Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 34 Number 3
Spring 1995


Joseph H. Suina and Laura B. Smolkin

Those who work with American Indian students in educational settings may find themselves puzzled by tribal requests for release time for American Indian personnel or by children's absences from school. This article is designed to provide insight into the multi-layered world of celebrations of a particular North American native people, the Pueblos. Setting the persistence of native traditions within a historical context, this paper examines the ways in which each of three cultures finds its expression of values and beliefs in the celebrations that engage Pueblo children throughout the calendar year. As American Indian children's schooling is affected by celebration and ceremonies both in and outside the classroom, this article concludes with implications and guidelines that educators might consider not only in their work with Pueblo children, but with the children from other tribes as well.

Over the years, many scholars have attempted, with varying degrees of accuracy, and varying degrees of consent from those studied, to describe Pueblo ceremonial life (Eggan, 1950; Harper, 1929; Johnston, 1980; Parsons, 1925; White, 1932, 1935). While certain of these individuals have focused on detailed descriptions of celebrations (Lange, 1959), others, like Dozier (1983) have attempted to contextualize these descriptions in an historical framework.

In her 1983 work, Bertha Dutton presents her understanding of ceremonies in the pueblo.

Each considers it his duty to perform ceremonies to help the seasons follow one another in proper succession, to promote fertility of plants and animals, to encourage rain and to insure hunting success. All this is voiced in his prayers and dramatized in his dances. . . Participation in ceremonies is a communal duty and privilege of all the Pueblo people. Individuals are trained to take part in the dances from early childhood. (pp. 53-54).

Dutton, like other authors, alludes to the presence of Indian children in ceremonial life. However, to date, no one has explored the complexities of the multicultural worlds of Pueblo Indian children's celebrations, nor has any one examined the impact of these varied observances on Pueblo children's school lives.

The purpose of this paper, written by a first author who is a Pueblo tribal councilman who has lived his entire life in his native village and a second author with considerable experience in preparing teachers to work with Indian students, is to offer a glimpse of what we have seen as the multi-layered world of celebrations of Pueblo children. From a christening fiesta to a kiva ceremony to a Valentine's day party with classmates, Pueblo Indian children's participation in celebrations is unmatched by their American peers in frequency and variety. Pueblo children's busy festival calendars have their origins in at least three distinct cultures. The first two, the enduring native world and the Spanish Catholic world, are often inextricably linked. The third culture, most visible in school settings, is that of the dominant "American" society.

Beginning with a consideration of the extent to which native traditions persist in children's lives, we move to illustrations of non-native cultures' influences on the celebrations that engage Pueblo children throughout the calendar year, examining in greater depth certain holidays that reflect the intersections of all three cultures. As Pueblo children's schooling is influenced by celebration both in and outside the classroom, this article concludes with implications and guidelines that teachers and administrators might consider in their work with Pueblo children.

Native Celebrations: A World of Secrecy

Pueblo Indian children in New Mexico live in nineteen separate and independent communities, which range according to the 1989 Bureau of Indian Affairs Labor Force Report, from 102 to over 8000 working individuals (Sando, 1992). For the last four centuries, with the exception of twelve brief years of freedom resulting from the 1680 Pueblo Revolution, these descendants of the Anasazi have been ruled by three foreign governments (Dozier, 1983). Thus, the influence of nonnative traditions is substantial. Despite these influences, native traditions and self-rule have been retained to such a degree that scholars of United States indigenous cultures refer to the Pueblos as the tribe least changed by European contact (Sando, 1976). Considering hundreds of years of survival in a semi-desert and often hostile environment, before and after European contact, it may be said that Pueblo culture has been both adaptive to, and resilient toward, outside forces.

Native forms of celebration represent the most enduring set of special days in which Pueblo children are deeply involved. Historical influences have altered the ways such ceremonies were celebrated prior to the European presence. In their early quest among the natives of the Southwest, the Spaniards were driven by desires of winning gold for their Majesties and souls for their God. 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. While the Church's initial policy was to accept forms of native celebration linked to Catholic holidays, a policy of suppression followed, in which native ritual paraphernalia were destroyed and religious leaders whipped and shamed. As a result of these repressive policies, many of the more sacred observances were performed at night (Dozier, 1983). Even today, among the Eastern Rio Grande Pueblos who experienced the most frequent encounters with the Spanish Catholic church, such celebrations generally exclude outsiders. These prohibitions continue the practice of safeguarding traditions, and also insure a proper context for the ceremony, eliminating the curious onlooker who lacks the requisite spiritual orientation for the event (Suina, 1992).

