Snake Dance of the Moquis, Walpi, Arizona

Snake Dance of the Moqui Pueblo Indians

The most famous dance of the American Indians is the snake dance of the Moquis.

The details of the Moquis snake dance vary from year to year, because, while it is transmitted orally from tradition, much depends upon the imagination of the priests in charge. The old men with the Indians are the keepers of the mysteries and directors of ceremonies, and so, while certain essentials are never departed from, such as the fasting by the dancers, the race from the spring, the preparation of the antidote or decoction for snake bites; and the snakes, the dance itself is conducted according to the whims of the veteran leader. The snake estufa at Walpi is hewn out of the solid sandstone of the mesa and covered with logs, brush, and dirt. There is a ladder in it, but there are no benches around it.

Special Agent Scoot’s Report on the Moqui Snake Dance

Snake Dance of the Moquis, Walpi, Arizona
Snake Dance of the Moquis, Walpi, Arizona

Irrigation or rain is what the Moqui country most needs. There is water, but it is so scarce and so difficult to obtain that the Moquis are obliged to go long distances for it, and so it becomes almost a luxury.

The snake dance of the Moqui Indians is to propitiate the water god or snake deity, whose name is. Ba-ho-la-con-gua, and to invoke his aid in securing more water, that their fields may he made productive. It is an exhibition of religious zeal and remarkable for its quick changes. Its chorus chants are weird incantations, thrilling and exciting both spectators and celebrants.



The religious ceremonies prior to the public exhibitions of the dance occupy 8 days; they are held in the snake keva, or estufa, and are of a secret nature, although a few white men have been permitted to witness them. The dance is the closing scene of these long secret invocations, and its performance occupies but a short time, not more, than 35 or 40 minutes.

The day preceding the snake dance the antelope order holds a dance, in which the snake order participates (the snakes are left out). The antelope order, which ranks next to that of the snake order, assists in the snake dance. The day before these singular final ceremonies the men of the antelope order prepare ninny little prayer sticks called ba-hoos (the ba-hoo is a small stick, to which, at one end, are attached one or more small, light feathers, and symbolizes a prayer), which they give to the men of the snake order, who, on the morning of their dance, go out from the pueblo and distribute them at all the springs. When these prayer sticks have been placed at the different springs or water holes the men race back to the keva at Walpi, on the mesa where the snake dance is to be held. The principal race is from Weepo (onion springs), at the north of Walpi, some 4 wiles, down through the desert to the south end of the mesa, then up the difficult trails into the pueblo. In this running great endurance is exhibited, for the men have fasted for 4 days previous, partaking of nothing but a decoction prepared by the chief priest or priestess of the order as an antidote for the rattlesnake bite in case any may be bitten during the ceremonies. This antidote is known only to the chief priest and the priestess, and the secret is only imparted to their successors when they are obliged by age and infirmity to relinquish the functions of their office. The snake dance, which is the conclusion of the 8 days ceremony before mentioned, takes place at Walpi every 2 years, in the middle of August, late in the afternoon. The day is appointed by the chief priest. This year (1891) the dance occurred on August 21, about 5 o’clock p. m., and lasted only 35 minutes. The men of the snake order, of course, were in the estufa in training for the 4 days before the dance.

For the ceremonies of the snake dance the pueblo is thoroughly cleaned, and quantities of melons, peaches, and other eatables are placed about in &las and dishes. Piki, or corn bread, of many colors, is plentiful and the evidences of a feast are on every hand. These people, although poor, remain hospitable; all visitors are welcome to eat. The number of visitors increases yearly, however.

