In the beginning, the spirit dancers
came in person, they say.
In Shiwanna they still remember
how dangerous that was, the way
the women were always going crazy
for their devilishly good looks
& exotic costumes,
their power objects,
their dances, & every year
a few more would follow them
back to their homes under the waters
& drown. Until finally
the elders got fed up & told them–
these ancestors, these
not to come back except
as masks, as human dancers, & then
only at the proper times.
But one day in early March 1539
Marcos de Niza & Esteban de Dorantes
set out from Petetlán on the Río Fuerte
where they leave Marcos’ only
white companion–a lay brother
known as Honoratio–
to convalesce from a sudden
They explore northward along the coast
for the new viceroy
whose order of manumission
& a halt to slaving goes with them
like a parchment flag.
Since they left San Miguel de Culiacán
they’ve passed through a famished land.
In the river valleys the fields sprout weeds,
the irrigation ditches are blocked
with debris, the ghost towns only now
echoing with voices once again
as the news of their arrival spreads.
Armies & epidemics have rendered
some valleys in this northern cusp
of the Spanish realm uninhabitable,
so overpowering is the stench
of rotting flesh. From their brush-
walled huts in the hills, eyes bulging
in hunger-shrunk heads, the survivors
emerge. One last time
they assume their role in the game
of guest-&-host. Strangers, like all
dangerous beings, must be fed.
Petetlán on the Río Fuerte: My primary guide to the route and details of the Marcos/Esteban decubrimiento is the historical anthropologist Daniel T. Reff’s revisionist paper “Anthropological Analysis of Exploration Texts: Cultural Discourse and the Ethnological Import of Fray Marcos de Niza’s Journey to Cibola,” American Anthropologist 93:636-55 (1991). See also his book of the same year, Disease, Depopulation, and Culture Change in Northwestern New Spain, 1518-1764 (University of Utah Press).