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The Myth of the Rain Dance

Native Skeptic

Noah Nez

Volume 23.1, Spring 2013

There are many myths and misconceptions found in every culture around the world. Some are more fanciful and colorful than others. There are stories concerning life’s more serious issues and of course there are those that are humorous. Every once in a while I come across a particular notion that is surprisingly foreign to my personal understanding of Native American beliefs. But, for the most part, it is the myths and legends that get sensationalized by popular culture that are most prevalent in my own experience. One such example came to my attention from a comment left on the blog Newspaper Rock, which inquired into what I thought about the following situation involving one of the worst droughts in decades, some comments from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and the subject of the “rain dance.” The article that initially brought my attention to this topic was actually written in response to another story by Lisa Miller, “Praying for Rain: Atheists Show How Petty and Small-Minded They’ve Become,” featured in the Washington Post. The situation stems from a White House briefing where Vilsack alerted people to the possibility of price gouging as a result of the drought. He would go on to make the following statements that not only reveal the desperation from the severity of the situation, but also the general misconception of what the rain dance is and what it represents, “I get on my knees every day and I’m saying an extra prayer right now. If I had a rain prayer or rain dance, I would do it” (Knox 2012). As I began to look into the situation, it became apparent that it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of Native American religion.

Miller is the former senior writer at the Wall Street Journal, senior editor at News­week, and she oversees the coverage of religion by writing the regular column, “Belief Watch.” In her article, Miller responds with the following statement, “These days, it seems, atheists are petty and small-minded ideologues who regard every expression of public religiosity as a personal affront—not to mention a possible violation of the First Amendment and a sign of rampant idiocy among their fellow citizens” (Miller 2012). She would then go on to state that, “. . . such atheist hysteria reached a peak when Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, publicly overreacted to remarks made at a news conference by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack” (Miller 2012). It seemed that while much of the attention focused in on the constitutionality of Vilsack’s comments, there were no concerns or thoughts about how the rain dance and Native American beliefs were being portrayed. Miller makes the claim in her article that, “Rain prayers are especially potent among desert dwellers; in the arid South­west, native Americans have for thousands of years made prayers, song and dances for rain, and they continue to do so today” (Miller 2012). This may be true, but it does not support the way Tom Vilsack used the term. While there are rituals and ceremonies dedicated to “welcoming” and “celebrating” the rain, this does not imply that the dances themselves bring, or cause, the rain.

In the Newspaper Rock blog post “Athe­ists Criticize Rain-Dance Wish,” Rob Schmidt makes the remark, “I’ve never heard of the ‘Rain Magic Song.’ I doubt the 21 Pueblo tribes in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas have that or any other rain related song or dance in common” (Schmidt 2012). He then goes on to reference and bring in another blogger to this discussion, Johnny P. Flynn, a Potawatomi Indian and faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University–Purdue Uni­versity Indianapolis. Flynn deals with these types of topics quite often and denies that any tribe dances to cause rain. Religion Dispatches features the special guest blog post from Flynn, “I Know Why a Rain Dance Won’t End The Drought,” where he makes the following personal statement, “As an American Indian all my life I have been cursed with the myth of the ‘Indian rain dance.’ I am here to say there is no such thing. Not in my Potawatomi tribe or in any other tribe across the Americas” (Flynn 2012). He goes on to tell a story from his own family about the ritual of splitting a tree with an axe to redirect, or split, an incoming storm. Flynn states that, “Every summer the Hopi hold late summer dances—but not to bring the rain. Like the ax in the tree, the rain is coming or not regardless of the ax or the dance. The dances are held to welcome the rain” (Flynn 2012).

This seems to correlate with the findings from texts that documented such dances.