Tom Polaki, Walpi, Arizona, 1890
Tom Polaki, Walpi, Arizona, 1890

On the afternoon of the dance, and long before the appearance of the actors, the Indians gathered on the housetops of the pueblo of Walpi, which overlook the court and sacred rock, all gaily dressed in bright colored blankets, ribbons, and feathers. Some young. Indians climbed to the top of the sacred rock with the aid of a lariat, from which a better view could be had. Cowboys, with strong Saxon faces, and other visitors from the settlement is were there in small numbers. The Indians gather from all the other pueblos of the Moqui group and a few from Acoma, Laguna, and Zañi. Altogether there must have been 500 people present, including the Navajos and whites, and General A. McD. McCook, commanding the district of Arizona, and staff; also Dr. Washington Matthews, the eminent ethnologist, and Special Agent John Donaldson.

There was a murmur of expectancy, when all looked toward the southern part of the inclosare and saw emerging through the narrow street the men of the antelope order dressed in short white cotton kilts, or skirts, with flowing sashes of the same material, all embroidered with curious designs in red, yellow, and green, the hair, worn loose, flowing down the back, with tufts of feathers, selected from the eagle’s breast, tied at the top of their heads, from which tufts, falling down over their raven hair, were two tail feathers of the eagle; earrings, bracelets, and strings of beads, worn according to fancy, and heavily fringed moccasins and anklets completed the

a Peter Moran, in company with Captain John G. Bourke, saw the snake dance at Walpi in August, 1883, and his notes differ materially from the account given by Special Agent Scott of the more recent dance. The accounts of the dance of 1883 by Mr. Moran and Captain Bourke (see “Moqui Snake Dance”, by John G. Bourke) agree.

costume, while their faces were grotesquely painted in white, yellow, green, and black, resembling much their wooden gods in the disposition of the colors. The general arrangement was picturesque.

There were 17 men of the antelope order who assisted those of the snake order in their dance. The snake order numbered 37, a majority of whom were young men, a few were quite old, and 3 were boys recently initiated, the youngest not more than 5 years of age. The antelope order was headed by an important looking personage dressed different from the rest. He was the principal priest of his order, and in addition to the white cotton ceremonial kilt and girdle, feathers, fringed moccasins, and beads, he wore a coil of blue yarn over the right shoulder clown to the left hip, a garland of cottonwood branches in leaf around his head and a similar one about the loins, and anklets and armlets of the same. He carried a bowl of sacred water in his left hand; in his right hand he held three eagle feathers, which be used in sprinkling the water over the space about the sacred rock where the dancers were to hold their unusual ceremony; he paid particular attention to the bosky (bosque) where the snakes had been placed. A man of the antelope order brought the snakes from the snake estufa in a gunny sack and placed them in the bosky about 15 minutes before the dance began; they were sprinkled with sacred meal by the priest before leaving the estufa. The snakes had been in the estufa for 3 or 4 days. The Indians catch the snakes by going into the desert, beginning about a week before the dance, in parties of two, who carry a bag of leather or cloth; one of the men carries a bag of sacred meal and one of them a ba-hoo. The rattlesnake and other snakes crawl into the “chill-sill-ghizze” bush, known as the “hiding bush” by the Navajos.

One man sprinkled meal on the snake, the other attracted its attention by tickling it with the ba-hoo, while the first grabbed it by the neck and-dropped it into the bag. The men sometimes catch the snakes while moving, but they believe that they must first sprinkle the snakes with meal. The catching party on its return to the pueblo puts the snakes in the estufa to wait for the day of the dance.

Some 20 or 30 feet from the sacred rock, north, and a little in front of the houses, the snake bosky is built. It is a low, stone inclosure, covered with long cottonwood boughs, standing upright, shaped like a Sibley tent, say 8 feet, and fastened together where the branches begin, leaving the branches free, with a cotton cloth about it. The antelope men came in single file, passing along the edge of the mesa, turning to the left and back in front of the snake bosky, then around the sacred rock, continuing to follow the ellipse they had described until they had passed the bosky several times, moving in a quickstep. They halted in front of the bosky and faced toward it; their priest advanced, made an invocation, and threw sacred meal in over the bag containing the snakes. He had the meal on a large black plaque of straw. It was a ” gate open” plaque. The men then sang a low chant that was like the moaning of the wind before a storm; all the time an accompaniment of rattles, with which the men were provided, was kept up, producing a pattering sound like that of falling rain. This peculiar muffled sound was obtained by using the rattles, which are made of cottonwood, round and flat, instead of the gourd, which is pear-shaped.

