gods themselves are supposed to be the hosts and hostesses.

There is one other great festival, greater even than this. It is the "Initiation of Children" into the Kâ'-kâ. Occurring only once in four years, it is prepared for months beforehand, follows a fast of eight days, and lasts two days and two nights. The supply for it is provided with liberal hand by the parents of the little ones for whom it is instituted. Indeed, prodigality in everything seems to be the order of the day.

I cannot pause to describe separately the many fanciful personages which take part in this observance. There are the six-colored Sa-la-mo-pi-as, the Gods of the Dance, the Ancient "Long-homed-Demons" of war, the light-footed Tablet-dancers, and the Bird-beasts of the Mountains and Oceans, represented. The novitiates having been duly dieted almost to starvation, are ranged in a circular row about the main plaza, their backs covered with robes and blankets. To prepare them for the passage under the fringed bow of [the] mystic estufa, they are soundly drubbed with long wands by each one of the forty-eight dancers, four times, four blows each time. Although the paddings on their backs be thick, they howl piteously before the several hundred blows they have to crouch under be meted out to them; and the more they howl the harder descend the blows. When this flagellation is completed, they are led into the estufa, there to be divested of most of their coverings, and again most soundly flogged, though this time a less number of times. Then, indeed, their cries resound and they wriggle to free themselves from the firm hands of their weird captors. After this comes a grand baptism, and a breathing into the nostrils of the still whimpering urchins, of the sacred breath of the Kâ'-kâ. No sooner is this done then the great effigy of the sea serpent, managed by means of invisible cords, wriggles into their midst through a curtained port-hole, and vomits with unearthly groanings a quantity of green medicine-water, with the drinking of which the poor frightened little wretches are freed from the probation of the estufa.

Meanwhile, outside, the two white-bodied, gray-headed tribute-bearers of the gods--whose faces are grim and ghastly with their great deep eyes and black hand-marks over the mask-mouths--appear on the scene. They are followed by the Sa-la-mo-pi-a crew and the little god of fire. From house-top to house-top they go, throughout the pueblo, casting down the rarest vessels--set out to await them--and breaking up baskets and all other food vessels not hidden before their approach. As each vessel strikes the ground the Sa-la-mo-pi-as rush upon it and dance it into the ground--while the baskets as they fall are lighted by the torch of the fire god, and soon nothing but cinders remain of their bright colors and involved pattern-work. When it is considered that over each bowl, basket and water-jar or cooking pot a series of passes have to be made by the tribute collectors with their plumed wands, a prayer said, and a low, long dirge moan uttered, it may be conceived that, naked as they are in the cold winter afternoon, theirs is no enviable task; but the end of it signalizes the cessation of ceremonials, and the beginning of the joyous feasting. In the abandoned estufa, however, all through that boisterous night, a strange crowd of priests is gathered. The leaders of the Kâ'-kâ are assembled to listen to the great epic of creation, delivered by a masked and beautifully appareled priest. This epic, or ritual, is the Iliad of Zuñi. It is kept and handed down word for word by four priests, one of whom no sooner dies than another member of the Kâ'-kâ is installed in his place. One of these priests repeats every word of the ritual once in each of the six estufas, every fourth year. Each repetition requires six hours for its delivery--thirty-six hours in all-during which time the solemn-toned, rapid-speeched priest is not allowed to taste food other than O'ki'dis-lu water. Not once is his mask raised. None save those of the innermost circle of the Kâ'-kâ are supposed to know whom they are listening to, and the people at large so reverence the office, that to touch this priest's garments with the finger-tips as he is borne along from estufa to estufa by the ten clowns, is deemed a sacred, favor-laden grace.

Opposed to these, and the many other festivals I might tell of, are the Fasts, not less abundant in Zuñi. The most important of these, because almost universally observed, is the fast following the New Year festival. When the war-gods have been set up in their shrines on Thunder Mountain and the Mount of the Beloved, and the great "Last Fire" has been kindled as a signal by the Priests of the Bow, then only certain kinds of vegetable food are eaten by man, woman or child in Zuñi. All meat, all fatty matter, even vessels which have been contaminated by the touch of flesh, are abstained from. No fire is built out of doors during ten days, nor are many other things, allowable at other times, indulged in. The last night of the ten, however, is again full of ceremonial. Again the cooking-fires are busy. At daylight, however, they are all put out, and the cinders and ashes thrown to the winds of the open valley. Two nearly nude maskers of the dance may be seen in the twilight swiftly wending their way to a distant, lonely cañon, where the God of Fire is supposed to have once dwelt. There, with an ancient stick and shaft, they kindle tinder by drilling the two sticks together, and lighting a torch hurry it back to the great central estufa, where matrons, maidens and young men anxiously await the gift of New Fire. No sooner are the new flames kindled from this on the hearths of the households, than great baskets of food are cast into them, that the imperishable substance of life may be wafted upward into the outer world as food for the spirits of the ancestry and those who have died during the year just past. By no means unbeautiful is the sight of a gentle matron standing in prayer before the fireplace, dressed as if to meet beloved friends, and weeping softly to herself as she casts loaf after loaf unsparingly into the flames. Then, by all save the hereditary priests, who must continue their mortification of appetite six days longer, the great fast is broken.

