While in their kivas at Shiwanna
the medicine priests preserve
their most arcane chants
in a foreign language, songs
attributed to the ancient Founder
of the healing arts: a gambler,
a vagabond chased from town to town
by stone-throwing children,
disappearing at last into the invisible
realm of the spirit animals
in the mountains to the east:
Shipapulima, city of mists.
And the friar Marcos–by all accounts
a man with a wretched ear–
commissioned to search out
the Seven Cities, hears
in answer to his obsessive query
as he forges northeastward from
the Gulf of California: Cíbola.
A place of great riches, a fabled city
somehow linked to sevenfold
a site of pilgrimage for Indians
many leagues to the south,
who join his mission in droves:
the act of traversing the land
helps keep it young.
Toss cornmeal out before you,
straight, like every holy intention.
Smoke tobacco so prayers will have
their own road. Follow the sacred
transect running north.
Power is like water:
it flows where you want
only if you make a proper channel.
It has its own ideas.
Plant your prayer sticks
wherever you want it to slow,
wherever you want its fertile blessings
to sink into the parched earth.
* * * *
chants in a foreign language: Keresan, the language spoken by Zuni’s nearest neighbors to the east, in Acoma and Luguna Pueblos. The Gambler story seems to originate there, as well, and some historical anthropologists see it as a mythologized account of the rise and fall of the Anasazi culture centered in Chaco Canyon, not far to the northeast of Zuni.
mountains to the east: The Sandia mountains, a low, southern extension of the Sangre de Christos, where members of medicine societies are reincarnated as animals of the same species as the tutelary spirit of their society. This is one of several afterlife destinations of Zunis, reflecting perhaps their tribe’s origin as a melting pot of several different cultures. Rain Priests and Bow Priests are reborn as anthropomorphic spirits in the sacred lake of the ancestors, to the west.
Cíbola: The word first appears in Marcos’ account of his and Esteban’s 1539 journey, and in the writings of contemporaries after Marcos’ return to Mexico City. The suggestion that it might derive from Shipapu(lima), instead of – or in confusion with – Shiwanna, is entirely my own guess. Subsequent explorers, beginning with the conquistator Coronado the following year, applied the name Cíbola to the Zuni confederation, whether or not that was in fact what Marcos thought he “discovered.”
plant your prayer sticks: The homology between prayer sticks (basically, effigies for the petitioner) and the sticks used to channel flash floods in desert farming is, again, something I came up with on my own. I could be mistaken.