At the conclusion of the chant the snake order made its appearance front the estufa, like their brothers of the antelope order, in single file, preceded by a stalwart leader, who carried a bow and a quiver filled with arrows, His hair and that of his followers fell loosely down the back, the front being banged just above the eyes. This leader also carried a buzz, or stick, attached to a string, which he would twirl through the air, making a noise like distant thunder. On the tops of their heads the men wore tufts of brown feathers. Their kilts were buckskin, dyed a brownish color, streaked with designs in black and white, and resembling a snake. Their moccasins were brown, and the general tone of their entire decorations was brown, which made all the more distinct the zigzag lines of white on their arms and bodies, which represented lightning. The forehead and lower legs were painted a pinkish color, their chins white, their upper lips and faces from the bottom of the nose to the ears black, and each wore a bandolier, or leather strap, over the right shoulder and down over the left hip. Attached at intervals, to the lower part of this armament were numerous brown clay balls, tied to a baud just above the calf of the leg; each one wore a rattle made of a turtle shell and sheep toes. As they came upon the scene, beyond the sacred rock, the antelope order faced about. The snake order made the circuit of the open space between the houses and the east side of the mesa three times before halting, then faced toward the snake bosky in front of which is a deep hole, said to lead down to the “under world”; it is covered with a, very thick plank, upon which each of the performers stamped with great force as they tiled over it. A belief exists among them that whoever breaks this cover by so stamping upon it during a ceremony will succeed to a grand fortune of some kind.

After the three circuits had been made they took position in line facing the snake bosky, on the two flanks of which stood their brothers of the -antelope order, who joined them in a weird song, the time being kept by the shake men taking a half step backward with the right foot, bringing the heel down with a quick movement, which caused the turtle shells and sheep toes to give, in their combined rattle, a noise not unlike the warning of the rattlesnake. This movement is measured and effective. As soon as the song was through the snake men again made the circuit of the small space between the houses and the east edge of the mesa, going around the sacred rock from left to right, near which stood a number of maidens arrayed in ceremonial dresses, who carried bowls of sacred water, with which they sprinkled the dancers as they passed, using the eagle feathers in the manner of the priests of the antelopes.

Now the thrilling part of the performance or ceremony begun. As the men returned by the same circuitous line and reached the space in front of the snake bosky, the bag having been opened and the snakes bountifully sprinkled with sacred meal by the priest, each dancer, as he came up, was handed a snake by the priest; the dancer then, after placing in his mouth a quantity of blue clay, which he carried in his left hand for the purpose, as a bed for the snake, placed the snake between his tenth, the head always toward the right shoulder and about 4 inches from the corner of his mouth.

Pe-Tsci, native of Sichumnavi, first mesa, Arizona, 1890
Pe-Tsci, native of Sichumnavi, first mesa, Arizona, 1890

There were 100 snakes in all, many of them rattlesnakes, but there were bull snakes, racers, and others 1 , in size from h inches to 4 feet long, and they squirmed actively, doing their best to get away. As soon as the snakes were in the dancer’s mouth he would be joined by an attendant from the antelope order, who placed himself upon the right of his brother, the right arm of the latter and the left arm of the former about each other’s backs. The antelope attendants carried in their right hands large ba-boos (prayer sticks), with which, the feathers waving backward and forward, they kept the snakes busy and, watching their movements, prevented them from striking. In the above manner, by twos, they continued the strange march, going round and round the sacred rock, from left to right, receiving baptisms of sacred water and meal from the maidens as they passed them. This they did six or seven times. The snake dancers threw their heads back and kept them as high as they could.

