Description of a Hopi Rain Dance

by Donna Tinus
Hopi believe the snakes are their brothers.

Hopi believe the snakes are their brothers.

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The Hopi Indians live in northeast Arizona in villages high on the mesas. They are a peaceful people who built their villages on high ground to be away from everyone else. Due to Arizona's hot, dry climate the Hopi pray to the gods for rain each year to secure the success of their crops. The rain dance is an important religious ceremony for the Hopi people.

Snake Dance

The rain dance the Hopi perform is called the Snake Dance because the snake is an important aspect of this rain dance. The Hopi believe snakes are their brothers and will bring their request for rain underground, where the gods live. The priests treat the snakes as though they are important guests and talk to them, asking the snakes to tell the gods to provide them with rain. The ritual of the snake dance lasts for 16 days and usually takes place in August or September, every other year. The priests from both the Snake and Antelope clans participate in the celebration together.

Fasting

The priests retreat to a kiva, an underground religious structure, where they fast and pray. While they are praying, the people make prayer sticks, sand paintings and build an altar. The paintings will surround the altar, which will have bowls of water from a spring that is considered sacred. Green corn stalks decorate the area along with vines, beans and melons. All these items are symbols of the rain they are praying for.

Gather the Snakes

On the 12th day the priests smear their bodies with red paint and offer a prayer to the gods that the snakes will not harm them. They leave the kiva and take some young boys with them to gather up snakes. When they find a snake hole they use a stick to dig the snakes out. When the snake hunt is done, the priests will have a bag called a kisi, filled with different types of snakes, such as sidewinders, bull snakes, diamondbacks and rattlers. The priests bring the snakes to the kiva and wash them and sing to them.

The Priest Gets Ready to Dance

The dance itself takes place on the last day. Before the dance beings, the priests smear pink clay on their moccasins, clothes and the right sides of their faces. They blacken their faces with mud. The priests tie traditional fringed belts around their waists. The belt has a fox skin that hangs in the back.

The Dance

The dance is a dramatic event and tourists are invited. Each priest grabs a snake from a bag and carries it around, placing it in his mouth. Each priest has an attendant who uses his snake whip to keep the snakes passive so they don't hurt the priest. After each priest is finished dancing with a snake, he lets it drop to the ground. The "gatherer" ensures the snake doesn't go into the crowd. To do this, he will drop meal on it, then catch it, and then go catch other dropped snakes. He could have as many as 50 or 60 snakes wrapped around his arms and neck as he is retrieving snakes.

End of Dance

When the kisi is empty, the gatherers throw the snakes on the ground and the women throw meal on the snakes. The priests then quickly pick up all the snakes and run to special shrines to release the snakes. All the dancers purge themselves of evil snake charms with a drink which causes them to vomit.

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