For instance, the collection titled Amer­ican Indian Dances: Steps, Rhythms, Costumes, and Interpretation mentions the importance of rain to the agriculture and Puebloan people living in this part of the United States:

The Indians of the arid Southwest were dependent upon corn for their main supply of food. In the spring they planted their corn in hills or small bunches and dependent upon rain to come and make it grow. They realized how important rain was to their survival so they danced to inform the kachinas or gods that the corn was planted and needed the life-giving rain. (Squires and McLean 1970)

However, it is clear from Vilsack’s and Miller’s statements that these dances are not going to be fully understood until some context is provided.

The book The Hopi Snake Dance is compiled with collected letters from David Herbert Lawrence describing one of these dances. As people in the United States began traveling more into the southwest, stories of strange dances with snakes began gathering attention. Lawrence writes in the book’s foreword that, “Surprisingly the first published description of the Snake Dance did not appear until 1879 when William Mateer’s account was published in a New York newspaper, The Long Islander” (Lawrence [1885–1930] 1980). It begins with his earliest re­port as it initially appeared in the December 1924 issue of Theater Arts Monthly. In this account, he provides a background that helps explain much of the fascination surrounding one of these dances.

From 1880 to 1920, the Hopi Snake and Antelope ceremony, popularly known as the Snake dance, was far and away the most widely depicted Southwest Native Amer­ican ritual. Usually performed in August to ensure abundant rainfall for the corn crops, it was only one ritual in the round of ceremonies that Hopi’s enacted throughout the year, but because it involved the handling of live snakes, it was the ceremony most often described by non-Indian observers. (Lawrence [1885–1930] 1980)

The Hopi tribes of American Indian people are located in the northeastern region of Arizona. It is their belief that things like the sun, rain, sunshine, and thunder are alive, just not as anthropomorphic beings. While they are said to be alive and manifest through activity, they are not considered to be personal gods. Lawrence uses the term “animistic” to differentiate the Native American religion of spirits, from the other religions describing a single spirit. He gives one explanation to some of the meanings behind the term animism and the Snake Dance:

. . . in the religion of aboriginal America, there is no Father, and no Maker. There is a great source of life: say the Sun of existence: to which you can no more pray than you can pray to Electricity. And emerging from this Sun are the great potencies, the invisible influences which make shine and warmth and rain. From these great interrelated potencies of the rain and heat and thunder emerge the seeds of life itself, corn, and creatures like snakes. (Lawrence [1885–1930] 1980)

Lawrence also goes on to define these “potencies” mentioned and provides more detail into the religious perspective of the Hopi in the following excerpt,

The Potencies are not Gods. They are Dragons. The Sun of Creation itself is a dragon most terrible, vast, and most powerful, yet even so, less in being than we. The only gods on earth are men. For gods, like man, do not exist beforehand. They are created and evolved gradually, with aeons of effort, out of the fire and smelting of life. They are the highest thing created, smelted between the furnaces of the Life-Sun, and beaten on the anvil of the rain, with hammers of thunder and bellows of rushing wind. The cosmos is a great furnace, a dragon’s den, where the heroes and demi-gods, men, forge themselves into being. It is a vast and violent matrix, where souls form like diamonds in earth, under extreme pressure. (Lawrence [1885–1930] 1980)

According to the preface of the book Indian Dances of North America: Their Importance to Indian Life, Reginald and Gladys Laubin were given their own Indian names after being adopted by the “fighting nephew” of Sitting Bull named Chief One Bull. They recorded the events featured in the volume from their own personal observations and experiences living with Native American people. The foreword was provided by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and Sioux-Mohawk tribal member Louis R. Bruce. The Laubins’ work provides a perspective that rarely gets reflected or documented in the recording of these religious ceremonies. Not only does the book depict the mechanics of the dancing, but it also includes the parts of American Indian life that often do not get mentioned or simply go unnoticed. One of the dances covered in their text is the Hopi Snake Dance. Similar to the time from D.H. Lawrence’s account, the Laubins state in their work that, “Ethnographers began publishing accounts of the Snake dance in both the popular press and museum monographs in the 1880’s.” But, they also make the argument that,