Now and then a snake got loose and fell upon the ground and began to glide away or coil to strike, but the attendant was ever watchful and never failed to so attract the snake’s attention with the ba-boos as to enable the dancer to pick it up and replace it in his mouth. The dancer was always careful to seize the snake just back of the head.

Each dancer kept the first snake handed to him. If it was a small one, the next time around he would obtain another small one, and thus have 2 in his mouth, and one man I saw with 3 long, slender snakes. Another man had but 1 small snake, which was entirely in the, mouth except the head, neck, and just enough of the body to resemble a twisted cigar. Sometimes a dancer carried 1 or 2 snakes in his hands while he danced.

The incessant shaking of the rattles in the hands of the men was done apparently to attract the attention of
the snakes and confuse them.

Near the conclusion of the ceremony one of the priests made a large circle on the ground in the plaza, or square, and when completed the dancers, as they passed it, deposited the snakes within its borders, where they were permitted to remain for a short time. It can be easily imagined that the mass of writhing snakes thus suddenly released and piled together made rather a hideous and forbidding spectacle, but not more so than when they were Making vain endeavors to release themselves from the dancers jaws; still, all this is not more repulsive than the performances given by so-called snake charmers, women particularly, who travel with shows and exhibit in museums in civilized life.

At a signal a rush was made, and the actors in this strange drama, men of the snake order, grabbed the snakes with quick and dexterous movements, some with 2 and 3 in each hand holding them aloft, and in the “twinkling of an eye” they disappeared from the mesa, going north, south, east, and west; once in the desert their strange companions were freed.

From the time of departure with the snakes to the desert and return of the men the space seemed incredibly short. Some of the spectators attempted to follow them, but were obliged to desist owing to the precipitous descent and danger attending it. I followed out to the south end of the mesa only to find that the snake men had already reached the desert; some of them were on their return. As they came up over the top and were entering the pueblo I took several kodak shots at them as they passed me. When they had all gotten back they quickly removed their dancing costumes and donned the modern trousers, waistcoats, and hats. From fierce-looking savages they were transformed into meek and gentle-looking Moquis, and among them I recognized my old friend Adam, who had been interpreter at the school in Kearns Canyon, whose kindly disposition is well known. A laughable scene followed the dance. As is their custom, all of the snake order, who had fasted for 4 days, partaking of nothing but a liquid prepared for them by the’ snake priest, to whom and the snake priestess only the decoction is known, assembled at a point just beyond the snake keva, where each drank of a liquid which produced violent vomiting. This final act closed the ceremonies.

They handled the snakes with great care so as not to hurt them and religiously returned them to their natural haunts when the dance was over, refusing many offers of money for some of the specimens; offers which would have tempted some so-called civilized people.

During the entire time, from the moment the snakes were taken out of the bosky until they were thrown into the mass or pile on the ground within the ring of meal made by the priest, all was intense action. The participants and the attendants never for one moment let the interest relax, but drove everything on with force. The celerity of the proceedings evidently kept the snakes muddled. The snakes were not, to my knowledge, doctored for the occasion.

During the dance 2 of the snake order were struck by rattlesnakes, one in the nose, the other in the upper portion of the arm. They drew back for a moment but continued the dance, and no ill effects were afterward noticed from the bites, The man struck in the nose had some difficulty in getting the snake off, and only did so with his attendant’s assistance.

The, snake order is spreading among the Moquis. Their chief religious ceremonies have been confined to Walpi for untold time. Now branches of the order have been established at Oraibi, Shimopavi, and, I believe, in Shipaulavi. The ceremonies occur here every 2 years. Next year it will take place at Oraibi, 2 years from now again at Walpi and Shimopavi. The day for its celebration is selected by the chief priest, and the date of its occurrence is approximately established by watching the sun’s declination toward the south. They note the shadows that fall in the crevice of a rock, and in the same way reckon the day for their Christmas dance, the occasion for a dance to their sun god, which is about December 22.