Whenever a man is initiated into the Priesthood or one of the sacred Medicine Societies of the tribe, severe fastings are required. Never shall I forget the wretched existence I led during the four days of my probation when it had been decided I should become a "Priest of the Bow." In the council chamber of that priesthood I was confined. All meat, cooked food, salt, warmth and other comforts, including the cigarette, were denied me. Every morning, at the rising of the sun, I was conducted to an enormous bowl of dark, greenish-yellow medicine-water. By the side of this bowl stood another equally ample, but empty, and laid conveniently near, a turkey-quill. The offices of the extra bowl and the turkey-quill may be better implied than described when I say that I had to drink every drop--four gallons in all--of the tepid, nauseating draught before me. It left me weak and very empty each of those painful mornings, and after a pilgrimage to a distant shrine under the guardianship of a matron of my clan and two stalwart warriors, my breakfast, what though raw and stale, seemed most tempting--until I essayed to become satisfied of it! By the third day the habit of indigestion--artificially induced as has been described--became quite easy and natural; and although the "rising-water," turkey-quill and extra bowl were just as vigorously forced on my notice by my guardians, there really was no other than a purely chimerical reason for their use.

There is one secret order of the tribe wherein initiatory rules, though severe, are of quite an opposite nature. It is an esoteric society, of which I spoke in a foot-note of the first chapter of this series--the Ne'-we-kwe, or "Gluttons."[1] Like the ten mud-priests, they are the most ridiculous of clowns when they appear in public, the most serious of sacred personages when gathered into the secret councils. They are the medicine-men par excellence of the tribe, whose special province is the cure of all diseases of the stomach--the elimination of poisons from the systems of the victims of sorcery or imprudence. They are exempt from all fasts, though denied for life the use of two or three kinds of delicacies, such as water-cress, and the flesh of the birds sacred to their order. But the penalty they have to pay is a dear one. No foods aside from the latter taboos are unwholesome or, whatever their conditions, are considered harmful to them. Nude to the waist, grotesquely painted about the eyes and mouth, there is no chance for deception when, in broad daylight, they sit down to a "demonstration" in the middle of the dance plaza. I have seen one of them gather about him his melons, green and ripe, raw peppers, bits of stick and refuse, unmentionable water, live puppies--or dead, no matter--peaches, stones and all, in fact everything soft enough or small enough to be forced down his gullet, including wood-ashes and pebbles, and, with the greatest apparent gusto, consume them all at a single sitting. Once after such a repast, two of these Ne'-wes pretended, though their stomachs were bloated to distortion, to still be hungry. They fixed their staring eyes on me, and motioned me to give them something else to eat! I pitied them profoundly, but as it is considered the height of indecency to refuse a Ne'-we anything, I ran home, caught up some crackers, threw them into a paper, and in order to make them relish the better, poured a pint or two of molasses over them. I wrapped an old woolen army jacket around this as a present to the enterprising clowns, and hurried back. There they were anxiously waiting--the people watching them to see how much more they could get away with. I cast the bundle into the plaza. The pair immediately fell to fighting for its possession, consequently broke the paper, scattered some of the crackers about the ground and daubed the back of the coat thoroughly with the molasses. They gathered up the fragments of crackers and ate them--with their whole burden of adhesions, then fought over the paper and ate that, finally tore pieces out of the back of the coat with their teeth and ate them (though it nearly choked them to do so), after which the victor put the coat on and triumphantly wore it, his painted skin showing like white patches through the holes he had bitten in the back of the coat. I observed that ere long--one at a time--they disappeared. When either returned he was fairly lank and pretended to be woefully hungry--and manifested, moreover, quite as much readiness to devour everything as before.

Whatever the "medicine" is that these Ne'-wes possess, it must be superlatively good; for I have never yet known one to die from the effect of his extraordinary gourmandizing, and but one to grow sick during my long stay in the Pueblo--he only for a little while.

