“Ay, nanita, alli vienen los cumanchis”
After dancing with her tribe, this young Comanche dancer takes a call on her cell phone.
Photo by Shamash
Taos New Mexico
January 1, 2006
January 1, 2006
This holiday season, I made my annual pilgrimage back to my favorite spot on the planet:
, New Mexico
Not only is Taos full of visionaries who live in earthships and use solar energy, but it’s steeped in the ancient traditions of native American culture. This dusty, Northern New Mexico town is a collection of ironies: a trailer on a quarter of an acre lot sells for a quarter of a million dollars; you can eat the best chile relleno at Rita’s for a few bucks, and then, if you wish (and many don’t, mind you!) head to the resort Monte Sagrado where you can eat a yak burger while hanging out with the stars like Pierce Bronson. (He was staying there with his family for a few weeks while filming.) Where else can you shop at the grocery store and run into Julia Roberts AND your former student who bags her groceries? Where else can you drink chai at the Hanuman Neem Karoli Baba Ashram with Santa Fe lawyers, Hindi families from Denver and California, and dreadlocked hippies? In Taos, the real estate prices make it too expensive for the average Joe, or an idealistic school teacher like me, to live. But, the newspaper’s free, the news of scandals free, the second cup of coffee’s free, the chai is free, and so is the love.
After a pleasant New Year’s Eve of conversation and cranberry cocktails at Auntie Nan’s house with JP, The Starwatcher and Rainbow Heart, I was in bed before midnight since I had to arise before dawn, and Pirate had a full day planned.
New Year’s Day. 2006. The morning dawned cold and grey. Fresh in from my home in Southeast Asia, I was thankful for the down coat and woolen socks that Pirate had lent me. A hop into the Ford pickup, and we were off to see los Comanches dance. Before the sun rose we arrived at the Ranchos de Taos church, the one that Georgia O’Keefe made famous in this painting. There, dancing Camanches were kicking up the New Mexico dust, whirling around in circles and chanting.
This New Year’s celebration goes back to the ancient traditions, as described in Enrique R Lamadrid’s book “Hermanitos Comanchitos: Indo-Hispano Rituals of Captivity and Redemption” (photographs by Miguel A. Gandert). One of the best parts of the book is the CD in the back: a recording of the Comanche dance songs. They are haunting, and I listen to them now, as I write.
Surprise of surprises, both Lamadrid and Gandert were at the dance, and Pirate and I were able to speak with them. (And oh, were we jealous when Gandert was able to hop on the back of the truck that transported the plumed Comanches from home to home.) A brief synopsis of this New Year’s ritual can also be found in “Nuevo Mexico Profundo: Rituals of an Indo-Hispano Homeland”, also by Lamadrid and Gandert:
To greet the first day of the New year, several groups of Hispano Comanche dancers gather in the shadow of the San Francisco de Asis church and begin a rigorous day of celebration. From sunrise to sunset, from house to house in the villages of Ranchos de Taos, Talpa, Llano Quemado, Cordillera, and Los Cordovas, Los Comanches sing to the beating of single-headed drums. Their children dance to honor Manuals and Manuelas, the namesakes of Emmanual, the Holy child, on this blessed day. In fanciful costumes of buckskin, flannel, fringe and feathers, they reenact the dramas of captivity and redemption to honor their genizaro heritage.”
So off we went: a caravan of cars and pickups, following the dancers from house to house of those who house anyone with the name “Manuel” or “Manuela.” It was cold. I was freezing. But the warmth of this ancient tradition was contagious, and I find myself singing along with some of these Spanish songs- some of which are graced with the haunting poetry:
Follow ever, dear bread bakers,
For I crave both debts form [sic] thee.
You shall have your shield most trusty
I shall have my sweet bread,
Pumpkin seeds and cactus candy;
And that sprouted flour treat:
Money, chile and sweet onions
Laced with aromatic herbs,
Marinated in a skillet
We shall make some fine preserves
Run away… to your captain make your wail.
If you have no real feelings,
Knock your head to no avail.
-(appendix 1, Hermanitos Comanchitos)
After each dance, the dancers are invited into the homes of the visited and are served coffee and sweets, and for the singers and drummers: a shot or two of whiskey, if they liked. One of the drummers, JP, had been to Auntie Nan’s New Year’s Eve party the night before, and what a treat it was, indeed, to hear him in this ancient ritual. He no longer was the shy Hispano, speaking softly and humbly at a New Year’s Eve gathering. Now, he was a mighty drummer, participating in a ritual repeated for centuries each year, each New Year’s Day, come rain or shine. No matter what the weather, the Comanches dance. When it rains, they must remove their plumeros (feathers), but there they were, in their buckskins, dancing, their breath coming out in puffs, their eyes closed in something close to holiness, something close to rapture.
For two and a half hours, Pirate and I followed the caravan from house to house. We didn’t want to leave, but our fingers, ears, and noses were numb, and we were in sore need for a warm cup of coffee from The Bean. Also, we didn’t want to miss the New Year’s Turtle Dance at the Taos Pueblo, the oldest continuously inhabited town in North America.
We were cold. We needed some chai. So, off we went to the Hanuman temple, where we sang a few chalisas, and caught up with friends we hadn’t seen for years. There’s nothing like the temple sunroom on a Sunday: drinking chai and listening to the harmonium played by She With the Posture of a Ballerina. The White Monkey, Hanuman, was still there, still looking out at the devotees with those clear, all-knowing eyes, and Neem Karoli Baba still has that goofy smile that says, “Just love one another.”
And it’s noon. And I’m full to the brim with the Great Spirit, Shiva, and God.
Time to head home. Time to sleep. Time to dream of a time when I can come back to live in this town, my favorite place on this blue-green, fragile planet that spins with the hopeful and hopeless, the kind and unkind, the enlightened and unenlightened.
May the Great Spirit bless them, one and all.
Happy New Year’s, dear readers.
May all your dreams come true.