The Moquis have been told that the government intends to stop the snake dance, and they say that it will be a great wrong, since it is a part of their religion, and they feel that then’ rights will thus be taken from them by denying them the privilege of worshiping after the manner of their fathers, which is not denied the white people of the country. This snake dance is a religious ceremony and most solemnly conducted.

Antidote For Snake Bites.-The liquid which the members of the snake order drink during the 4 final days of the ceremony is an antidote to the poisonous effect of the rattlesnake bite, and I have been assured that it never fails. I saw a Moqui who had been bitten while in the fields who did not get the aid of the snake priest for an hour later, but who recovered, although his arm was greatly swollen before he received the antidote. He was unable to do much for several days.

Mr. Scott wrote farther as to the kind of snakes which bit the men at the dance:

There was no apparent swelling of the nose or of the arm of the 2 men bitten at the snake dance. I saw them after the dance, during the vomiting act, which was laughable, and I could not observe any effects there from, except the small incisions made by the snakes fangs. I know of no dogs having been bitten at the dance of August 21, 1891, by one of the snakes, but I have heard of a dog that was stuck by a rattler at one of the dances, and that the dog died. This is hearsay, but I believe the story.

Special Agent Peter Moran, who witnessed a snake dance at Walpi in August 1883, wrote of the snakes used in the dance and the antidote for their bites, as follows:

During the dance, between 4 and 5 p. m., a rattlesnake struck one of the dancers ou the right ear and held on. The antelope man became frightened and ran away. The dancer, becoming angry, grabbed the snake, which was a large one, tore it from his ear, and threw it on the ground, but the bitten ear did not swell. The snake, thus released, coiled and struck at a Navajo, who was standing near the edge of the mesa, which so frightened the man that he drew back and ran off, and the snake bounded back of the sacred rock and got among sonic Indian women, who were mortally afraid and ran away in fright, then he escaped. If the snake had been doctored, and was not venomous, they would not have been afraid of it.

We went again, the day of the dance, in the afternoon from 1 to 4, to the estufa where the snakes were kept. We, found that the altar had been destroyed and in its place, on the spot, was a bowl containing a medicine or decoction which Bourke uncovered and tasted. This was the snake antidote. Of this Captain Bourke writes: “I lifted the cloth mid found the basin or platter to be one of the ordinary red ware. It was filled with water. “The water had a slightly saline taste and evidently contained medicine “.

Captain Bourke, in 1883, wrote of the antidote and the estufa ceremony with the snakes prior to the dance as follows:

Tho head medicine men alone knew the secrets of this ceremony, the means to be taken to keep the reptiles from biting, and remedies to be applied in case bites should be received.

The decoction, or antidote, is kept on hand at all times by the snake priest, and is not only administered to the dancers at the snake dance, but to all requiring it.

Mr. Moran wrote of the snakes used in the dance of 1883 that he was “convinced that the snakes were not doctored, neither was their poison exhausted by letting them strike a board or other object”.

Captain Bourke, August 12, 1883, wrote:

Our mules (the day of the snake dance) were brought up from the plains very soon after daybreak. Nobody in the pueblos could be hired for love or money to take care of them during the dance, and, as a measure of prudence, they should not be exposed to the risk of bites from the venomous reptiles which. the Moquis might release after the ceremony and allow to wander unchecked over the country, The chances were largely in favor of their being bitten, and I was not willing to incur any such responsibility.Citations:

  1. In 1883 there were believed to be 14 kinds of snakes used in the dance. Captain Bourke gives the chief ones: 1, chú-a (rattler); 2, le-lu-can-ga (this has yellow and black spots, and may be the hull snake); 3, tá-ho (runs very fast; may be the racer); 4, pa-chu-a (a water snake); 5, tegua.chi-gui. Of all these the rattler would be the most numerous.[]

Dance, Moqui,

Department of the Interior. Report on Indians Taxed and Indians not Taxed in the United States, Except Alaska at the Eleventh Census: 1890. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1894.

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