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Christmas Traditions at Taos Pueblo

People begin gathering as the last rays of sunlight move their way up the ancient adobe structures. These aren’t just tribal members. We’re talking people from town, all over the region, even some from foreign countries.

The bonfires around the village are lit. As darkness begins to fall, the Vespers Mass in the San Geronimo Church is concluded and the Christmas Eve procession begins.


A group of men in traditional garb carry a statue of the Virgin Mary. People in the group sing religious hymns in English and Spanish. Men at the head of the procession fire hunting rifles from time to time. The gunfire can be deafening, so stand back.

The procession continues in a loop through the village plaza, and then it’s over.

The crowd remains around the fires for a while, warmed by the light and the constant parade of friends and relatives.

Taos Deer Dance

The interesting thing about the celebration at Taos is that it’s a blend of Christianity, Native beliefs and traditions that can only be said to have evolved as part of the unique quality of this region.

On Christmas Day, the tribe will be performing the Deer Dance. This is a sacred ceremonial dance filled with meaning and vital importance for the world, but details about it are held tightly secret from outsiders.

As such, some things can be talked about openly, while others — those specifically having to do with Native religion — cannot. 

“For many of the pueblo cultures, the deer is a very important animal,” tribal member Marcie Winters says. “The dance is something that is difficult to explain, but it is a beautiful tradition to witness.”

Other pueblo communities have their own traditions. At Picuris Pueblo in southern Taos County, for example, the tribe does the Matachines Dance for Christmas. This performance dates back to a blend of traditions that began with the Moors, flowed into the Spanish who then brought it to the New World as a way to teach elements of Christianity through mythic theater. This dance is also done at Taos Pueblo, but only on rare occasions.

Visitors in attendance are asked to respect the religious nature of the events by observing a ban on all cell phones, recording devices, and cameras. It is also requested that visitors refrain from conversing with tribal members about the cultural significance of the events.

Christmas celebrations at Taos Pueblo

Christmas celebrations at Taos Pueblo are a time honored and revered tradition whose origins date back hundreds of years beginning with the conquest and settlement of New Mexico by the colonial Spanish. Upon arriving in the New World, Spanish conquistadors and their accompanying settlers began the slow process of converting the Native population to Catholicism by constructing churches in each of the pueblos and assigning each location a patron saint.

Initial attempts to spread Christianity among the pueblos were met with hostility as the newcomers declared that traditional Native ceremonies were sacrilegious rituals and forbidden by decree of the clergy. It was only after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the reconquest of New Mexico by the Spanish in 1692 that the Pueblo peoples were allowed to freely practice their traditional religion once again.

One way this is evident is seen in the appearance of the tribe’s sacred clowns. These figures play an important role in the Deer Dance. Although their actions may be characterized as humorous, their function is important and worthy of respect. Those who misbehave around them may wind up thrown in the river — winter ice notwithstanding.

Native religion is much older than the Christian influence

Native religion is much older than the Christian influence here and maintains a foothold in Pueblo Indian lives today. In the early part of the 20th century when Taos was “discovered” by Easterners who viewed the people and landscape here through an overlay of romantic ideals, it was easy to exploit this naturalistic quality by interpreting it through paintings, photography and florid writings. Before long, tribal people began to recognise the image-building taking place and so took back what they could by imposing certain restrictions.

That’s why today, at Taos Pueblo, visitors are asked to pay an entrance fee, as well as fees for photography or recording. During ceremonial occasions, though, the tribe strictly prohibits cell phones, cameras and all recording devices. Tribal officials who catch visitors ignoring this ban risk having their devices confiscated with no recourse.

On any average day, the Taos village — noted as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO — is open to visitors during certain hours. Before and after that, the village belongs to residents who have moved freely among these walls for a thousand years or so.

It speaks to the nature of what people experience when they look up into the sky filled with billowing clouds of black smoke and sparks on Christmas Eve, to the upswell of emotion when seeing the flickering firelight amid the sound of gunfire and singing and soft footfalls in the snow, and to the innate sense that you’re witnessing something that feels ancient, tribal and alive.

 For more information, contact the Taos Pueblo Tourism Office at (575) 758-1028 or visit

Famous Pueblo People

Dancing to the beat – what it all means

The jingle of bells hung from clothing and the rhythmic beats and chanting from the Kenai-based Midnight Sun drum group announced the arrival of about 20 dancers who moved toward the center of David Salmon Tribal Hall Saturday afternoon.