Native special events occur in predictable order each calendar year. Pueblo ceremonies follow a very seasonally-based calendar, in line with the hunting, gathering and agricultural society handed down by their ancestors. This ceremonial calendar differs from those of the Spanish Catholic and larger American societies in that it contains no special days to commemorate an individual's accomplishments, as is the case with the various saints' days or the birthday celebrations for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. In a group-oriented society like that of the traditional Pueblo peoples, individual status has been of minimal importance. Certainly, this practice does not result from a lack of outstanding individuals amongst the Pueblo peoples.

Participation in Pueblo religious events requires a particular enculturation early in life, or, for those who join the tribe as adults through an intertribal marriage, a proper initiation. Not all village-based Pueblo people follow this path. Perhaps ever since the introduction of Christianity, there has been a small segment of the Pueblo population who have chosen not to participate in native religious ceremonies. The children of these individuals do not participate ceremonially as those we describe below; however, they, too, become swept up in the excitement of village events, even if only as observers at the fringes.

The roles of Pueblo children in native religious ceremonies range from key parts as deer dancers in a Buffalo Dance, to more passive observer participation as the audience at a sacred night dance, to membership in special societies. In virtually all ceremonies, Pueblo children are integral participants. Indian parents rarely, if ever, need a babysitter for traditional ceremonial preparations or actual events. Pueblo children, literally from birth, observe and adopt strongly practiced group orientations.

Closed ceremonies may isolate tribal members from the rest of the world for a day or two. Given the tradition of secrecy, many sacred night dances are performed under well-guarded conditions, concealing any evidence of participation before, during, and after the ceremony. Pueblo children, whose nighttime participation may result in sleepiness and listless performances at school the next day, are taught not to disclose any native religious information to outsiders. Anything they have witnessed is strictly forbidden as a topic for conversation, even amongst themselves (Suina, 1992). Continuing above-noted historical patterns, this secrecy is greater for the Eastern Rio Grande Pueblos than for their more Western relatives. The Zuni of western New Mexico, located near the Arizona border, remain more open to sharing their sacred ceremonies, such as the Shalako Dances (Dozier, 1983), and Zuni children seem less concerned about sharing details of ritual celebrations (Smolkin & Suina, 1991). This contrasts notably with Pueblo people from Eastern Rio Grande homes who will often express their surprise, and occasional discomfort, in seeing Kachina dances performed publicly in daytime settings on the Hopi Reservation (Smolkin & Suina, 1993).

Beyond the seasonally-tied celebrations, there are special days that mark children's progression through life, somewhat like those celebrated in Christianity. Certain native rites of passage may involve sponsors, termed "parents"; these rituals may involve additional villagers in what become truly memorable milestones for Pueblo children. While all tribal members pass through particular rituals, other rites of passage are limited in terms of participants. This would especially be the case when a child or an adult has perceived a calling for membership to special societies that serve the people. These personal events often require extensive preparation, and in some Pueblos, such individuals may be required to commit periods of time away from the routines of life, which may result in absence from school for weeks at a time.

From the descriptions above, Pueblo religious practices can clearly be seen as impacting children's school lives. Night-time ceremonial pursuits may result in lethargic school performance. Assisting family preparations may require a child to remain home to care for younger siblings. Participation in societies may result in extended absences. Strictures on sharing information with outsiders may prevent children and parents from providing coherent explanations for absences. School-based educators may find themselves irritated with less than optimal school performance.

Spanish Catholic Celebrations: Mixing Traditions

Spanish Catholicism, present in Pueblo culture for nearly 400 years, produces another layer of celebrations for Pueblo children. As mentioned above, the Church's initial policy was tolerance. Pueblo dances and other forms of native ceremonialism were even encouraged, as long as they were performed in behalf of Christianity. To take full advantage of this gesture, the natives adjusted their seasonal ceremonial calendar in accord with the Christian calendar. Native winter dances were realigned with the Christmas season, the spring preplanting events with Easter, and so on.

