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A Goddess By Any Other Name: Pueblo Feast Days

The Deer Dance is Traditionally Performed in the Autumn

On Monday, the Kawaik people of New Mexico will host a public feast day in honor of Saint Mary Margaret. But in a triumph of the phenomenon known as synchretism, the celebration will also be for someone else, a goddess so beloved and carefully guarded that few outside the tribe are permitted to know her name.

When violent invaders forcibly convert colonized people to a new religion, the old religion is often ingeniously hidden behind the new. This is called synchretism. In pantheistic cultures colonized by Catholics, the old deities find a home behind the faces of its many saints. This happened with the Celts in Ireland, among enslaved Yoruba people in Cuba, and with the indigenous pueblo people of New Mexico, centuries before it became a US state in 1912.

Lotta Atsye, a Kawaik woman, around 1900

Renamed Laguna Pueblo (Lake Town) by Spanish colonists in the 17th century, the Kawaik had thrived in what is now New Mexico for many thousands of years. The Spaniards arrived to find beautiful adobe villages, a sophisticated system of aqueducts and dams (the lake after which the Spanish named them), productive agriculture, a thriving trade network and a complex, spiritual, artistic and matrilineal society that in many ways was more advanced than they were (for instance, the Kawaik understood the importance of bathing and good hygiene whereas the Spanish rarely bathed, and the Kawaik accepted more than two genders as normal.)

The San José Mission Chuch in Laguna

The Spanish were brutal to the indigenous people of this region, killing all who refused to convert, and enslaving most of those who converted. In 1680, the pueblos banded together to banish the Spanish from the region. The Pueblo Revolt is regarded by many, included scholar Sarah Beth Webb, as the first American Revolution.

After 14 years, the Spanish returned, with a greater willingness to accommodate and incorporate indigenous traditions. Historians say the unique architecture and art of New Mexico exists today because the Pueblo Revolt forced Spain to back off a bit.

Today, the Kawaik live in six villages on 500,000 acres at the foot of Mount Taylor, about 45 miles west of Albuquerque. As with the other 18 pueblo nations in our state, they celebrate public feast days, in honor of Catholic saints who centuries ago were made stand-ins for traditional gods and goddesses.

Feast Days have incoporated traditional dances

In her account of two pueblo feasts she witnessed in 1921 (a must-read) Esther S. Goldfrank wrote in great detail of the way pueblo people incorporated iconography of all invaders, including American flags, into their traditional dance. She describes the use of clowns to depict Spanish ("Mexican") colonizers, brandishing whips with great buffoonery.

Interestingly, the pueblos were successful in getting several traditional Catholic feast days moved from one season or month to another. In the case of the feast of Saint Joseph, the official reason for the move was that there was better food to offer him at the new time of year, while the real reason was likely that the deity he replaced was celebrated at the new time. It is clever, when dealing with brutal overlords, to tell them what they need to hear.

So Monday's celebration will honor St. Mary Margaret, a 17th century french nun and mystic whose visions were ignored and laughed at by her superiors during her lifetime. Her visions were only heeded 75 years after her death at the age of 43. She had insisted that Jesus visited her and told her that his followers were to spend an hour each Thursday evening contemplating his Agony in the Garden. The agony was the meditative evening Jesus spent after the last supper, in a garden, praying to God for the strength to endure his impending death at the hands of Rome. That moment feels symbolic of the entire original pueblo way of life, which died at the hands of the Spanish and was resurrected as a synchretic form of itself.

The interior of San Juan Mission Church is a triumph of synchretism

Webb says that while earlier scholars had criticized pueblo synchretism as either caving in to the colonizers or an insincere form of Christianity, newer scholars have taken a more appreciative view. Traditional puebloan spirituality is nuanced, accepting, compassionate, and Christianity was/is seen as just another expression of the fundamental truths of love and kindness with which they were already quite familiar. The pueblo didn't necessarily see it as losing anything to add the good parts of Christianity to their open-minded worldview. It was an addition, not a replacement.

Deb Haaland, Secretary of the US Dept. of the Interior, is Kawaik/Laguna

I should note, Deb Haaland, the current U.S. Secretary of the Dept. of the Interior - the first Native American to hold the position - is Laguna/Kawaik.

I'll close with a quote from St. Mary Margaret herself, that feels apropos to me:

And He [Christ] showed me that it was His great desire of being loved by men and of withdrawing them from the path of ruin that made Him want to manifest His Heart to men, with all the treasures of love, of mercy, of grace, of sanctification and salvation which it contains, in order that those who desire to render Him and procure Him all the honor and love possible might themselves be abundantly enriched with those divine treasures of which His heart is the source.

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