I-Lon-schka Osage Ceremony

Scores of Osage dancers participate in the tribe’s annual I-Lon-schka each June, what is also known as Osage ceremonials. A drum-giving ceremony and dancing are the glue that holds this fiercely traditional society together.


Held in the tribe’s three area districts each June, the weekend festival is Hominy’s time to shine. Attendees say this is the best of the three June weekend sessions, but that all depends on who is asked.

In addition to some serious dancing, Proctor has a special duty. The young man is this year’s recipient of the ceremonial drum. In Osage terms, there are few higher honors.

The chosen drumkeeper is usually the eldest son of an Osage family. The passing of the drum occurs about every four years and is resplendent with pomp and circumstance.

The drumkeeper is responsible for all that occurs within his district during the ceremonial. If something goes wrong, he will be the one to fix it.

In explaining the I-Lon-schka, careful attention must be given to detail. The ceremonial is not a powwow. Visitors are welcome, but, unlike powwows, the emphasis is more spiritual than social.

Here, one will find no concession stands or arts booths.

The term I-Lon-schka is literally interpreted to mean the “playground of the eldest son.”

It is a tradition given to the Osage from two other tribes, the Kansa and the Ponca, tribal members said. Very distinct rules and patterns are followed in dancing, during breaks and even in eating.

In June, the three districts of the Osage tribe — Grayhorse, Hominy and Pawhuska — will take turns in hosting the ceremonial.

For Proctor and his family, he is this year’s eldest son. His wife, Quinn, and daughter Brie accompany him to the dance arbor from their family camp.

Dressed in heavy broadcloth and dance attire, the fortitude of walking in the procession is impressive.

But it is not just Proctor’s immediate family that gets credit here. Relatives are integral, contributing to funds for gifts and toward making regalia that will be worn, especially during the drum ceremony.

The drum in question was given to Proctor by the Goodfox family within the Hominy district. By the time the entry parade is over, a horse and dozens of blankets and dance shawls will be given to his committee and advisers.

“Now it is my time to pay for the honor,” Proctor said.

The drum, considered the heart beat and lifeline of the tribe, sits in the care of “drum warmers” who will make sure the drum is cared for properly before it is used.

This drum is more than 100 years old. Painted wagon red and stretched with tanned hide, it is considered the center of Osage ceremonial life. It is said to create the spirit and energy during dance sessions that unite the tribe.

Right before the procession, Proctor and family stand in glaring heat, while the cameras flash.

Clearing his throat, tribal member Brad Dailey speaks to the assembled relatives.

“This is a high honor. You can talk about this from now on,” he said. “Once this drum is yours, it’s yours to take care of. This makes the Hominy district look good.”

In the course of the ceremony there is the giving away of “bride” coats.

Made by Proctor’s grandmother, who recently died, special Osage bridal costumes will be worn by six young, unmarried women. The coats will be given away to the other district’s drumkeepers.

The six women are decked out head to toe and wear stacked, adorned hats with plumage. Designed military-style, the coats are covered with ribbon work and epaulets. The “brides” will walk the procession as part of Proctor’s party, along with relatives.

During their walk to the arbor, cameras are positioned to get a good shot. The moment is too important not to catch for posterity, one mother said.

There is a moment that crystallizes old tribal ways. A nervous young pinto is curried and painted with a lightning bolt and hand print. Its tail is wrapped and beaded. A horse handler helps make the transfer from owner to new owner.

With the passing of the drum, huge trunks of shawls are given away to cooks and helpers. This year’s shawls are all lightweight and lavishly embroidered. As they are handed out, women in the audience gasp approval because each shawl seems lovelier than the next, one woman said.

“There is a time to do things,” said Harry Red Eagle Jr., elder and processional speaker. “We try to keep this tradition the best way we know how.”

After the ceremony, the singing begins. Literally hundreds of Osage attend and watch the procession, drum passing and dancing. Many more will attend on weekend afternoons. Families will camp and hundreds will be fed each day.

At the ceremony’s end, another link will be added to the Osage tribal chain. Next weekend, the ceremonial will be in Pawhuska, home of tribal headquarters.

More important, the Osage will be one people during June.

Deceased elder Frederick Lookout once said it this way: “We were told that a select group . . . created an extraordinary social device that transmitted a powerful spiritual foundation. It encompassed such force that today it is the basis for the perpetuation of all of our Osage values.”

Yes, that is the way things are.

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