The beginnings of the Snake Dance doubtless trace back to the snake cults of Mexico and Central America. It is certain that many Pueblo tribes had similar dances at one time. The Spaniards apparently never saw the Snake Dance, or they surely would have reported it. But rumors about it began to be heard in the middle 1800’s, usually to be classed as tall tales of the early visitors to the Hopi country. (Laubin and Laubin 1989)

It would become clear to the Laubins that the outsiders’ perspective had quickly overshadowed any relevance the dances had to the Hopis worldview. They also describe this clash between perspectives another way, “The Snake dance—the event itself as well as the burgeoning representations of it—became a spectacle that defined and displayed the cultural differences between the ‘primitive’ Hopis and the ‘civilized’ Amer­icans” (Laubin and Laubin 1989).

As word about the dance spread throughout the country, even people such as President Theodore Roosevelt began to catch wind of the mythical ceremony. The Laubins’ depiction states that,

The ceremony also became a major tourist attraction; thousands of people, including many celebrities and luminaries, de­scended on the Hopi mesas every year, and detailed accounts of the ritual appeared in travel narratives, guidebooks, and railroad promotional pamphlets. (Laubin and Laubin 1989)

All of this attention quickly brought up the prospect of capitalizing on the dance. The Laubins’ documentation would show some of the concerns that they also shared from the sudden growth of popularity.

The Hopis seemed good candidates for civilization. They were “peaceful”, lived in houses, practiced agriculture, and crafted objects of beauty and utility. However, the process of civilizing the Hopis apparently would involve the “loss” of their culture. As they became more civilized, more like white Americans, they would give up their Hopi ways. Ethnographers, therefore, went to the Hopi mesas to salvage what they could of Hopi culture before it disappeared, and they believed their data would help show how the Hopis could be incorporated into the nation. (Laubin and Laubin 1989)

Eventually, the tribes that held these ceremonies felt the public was taking advantage of the privilege and took it away from them. The concerns of the Hopi people get mentioned in the following from the Laubins’ book:

Caught in a flurry of ethnographic, artistic, literary, and touristic interest in the Snake dance, Hopis quickly discovered the proliferation of representations was just as threatening to their cultural practices as government schools, land allotment, and missionaries. By the early 1920s they had forbidden sketching and taking photographs of the ceremony, and eventually they closed it to outsiders altogether. (Laubin and Laubin 1989)

Perhaps closing the ceremony off from the public contributed to the survival of this cultural aspect from the Hopi people on reservations today.

Even though many of these misconceptions surrounding the Snake Dance are still alive, not all is lost because some of the legends behind them are still around as well, such as the tale of the Hopi Boy and the Sun. Like some other southwestern tribes, the Hopi people believe they originated in the Underworld and that snakes are actually their relatives. There is a version of a tale that surrounds a poor Hopi boy living with his grandmother who goes on a journey to discover his father, which people believe has changed over time and through many retellings over the generations due to certain aspects found within the story that were thought to be foreign to the Pueblo people until after the Spaniards arrived. This Hopi account of the sun was recorded and related by a Zuni elder in 1920. Along the young boy’s journey, he comes across many colorful characters that show up embodied as some form of nature such as the sun, corn, wheat, birds, and rattlesnakes. Early on in the story, the Hopi boy gets into quite a predicament after getting trapped inside a box that he had built to travel downstream and meets a rattle-snake girl: “So the girl broke the door, and when the Hopi boy came out, she took him to her house. Inside he saw many people—young and old, men and women—and they were all rattlesnakes” (Boas [1920] 1984). Later in the story, the boy learns that the sun is his father and they go off into another world making it safe for the people living there under attack from other marauding groups. At the end of their journey making the world safe for the people, the Hopi boy and rattlesnake girl make their return home. Along the way, rattlesnake girl asks to make a stop by her house.

