Equaling the fabled Sun Dance of the equestrian plains as among the most celebrated, misunderstood, and passionately maligned Native American religious ceremony is the Hopi Snake Dance of northeastern Arizona. Soon after its discovery by Anglo-Americans in the late 1870s, it rapidly became an eagerly sought-after tourist event. Much of the credit for this dubious celebrity is owed Captain John G. Bourke, who, through his silver-tongued prose, captivated an eastern urban gentry in his colorful 1884 publication The Snake Dance of The Moquis of Arizona... the Manners and Customs of this peculiar People, and especially of the revolting religious rite, THE SNAKE DANCE. Excusing Bourke's occasional lapse into Victorian sensationalism, all in all the text is accurate and insightful. And the popular success of this Scribners soft-science adventure tale suggested to others, particularly the more daring and desparate of the academic circle, that the Hopi were a new ethnographic "gold mine." In short order, Jesse Walter Fewkes, H.R. Voth, George A. Dorsey, and Walter Hough (writing for the Passenger Department of the Santa Fe Pacific Railroad in 1899), all added their distinctive twists to the interpretation of the unsuspecting Hopi's religion. (1)
And what exactly was so sensational about this ritual that it would inspire eastern dudes and dudettes to venture via horseback or buckboard for three unaccommodating days from Holbrook, Winslow, or Canyon Diablo to the remote mesa country of the north in order to experience it? Simply put, it was an ancient dance in which people took snakes into their mouths! Unbeknowst to the Hopi, they had become the new "in thing."
As is the wont of tourists, those adventurers sought souvenirs from their unique and arduous adventures. As is characteristic of the entrepreneurial acuity of native peoples, such tokens were supplied. Satisfying a tourist needs means cash in hand, and by the late 1890s, a competitive tourist market for Katsina dolls, clowns, snake dancers, and other Hopi religious personages had emerged. Here is the origin for our two dolls.
These two wide-eyed snake dancer dolls with articulated arms, blunt paw-like hands, dorsal-finned noses, hide sashes, cloth kilts, and body painting stylistically date to between 1920 and 1930. Their iconography (including traditional hair style and gestures) is authentic to the actual ritual snake priests. Bourke's 1881 description of the dance at Walpi village captures the exact likeness of both doll and performer:
" The spectacle was an astonishing one, and one felt at once bewildered and horrified at this long column of weird figures, naked in all excepting the snake-painted cotton kilts and red buckskin moccasins; bodies a dark greenish-brown, relieved only by the broad white armlets and the bright yellowish-gray of the fox skins dangling behind them; long elfin locks brushed straight back from the head, tufted with scarlet parrot or woodpecker feathers; faces painted black, as with a mask of charcoal, from brow to upper lip, where the ghastly white of kaolin began, and continued down over chin and neck; the crowning point being the deadly reptiles borne in mouth and hand, which imparted to the drama the lurid tinge of a nightmare." (2) (Bourke, page 163)
The actual significance of the Snake Dance is far tamer than Bourke suggests. It incorporates both a sympathetic petition for rain, in which snakes serve as the supernatural messengers to the divine, and elements of two migration stories related to the fraternal priesthoods of the Antelopes and Snakes. Also the dance commemorates and gives thanks to Ti'yo, the ancestral snake youth and patron of the orders. Ritual footraces, and the snake dance, occur on the last day of a more elaborate ritual observance which originally spanned nine days.
Preceeding the dignified procession of Antelope priests into the dance plaza, the Snakes arrive single file, animated by an aggressive, militant, demeanor. Immediately the Snakes break into units of three dancers, the Carrier, the Hugger, and the Gatherer. In Hopi, the dancers are called either Tsuutsut or Tsutsu'sonam, meaning "rattlesnakes, one who craves." (3) (p.273) The dolls represent the Carrier, who has a snake in his mouth, and the Hugger, who dances behind the Carrier with his arms draped over his shoulders. The Hugger often "calms" the snake by fanning it with a feather wand. The Gatherer picks up the snake after the Carrier drops it, returning it to the ceremonial bower, or Kisi.
Snake dancer dolls first appear at the close of the nineteenth century and become particularly popular during the first three decades of the twentieth. Their importance to the evolving commercial tradition of Hopi art has been largely overlooked. Katsina dolls evolving out of the indigenous wooden plank Tihu retained up until the 1930s a rigid, static, bodily presentation. However the dramatic dance performance of the Tsutsu'sonam dictated a doll of equal vibrancy. The gradual movement of the Hopi carving tradition towards increased anatomical correctness and action poses began with the early sculpting of snake and clown dolls. These fine figures were collected by M.L. Woodward in the late 1950s and were exhibited in their Gallup, New Mexico, art gallery until recently.
Dr. Edwin Wade Museum of Northern Arizona