Saturday, December 04, 2010

Buffalo Dance in Santa Fe

A little tidbit from our friends at the Los Pequenos Pepper, a lay-run monthly periodical out of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, where, due to the large population of Pueblo Indians, there has been an inordinate amount of "inculturation" going on liturgically for quite a long time. Here's a look at the latest nonsense going on in New Mexico.

Has the Buffalo Dance been Baptized?
By Stephanie Block

This past January, an interfaith gathering was hosted by Monsignor Jerome Martinez y Alire, in downtown Santa Fe’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi where he is rector. The event celebrated the City of Santa Fe and the Basilica’s Quad Centennial Anniversary Year of founding (1610).

The evening program began with a sacred blessing dance by the Native American Santa Clara Pueblo Buffalo Dancers [pictured above] and included music from a 3-faith choir, a Sikh Community Jatha (music group), and readings from Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic sacred texts.

Did the native dancers at this interfaith event represent an ethnic Catholic variant, or were they one of the“other” religious traditions? Every August, in conjunction with the annual Santa Fe Indian Market, Archbishop Sheehan presided over the Annual Native American Mass, celebrated again at the Cathedral Basilica, featuring the Black Eagle Drummers from Jemez Pueblo. Last year, the Mass also “featured” Buffalo dancers.

Two questions rise from such cultural and liturgical mixtures. One is: do such mixtures draw people closer to the Christ and His Truth or are they merely an entertainment that does injustice to both native and Catholic spiritual practice? The other is: what can be “baptized” from another culture’s liturgical practices and what can’t?

Entertainment or Edification?

Obviously, people differ as to what edifies or entertains them but Leon Podles, author of Sacrilege, “an in- depth look at sexual abuse in the Catholic Church,” and The Church Impotent: The Feminization of the Catholic Church, gave an entertaining and edifying description of his experience at the “Indian Mass” when he was in Santa Fe attending Indian Market in 2003:

The Indians explained that they would be doing the beginning of the Buffalo Dance of Thanksgiving to the Great Spirit after communion, that this was a prayer, not entertainment, and that the congregation should not applaud. At the end of the mass … Archbishop Sheehan got up and asked everyone to give the dancers a big round of applause. The Indians were miffed, but Sheehan, like many Catholics, sees the new liturgy as being at least in part entertainment, to which the proper response in our culture is applause []

Native Spirituality or Christian Spirituality?

Podles’ comments help to give us some insight into the second question, as well. The Buffalo Dancers in 2003 described their own actions – and we must take them at their word – as a prayer of thanksgiving “to the Great Spirit.” Whatever is to be said further, it must be assumed that the dancers themselves were sincere Catholics who understood deeper truths hidden within native “gestures’… thereby elevating those gestures much as St. Paul, preaching to the Athenians (Acts 17:22-32), recognized the natural piety behind an altar dedicated to “the unknown god.” Though it had been intended for pagan worship, that altar provided a means for introducing true worship.

However, since the dancers were, and will probably be again, in the sacred space of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, both native and non-native Catholic worshipers must know for certain that it is in fact the Great Spirit who is invoked – the One Creator God – and no other, such as the spirit of the buffalo. One native website clearly believes the Buffalo Dance signifies the latter:

Like all Animal Dances, the Buffalo Dance is a celebration of thanksgiving. The hunter takes on the spirit of the buffalo he has hunted during the year. He thanks the spirit of that animal, and he asks for good luck for next year's hunting. To be asked to dance in the Buffalo Dance is a great honor. Keep in mind that it is also an honor to be able to attend a Pueblo Dance. The Dances are spiritual celebrations, so please treat these celebrations as though they were taking place in your own house of worship. [emphasis added.]

Between these two positions – that the Buffalo Dance has been “baptized” for Christian use or that Buffalo Dance is a pagan ritual – there is a more complicated and extremely interesting possibility that the dance represents an attempt to culturally bridge the native and European worlds. An anonymous Fox tribal story goes:

Once there was an Indian who became a Christian. He became a very good Christian; he went to church, and he didn’t smoke or drink, and he was good to everyone. He was a very good man. Then he died. First he went to the Indian hereafter and they wouldn’t take him because he was a Christian. Then he went to Heaven, but they wouldn’t let him in – because he was an Indian. Then he went to Hell but they wouldn’t admit him there either because he was so good. So he came alive again, and he went to the Buffalo Dance and the other dances and taught his children to do the same thing. [David Hurst Thomas, Jay Miller, Richard White, Peter Nabokov, Philip Deloria, The Native Americans, Turner Publishing, 1993.]

Theological confusion aside, this story points to the sad history of native and European relations. Pueblo peoples, to mollify the Spaniards, at first made token motions of participating in Catholic ceremonies, giving the appearance that they were adopting the newly presented values and forms of worship.” The Church’s suppression of native ritual observances only drove them underground, to be performed at night, in great secrecy, beyond the criticism of outsiders. “Today, many key events in the Pueblo are celebrated in both religions, though the two remain very separate and distinct in overall philosophy and forms of expression. Where possible, the two are drawn together in one expression, albeit never completely similar.” [Joseph H. Suina and Laura B. Smolkin, “The Multicultural Worlds of Pueblo Indian Children’s Celebrations,” Journal of
American Indian Education, Spring 1995]