After many generations, Christianity took on greater meaning among the Pueblo Indians, with greater acceptance and actual faith in the teachings of Christ, as explained by the Catholics. 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. Almost all church-connected ceremonies are open to the public, drawing friends and strangers from nearby towns and far off places. Beginning with New Year's Day and January 6th, Three Kings' Day, Pueblo children find themselves in the midst of some of the most important celebrations of the year. The events are clearly Christian in orientation but they also mark the traditional rebirth of the People and their environment. This is the time for new tribal leadership and a fresh beginning, with native religious ceremonies that distinguish these days, as well as official church services. Where possible, the two are drawn together in one expression, albeit never completely similar.

Since almost all children are raised as Catholics, personal events such as a child's baptism, first holy communion, or confirmation are as much milestones in the child's life as earlier mentioned native ceremonies. Though acquired traditions, celebrations of these occasions, either for a close family member or a distant relative, impact the daily flow of life considerably.

Particular saints' days are regarded as very special. For children, their name-sake's day is a special celebration. For most Pueblo communities, the single most important village event is the day of the patron saint of the church and the village. This celebration blends both native and Catholic expressions with a single purpose-the welfare of the people. A patron saint's feast day is the celebration that brings home servicemen and women, college students, and family members who live off the reservation. Friendships are renewed and family ties are strengthened in the context of prayer, dancing, and feasting. Pueblo children may find themselves introduced finally to new-born cousins and "long lost relatives," who may have been away for several years.

For the Pueblo child, the village saint's feast day will begin early with a Catholic mass in the village church, often attended by Hispanic neighbors from nearby villages. Upon its conclusion, children witness a procession of parishioners, singing Spanish hymns which honor and invoke the blessings of the saint, carrying the santo's statue through the plaza to an awaiting arbor. This bower has been decorated with artifacts and symbols of both native and Christian religious significance. From this special place of honor, the saint will "watch the day dancing," and receive the offerings and homages of guests.

Within the next two hours, children may find themselves as part of two lines of male and female Corn Dancers who emerge from their kivas, just ahead of the all male choir. The lone drummer will initiate the rhythm and the song, setting the pace for the long train of dancers, who range in age from the very old to the two- or three-year old child. The songs, motions, dress and other religious paraphernalia derive from the ancient native practices, despite the fact that the day is celebrated in behalf of a Christian saint. Prayers will be recited in Spanish and English, as well as in a variety of Indian languages appropriate for the native offerings of cornmeal. The dances continue through the day, as visiting onlookers, both Indian and non-Indian, ring the plaza until the last dance ends.

The Spanish Catholic way once again assumes the dominant focus. The statue of the patron saint is lifted again, this time as part of the procession back into the church. Spanish hymns are sung once again before the priest offers the final prayers that complete the annual fiesta. Village celebrants, with children racing ahead, return to their respective kivas. The headmen also bestow final blessings, and excuse the weary yet satisfied participants. Feast Days provide a perfect example of the mix of native and Spanish Catholic traditions.

Given that certain Catholic ceremonies may not coincide with school-determined holiday dates, attendance of Pueblo children in school may once again be affected. A major difference between native ceremonies and Catholic observances is that children and their parents are free to articulate the cause of the absence.

American Celebrations: Citizenship and Customs

In Pueblo schools, as in schools across the nation, observances of certain holidays, such as President's Day and Thanksgiving are mandated. Days such as Veterans' Day, Columbus Day, and Labor Day carry important socialization to historical and current-day values of American citizenship (Kazin, 1992). These days emphasize the very foundation of our democracy and can be instrumental in developing allegiance to the basic beliefs of our country. In addition to the traditional time off from school, Pueblo children, and their American counterparts, enjoy a range of teacher-initiated activities designed to enhance their understanding of American citizenship. Some teachers incorporate these holidays into their curriculum through extended units of social studies. In this way, Pueblo children participate in all the national celebrations which engage children across America.