They entered the house, and she told her relatives that the Hopi boy was her husband. Then they resumed their journey. That evening they arrived in the Hopi village. The boy made straight for his grandmother’s house, but an old chief said, “Look at the handsome man going into that poor home!” he invited the boy into his own house, but the boy replied, “No, I’m going here.” The war chief said, “We don’t want you in that dirty house.”

“The house is mine,” the boy replied, “so tell your people to clean it up. When all of you treated me badly, I went up to the sun and he helped me.”

On the following evening the boy appeared before a village council and told all that had happened to him. “You must teach people how to act rightly. The sun says that you should forbid all bad actions.” The people accepted his words, and everyone worked hard at cleaning his house. In return the boy gave peaches, melons, and wafer bread to the poor. Every evening after sunset the women would come with their dishes, and he would offer them venison stew and peaches. He said to the chief, “I teach the people the right way to live. Even if you are my enemy, I must show you how to behave well.”

Twin children, a boy and a girl, were born to his wife. They had the shape of rattlesnakes, but they were also humans. (Boas [1920] 1984)

It seems Rob Schmidt might have provided the most reasonable and accurate depictions by simply posing the following questions, “Are these actions to beckon a particular rainstorm? To ask the gods to continue to deliver rain as they have in the past? To welcome the rain? Or . . .? These purposes are similar, but they aren’t quite the same thing” (Schmidt 2012). What does seem to correlate with the evidence and provides the most likely explanation for the significance of the rain dance comes from Reginald and Gladys Laubin’s accounts when they state, “The idea of dancing for power, to signify unity of purpose, to establish harmony with all creation, is not strange to Indians all over the country” (Laubin and Laubin 1989). Perhaps, in the end it was D.H. Lawrence who provided the most insight into the underlying aspects to this fundamental misunderstanding while recording his own experience of personally witnessing the Hopi Snake Dance: “We say they look wild. But they have the remoteness of their religion, their animistic vision, in their eyes, they can’t see as we see. And they cannot accept us. They stare at us as the coyotes stare at us: the gulf of mutual negation between us” (Boas [1920] 1984).


References

Boas, Franz. (1920) 1984. The Hopi Boy and the Sun. In American Indian Myths and Legends, selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, (New York: Pantheon):145–150.

Flynn, Johnny P. 2012. I know why a rain dance won’t end the drought (blog post). Religion Dispatches (July 22). Online at http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/guest_bloggers/6206/i_know_why_a_rain_dance_won%27t_end_the_drought/.

Knox, Oliver. 2012. Ag Sec Vilsack wishes for ‘rain prayer’ to combat painful drought. Yahoo! News (July 18). Online at http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/ag-sec-vilsack-wishes-rain-prayer-combat-painful-191255266.html.

Laubin, Reginald, and Gladys Laubin. 1989. Indian Dances of North America: Their Importance to Indian Life (Civilization of the American Indian Series). University of Oklahoma Press: 418–423.

Law­­rence, David H. (1885–1930) 1980. The Hopi Snake Dance. Peccary Press.

Miller, Lisa. 2012. Praying for rain: Atheists show how petty and small-minded they’ve become. Washington Post (July 26). Online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/praying-for-rain-atheist-critics-show-how-petty-and-small-minded-theyve-become/2012/07/26/gJQAB9BeBX_story.html.

Schmidt, Rob. 2012. Atheist criticize rain-dance wish (blog post). Newspaper Rock (July 26). Online at http://newspaperrock.bluecorncomics.com/2012/07/atheists-criticize-rain-dance-wish.html.

Squires, John L., and Robert E. McLean. 1970. Amer­ican Indian Dances: Steps, Rhythms, Costumes, and Inter­pretation. New York: The Ronald Press Company.

Noah Nez

Noah Nez's photo

Noah Nez is a Native American skeptic living in Arizona; he is a member of the Phoenix Area Skeptics Society (PASS) and author of Native Skeptic, a blog that looks at critical thinking from a Native American perspective.