Cibola 50

This entry is part 49 of 119 in the series Cibola


Shiwanna (2)

The only safe way to dream of the dead
is to dream the dream in common:
to sing it,
chant it,
drum & rattle it,
to dance a reenactment in the plaza.
To bring it under the Word Priest’s purview,
a regular gear in the yearly round
or the wider quadrennial helix.
To perform it with gentle thoughts
for the living as for the dead–all spirits;
for friend & enemy alike–all beings:
chromatic, exact in its parts.
To charm,
to enchant . . .

Chakwena Woman,
builder of the great corral,
cannot be killed.
Her village commands
the pilgrims’ road to the lake
of Old Lady Salt,
two day’s south of Shiwanna:

in the bottom of a wide brown bowl
strange water shimmers,
a mirage that holds its ground
at one’s approach. White as
a cloud that never shrinks
or drifts, whiter than milk.
Two dark cones jut from its surface.

Nothing could be clearer
than that this
there, this immensity
circumscribed by
a natural fence, remain
sacrosanct. Yet
the Chakwena’s people, the Kyanakwe,
enter the Salt with empty hands.
They only take. They keep
others off–or steal the offerings.
Their young men & women pollute
the Grandmother’s skirts with blood,
with spilled seed.

To be continued.

The reinterpretation of Zuni oral history in this section is entirely my own. I have not attempted to describe the actual quadrennial masque in which the war against the Kyanakwe is commemorated. Rather, this section draws upon versions of the stories transcribed by Ruth Bunzel and other outsiders, and is informed by some additional historical and archaeological evidence. Judging by the testimony of explorers contemporaneous with Marcos and Esteban who encountered the fresh ruins of Chakwena Woman’s village, the war may have occurred only a few years before.

In Zuni oral history, the present, remote location of the lake stems from disrespect shown by the people of Zuni/Shiwanna itself, which forced Old Lady Salt (a.k.a. Salt Woman, Grandmother Salt) to relocate farther away. Kyanakwe is charged instead with hoarding wild game (as will be mentioned in tomorrow’s installment). But the two are so close geographically, and salt is of such economic importance, I have a hard time believing that the war wasn’t primarily about control of the salt trade. The story about the unnatural captivity of wild animals may be a later fabrication, based on the presence of extensive walls at Kyanakwe. And given that the remnants of the tribe were absorbed into Shiwanna, it’s not at all impossible that its real “crime” would be remembered as Shiwanna’s own.

Might the figure of Chakwena Woman have been based on, or influenced by, memories of Esteban? Anthropologist Elsie Clews Parkins, in her comparative study on Pueblo Indian Religion (1939), advanced the opposite suggestion: that the reception afforded the historical Esteban was influenced by his coincidental resemblance to Chakwena Woman, which Parsons assumed to be an entirely mythical figure.

For oral societies like Shiwanna, I don’t believe that what we call history and myth can ever be fully disentangled. Like other Pueblo peoples, the Ashiwanna regard their masked dancers as partaking in the reality of the spirit beings (kachina in Hopi, kokko in Zuni) that they depict. And in any case, the “gods” are “present” (given presence, making a present of themselves) in any activity performed in a sacred manner – including warfare.

Zuni Salt Lake is still a site of pilgrimage for many tribes in the region, and the Zuni tribe takes its stewardship responsibilities very seriously. They recently led a successful coalition effort to oppose a plan to mine coal in the near vicinity – a decisive battle in a 20-year war to preserve the Salt.

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