Schools also celebrate other less value-laden events that have become typical American celebrations, such as Valentine's Day, Ground Hog's Day and St. Patrick's Day, each of which provides ample opportunity for creative classroom expression. For Pueblo peoples, most celebrated American traditions were introduced by the school; many filtered into the villages and are now acquired traditions. Parents, relatives and neighbors encourage and participate in these activities. Easter egg hunts and valentine exchanges in the Pueblo are as ordinary as in most American communities.

In recent years, certain popular holidays with deeper religious ties, such as Halloween and Christmas, have become awkward for schools to observe, largely due to a heightened sensitivity toward community responses. For example, Halloween, which used to generate so much excitement and creativity, is now a source of uncertainty for educators who fear offending certain groups in the community (Woodruff, 1989). Observances that have become complicated for schools nonetheless continue in towns across America and in Pueblo villages as well. As an example, despite its potential danger to children, trick-or-treating persists as a highlight in most American towns.

Six months after the survey was administered, I returned to Little Big Horn College to make an initial report on the findings of the study and to receive any feedback that they considered necessary or pertinent. I also made the same report to the Indian education association that sponsored the conference for the same reasons.

Of the three major cultural influences, "American" commemorations and festivities alone are school-sanctioned. Teachers well understand the heightened excitement which precedes Halloween, Thanksgiving, and winter holidays. They also understand the tiredness and lack of concentration which may follow. As schools determine legitimate holidays and promote their forms of celebration, Pueblo children will more likely experience a positive home to school transition.

Tri-Cultural Events

Certain celebrations which hold only minimal significance for the larger American society find increased expression in Pueblo life. For example, while the celebration of Halloween concludes in most of America after the last house is visited (and all the candy inspected) on the night of October 31, this is just the beginning of the celebration for Pueblo children. All Souls' Day, of little importance for most of America's children, has been a very important day for native peoples who believe in ancestral spirits. Traditionally, ancestral spirits were honored by providing them offerings from the fall harvest for the wisdom and guidance they had provided for their descendants. Like other native holidays, this ancient celebration was aligned with the Catholic All Souls' Day. In some pueblos, this day is simply called "Great Grandparents Day," and the celebration involves the family in and around the home as they await the return of the spirits. Baking and preparation of the deceaseds' favorite foods is an important facet of the preparations. This food is set aside in a special place on the floor to welcome the return of the dead, in a manner quite similar to the celebrations of El Dia de los Muertos in Mexican culture (Cohen, 1992). Entire families bring traditional prayers and prayer paraphernalia to designated sites outside the village proper. Later in the afternoon, children assist in carrying the prepared foods to the homes of friends and relatives.

Toward evening, Hispanic Catholics from nearby villages may visit the Pueblo, proceeding from house to house, reciting appropriate prayers at the threshold, and receiving shares of the carefully prepared treats. At the same time, young boys and men are at the church, constantly tolling the "death bell," as if to encourage their ancestors' spirits to return. While this Christian practice progresses, older boys and other men gather in the village's traditional native ceremonial houses. With favorite foods, stories, songs and dances that go into the wee hours of the morning, they await the return of the spirits who were once active members of the houses. The deceased are fondly, and equally, remembered; no one particular ancestor is singled out, this being the native way of honoring those who have gone on to the spirit world.

Morning finds a shift from native observances to church observances. Young girls assist their mothers and grandmothers, delivering the last food offerings to the church well before the morning sunrise Catholic mass for the dead concludes the celebration. The village food offering, integral to the Church ceremony, nearly crowds out the worshippers. Following the blessing of the food and the conclusion of the mass, the food is distributed. Young children, clutching bags they have brought from home, are the first to receive their prize. Next comes the turn of older boys and girls to receive their share of the prepared feast. Finally, what remains is distributed among the adults. As noted earlier, with all Pueblo celebrations, children have been an integral part of the ceremonies.

Christmas in the Pueblo represents another example of a tri-cultural mix. Like Halloween/All Souls' Day celebrations, Christmas requires considerable preparation. Animal dances, such as Deer, Eagle, and Buffalo, are commonly performed at this time of year. The dancers and singers, who include some children, scheduled to perform in the plaza during the days of Christmas celebration spend three to four weeks in nightly preparations, where they learn and practice steps and songs. Families must either make or purchase costume pieces such as woven sashes and kilts.