In the light of this, another scholar offers a Pueblo legend about the founding of the Buffalo Dance, which according to his sources was a gift of Poseyemu (Mist-rising-from-the-water) – a legendary hero/demigod who, after miraculously killing more buffalo than the more experienced hunter, institutes the Spanish-derived Matachina Dance (or, in other stories, the Buffalo Dance), which must be performed as well as traditional native dance. While there are many tribal variants to these stories:

All Poseyemu’s roles can be reduced to a fundamental level: he provides for the general well-being of the Pueblos….The well-being of the Pueblos during the Spanish contact period depended largely on the preservation of native religious rituals. Accordingly, Poseyemu plays the role of ritual leader and teacher in many Tewa variants. …warning that both the native and the Spanish dances must be performed in order to secure eternal happiness. Poseyemu is here the mediator between the Spanish and native customs. …Poseyemu is placed at the intersection of two religious traditions…he functions as an “early warning system” for the preservation of native religious ceremonies. [Richard J. Parentier, “The Mythology Triangle: Poseyemu, Montezuma, and Jesus in the Pueblos,” from Handbook of North American Indians, vol 9: Northwest, Smithsonian, 1979, p. 609-614.]

If the dancers were engaged in pagan worship or a complex ritualistic appeasement of both traditions is a matter of no small moment – and neither belongs in a Catholic church sanctuary. If they were giving true worship, however, it seems those in attendance required a good deal more explanation.


Anonymous said...

fascinating, enjoyed this what you say is traditional catholic is traditional European of various ethnicitys which have become Catholic over centuries.Did not Saint Gregory the Great say to use local traditions and make them Christian? The Church should carry on doing that with all traditions,all true worship no matter what name we call Him goes to God and by our Love and respect to all faiths will we show the way of Christ

Alexander said...

I would like to rather tolerate another faith rather than "love" it. Loving something that yields no salvation and is contrary to the teachings of the Church makes no sense.

I would also argue that some things in the Mass were developed because of the Mass itself; chant and the use of a liturgical language are a few things I would name. Therefore anything that would undermine, replace, or be declared just as good over what has been legitimately developed should be opposed.

The dance has, as described above, first an ambiguous meaning.

“To the Great Spirit” is ambiguous.

Second is the fact that in its Pueblo context it is against the Catholic religion.

Here is where the great ecumenical/inter-religious ambiguous dialogue and practices begin.

It's as if specific details, definition of terms, and explicitness is thrown out the window in order to incorporate everyone. “The great spirit” can mean anything to anyone. To faithful Pueblos it is pagan, to Catholic converts from Pueblo Indianism it could mean God Himself. Who knows?

As the blog post here states “If they were giving true worship, however, it seems those in attendance required a good deal more explanation.” And this is exactly the point of modern Church relations with other regions. It seeks to keep things as vague and non-confrontational as possible in order to win “converts” and to “get along.” As long as we can do enough mental gymnastics we can explain why dozens upon dozens of pagan rituals can be incorporated into the Mass (or I guess afterward in the Church building).

Next would be my concern over the dance itself. If hypothetically the dance where explicitly explained as being a thanksgiving to the Triune God Himself we would still have the problem of the Pueblo Indians doing the exact same dance and music in an entirely different context. It would at least fall under some category of being harmful because of the confusion it may produce.

Further still, liturgies of a certain rite should not be laden with a severity of customs and options. Minor differences in customs and options are okay (like when the bell(s) are rung). But to incorporate every kind of non-Catholic ritual into the Mass would be liturgical chaos. It would further fuel abuse and generate the appearance that the Mass is more for your entertainment and “good feelings.”

Finally here is where I draw a blank. I cannot think of anything in the Mass that EXACTLY mimics a thanksgiving prayer or song to a pagan one.

Also I believe that pagans in Europe had their own song and dance to their gods and obviously they were not incorporated in the local liturgies at least with any kind of staying power – centuries of liturgical development should demonstrate that not ALL customs and ritual should be incorporated given the context of what the Mass is and in this case I would say it is a bad thing given what I said above.

Lee Podles said...

I do not know Indian culture well enough to pronounce on the state of their beliefs. The Indians I saw in Santa Fe were Catholic and said that their dance was to honor the Great Spirit, whom the missionaries recognized as God.

My guess is that an inchoate monotheism of many natural religions, in which God is distant and the gods are concerned with everyday affairs, is influenced by Christianity even among the tribes which remain pagan.

I spoke to several Hopis about the kachinas – they claimed they didn’t adore the kachinas – that would be absurd, They adored the Creator, and asked the kachinas to bring them the Creator’s blessings.

One assumes that monotheism would be even clearer among Indians who have been Catholic for centuries.

Dance was an integral part of the Temple liturgy - remember David dancing before the ark?

In the West the dance has been largely eroticized and is unsuitable for the liturgy, but many non-Western peoples pray with their bodies as well as their voices.

The liturgical dance of American peoples will be prominent this week in the celebrations of Nuestra SeƱora de Guadaloupe – are they dishonoring her by their solemn dances?

Boniface said...


The problem is not dance per se. The problem is

1) Is this ritual appropriate for the Catholic liturgy?

2) Even if they claim to be worshiping the Great Spirit, is this Great Spirit identifiable by the Indians (not the missionaries) with the Holy Trinity? Are they adoring Jesus Christ? If no, then they have no business doing it.

Alexander said...

Lee wrote:

“Dance was an integral part of the Temple liturgy - remember David dancing before the ark? “

No one danced when Christ died on the cross except his enemies. The Mass is the sacrifice of Christ brought to the present.