I hesitate to record in this, my last article on Breadstuff, the many other seemingly super-gastral exploits of these inimitably funny doctor-clowns. The most amusing chapter within the scope of my pen would be such a record; but not only would it be too often disgusting to one unaware of its almost heroic motive, it would be wholly disbelieved by such of my readers as never chanced to visit me in Zuñi and personally witness the performances of these Ne'-wes. When it is considered, however, that the Ne'-we never appears in public as a demonstrator of the power of his medicine until after years of arduous training, even then only after elaborate preparation, it will be conceded that the above narration transcends in no wise mere sober truth.

Figure 8. Zuñi Mendicants

The Ne'-wes may frequently be seen in seasons of scarcity, going from house to house in company with the Keo'-yi-mo-shi, or Priest-clowns, and in the service of certain strange mendicants. These mendicants usually travel in pairs. They are powerful men disguised as saurian monsters. Their heads are entirely encased in enormous long-jawed masks precisely resembling--what with their teeth of plaited corn-husk or shining squash-seeds--the heads of crocodiles. Out of the foreheads of these masks, stare eyes composed of balls of buckskin painted white and dotted with black, so adjusted that like the eyes of wax dolls they roll about or seem to wink with the upward, downward or side-wise motion of the man they disguise. The masks, cloths fastened to them to conceal the neck and bodies of the performers, are painted black, and a streamer of dark colored cloth hangs down the back and trails behind, covered with a row of eagle plumes which stand erect like the spines in a sea-monster's dorsal fin. All over the head and body of these figures are little patches of snowy eagle down--stuck on with wild honey--to represent scales. The mendicants are dressed in the armlets, wristlets, sashes and badges of war to proclaim their bloodthirsty proclivities. They are armed with bows and long arrows tipped with corn-cobs. This latter circumstance is fortunate for the Ne'-wes and Keo'-yi-mo-shi; for no sooner does one of the latter succeed in gathering up a blanket-load of he'-we, corn or other provender, than he is unmercifully plugged by the howling monsters [see illustration] and compelled to make a deposit of his precious cargo, or else goaded on to beg for more. If any woman to whom application is made by a Keo'-yi-mo-shi, be hardy enough to refuse him alms, the clown rushes bawling and whimpering back to his monster-master who, uttering low, hoarse gutteral bellows, very becoming to his appearance, proceeds to shoot out a few window-lights in her house, or sends--not very gently, either--two or three arrows at the woman herself, or her children, until she is fain to hand over any kind of breadstuff she may have at hand.

Figure 9. Demon Inspector of Oven

But ere we complete this series on ZUÑI BREADSTUFF, let us see how, once in four years or eight, the ovens whence it issues in such abundant variety are cleaned (ceremonially speaking) of the last vestiges of old bakings and the "bad influences" which are accounted as having accumulated in them.

On a certain summer evening of the fourth or, as the case may be, eighth year, a curious figure--a veritable ideal chimney-sweep appears. Black as the soot with which he is painted can make him, is he; bristling at many points with tufts of hair and cedar brushes, His head is round like an oven; round too his eyes, like flue-holes, with yellow ladders painted over them for brows. A bunch of stiff hair surmounts his crown, out of which issues like a flame a red eagle plume to symbolize fire. His mouth is almost square like an oven-door, but with red lips--the light gleaming out when the stone door is closed--with a stiff thin beard shooting forth from its under side which makes it look, despite its parallelogramic proportions, like a cyclopean eye with heavy winkers--placed too low down. On either cheek is painted in glaring yellow the paw of a badger or some other famous burrower--also symbolic of function. The creature carries in one hand a wand of yucca leaves with which to scourge away dogs; and in the other a little broom of hemlock. To his rump is fastened a long cord of fiber like the tail of a kite. As he travels along he staggers, crooks his thighs, crawls eccentrically from side to side and plunges this way and that as though seeking for or trying to enter ovens; for in everything he sees nothing but ovens--sometimes mistakes ladders or even burros for such and strives to get into them. When at last he espies a veritable oven, he leaps wildly toward it with a low growl of satisfaction, and eagerly disappears through its dark doorway. Presently out come crumbs and fragments of bread or bits of he'-we (left there, of course, in anticipation of his visit) which scarcely strike the ground before they are grabbed up by the ever attendant Keo'-yi-mo-shi, or Ne'-wes. Dust and cinders follow--as though the oven had never been cleaned!--nor do the exertions of the Oven-demons cease short of mischief to the masonry of the structure, unless; one of his companions, with great to-do, snakes him forth by means of the long rope of fiber. No sooner is he out than he turns on his captor with his yucca weapon, and breaks away and goes plunging along to another oven, and so on until every dome-shaped bread receptacle in the village has been duly visited and purified.

Thus, O, patient reader, with thanks indeed for your longsuffering kindness in the reading of these hasty sketches, let us leave these ovens, nor pollute them again with fresh bakings, or the mention of them!


1. See p. 363, n. 6