Before the traditional baking of oven bread in the outside ovens, or hornos as they are called, can occur, young boys accompany fathers, grandfathers, and uncles to chop the necessary firewood. Then, two to three days before Christmas, young girls assist mothers, grandmothers, and aunts kneading risen bread dough throughout the night, and crimping fruit pie crusts during the day. Christmas Eve finds girls and women stirring huge pots of red and green chile stews. Following Midnight Mass, Pueblo children race home to unwrap Christmas gifts awaiting them under the all-American, tinsel-strung tree. There is little time for sleep that night as dancers and singers must arise around 4:00 A.M., and all family members are awake well before sunrise for the first of the day's dances.

Although the schools and the community do much to socialize Indian youth to values of both Indian and non-Indian celebrations, the less-desirable, more commercialized, profit-driven aspects of holidays (Gelb, 1987) appear even on the reservation. Certainly, there is no better example than Christmas with its glitter of bright lights. The latest offerings of the toy industry are eagerly awaited by every Pueblo child, and all expect them to be delivered by that familiar man in the red suit. Tri-cultural mixes can bring complications as well as additional celebrations.

Implications for Educators

Pueblo students are frequently engaged in celebrations; some are school-legitimized, many are not. Involvement in native religious practices, including those which are linked to Catholic practice, will frequently result in higher rates of absenteeism for Pueblo children. Children miss school as they are involved in both individual family and kiva preparations. Educators must understand that these absences do not represent a disregard for school rules, nor negligence on parents' parts.

Should teachers find themselves confronted by many sleepy-headed children, they should avoid questions concerning late-night ceremonies, for the nondisclosure reasons addressed in this paper. Still, teachers have a responsibility to determine that legitimate reasons, rather than late-night television viewing, are the source of children's lethargy. Once again, consulting with a responsible adult is the teachers' best source of information. Most Pueblo schools have someone who serves as a cultural reference.

Sometimes a Pueblo child may be absent more frequently than other native peers. If these absences are not attributed to illness, they may be due to the child's participation in one of the Pueblo societies mentioned earlier. Teachers should consult with a reliable adult villager to determine the cause, and make-up work must be arranged with the family once the legitimacy of the absence has been established. Once having determined that the absence is related to native ceremonial reasons, the teacher should avoid obtaining further details out of mere curiosity, as non-disclosure may be very important to the family and village.

Beyond the level of the individual classroom teacher, schools may need to contemplate additional responses. Schools may need to reconsider which days should be set aside for absences. Perhaps days like President's Day and Martin Luther King Jr.'s Day might be spent in school, studying those events, minimizing time away from school. As school administrators are the main contacts with tribal leaders, their ability to communicate and coordinate school activities with those of children's communities is critical. Given the fact that Tucson has Rodeo Day as day off from school, that Houston has had Fat Stock Day as a day off from school, perhaps administrators in schools with high numbers of Indian children might go beyond simply alerting their staff to the fact that children are involved in a celebration to advocating the creation of legitimate holidays for key native celebrations.

While it is inappropriate to generalize from one Indian tribe to another, it is important that all teachers of Indian children consider the impact of native celebrations on their students. For those tribes where secrecy is not as critical as for the Rio Grande Pueblos, and even for the more public holidays of the Pueblo peoples, classroom teachers should take the time, and make the effort, to learn about native holidays. By doing so, teachers can understand their impact on the lives of the children they teach. They can also look for any possible links to be made between the values of American Indian cultures and those of the larger American society. Through such additional efforts, which focus on the values and ideals of celebrations, teachers can assist, rather than hinder, American Indian children as they endeavor to live their multicultural lives.

Joseph H. Suina is an associate professor in the College of Education of the University of New Mexico. Active in tribal life and native religious practices, Dr. Suina has served as Lieutenant Governor of his native Cochiti Pueblo, where he is also a tribal councilman. Dr. Suina writes frequently on the Pueblo people of New Mexico.

Laura B. Smolkin is an assistant professor in the College of Education of the University of New Mexico. Co-director along with Dr. Suina of the Rural/Urban American Indian Teacher Education program, Dr. Smolkin has been engaged in studies which explore ways to make teaching culturally compatible and relevant.


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