Riding the Rainbow by Sonni Cooper
Chapter Seven (partial)
(In the matriarch's home they prepare for the annual feast and dances.)
“This one will fit Barbara.” Leandra held up a hot pink flowered dress. Colored mantas spilled on the bed like so many intertwined rainbows. Mary and Leandra matched each manta to a contrasting shawl, complementing colors with practiced eyes. Perusing the kaleidoscope of colors on the bed, Mary picked a chartreuse capelet and draped it over her manta. Both women stepped back to see the effect. “D’yiya, they’ve gone back into the kiva,” Barbara announced as she hurried into the room.
Leandra looked up from her task, “Cook the bacon now.”
“I already started it.” The smell of bacon began to seep into the room. While heading back to the kitchen to finish cooking breakfast, Barbara responded to a knock on the door, admitting three Pendleton-blanketed men from Taos. They needed no guidance, heading straight for the dining room where they sat down on the couch at the far end of the room like three straight arrows. The usual residual clamor accompanied Karen and Helen’s return to the house. The two Californians draped their heavy coats on the rack in the entry and headed into the house, peeling off their scarves and gloves before coming into the dining room. “That was simply wonderful and beautiful,” Karen announced while staring at the blanketed guests from Taos. The three braided heads turned to see who made the announcement, then turned to each other. Unanimous silent comment accomplished, they all faced front again.
“Let me help,” Helen insisted upon entering the kitchen.
“You can set the table,” Barbara said evenly. She pointed to the stacked cups and began frying the eggs in a heavily grease coated iron skillet. Melvin and Eyi came running to the scent of food and sat down at the kitchen table looking voracious. Sawing off two slices of bread, Barbara handed one to each of the boys in between turning the eggs. Cornflower and her daughters, Tomásita and Lisa, arrived just in time to sit down to breakfast. Mary had come out of the bedroom, inspected the table and turned toward the men sitting on the couch. “Come. Eat.” The Taos visitors took seats at the table and were joined by Karen and Helen. While her guests and family were eating, Leandra went back to the kitchen, stirred the stews, and fixed herself a fried egg.
“Where are you from?” Karen asked the blanketed men.
“Taos,” the eldest answered monosyllabically.
Helen passed the bacon. “As soon as the Feast is over we’re going to visit Taos.”
“That’s nice,” another of the men said blandly.
“It’s cold up there,” the third commented, noticing with amusement, the multiple sweaters the women were wearing in the very warm house.
Barbara fed the two boys in the kitchen and then joined the others in the dining room. She sat down next to her cousin, Tomacita. “How’s the Indian School
Tomacita found it difficult to communicate with Barbara. While she was busy studying at the boarding school, Barbara had had a baby, was a senior at the local High School at Pojoaque, and had begun taking nursing classes at the Community College in Santa Fe part-time. Their lives had already begun to differentiate dramatically but she tried to find common ground. “It’s hard being away from home and I hate math, but the kids are great, and I do get home on weekends. How’s the baby?”
“My mom and the aunties are watching her for me while I’m in school. But it’ll be harder when Cornflower has the baby.”
Cornflower hadn’t gotten around to telling the family about her pregnancy. “It’s too soon after her last miscarriage?
While the girls talked quietly, Karen and Helen were trying to initiate a conversation with the men from Taos with no success. Having finished their breakfast the men rose as one. “Thank you,” the eldest said almost inaudibly. Barbara nodded acknowledgement and began to clear the table. She heard the baby cry and headed for the back bedroom to take care of her.
Cornflower automatically took her place in the kitchen helping Leandra with the remains of breakfast. “Dyiya,” she whispered hesitantly. Leandra turned to look at her daughter. It wasn’t often Cornflower called her mother in Tewa anymore. Sensitive to her children’s moods, she put down the spoon and went into the pottery-room, knowing her daughter would follow and appreciate the privacy. When Cornflower didn’t speak, Leandra opened the conversation to make it easier for her to share her problem.
They spoke in the more comfortable and private Tewa.
“How does Harvey like being governor?”
“I think he’s scared. He doesn’t talk about it much. But he gets up at night and can’t sleep.”
Leandra turned her back to Cornflower to make it easier for her to talk. She began stirring the posole, permitting the privacy she felt her daughter would need before she would feel comfortable enough to reveal her real problem. While she searched for words, Cornflower stacked the prune pie squares stored in a plastic container onto a platter. Quiet was a part of their tradition and neither of the women felt it necessary to speak just for the sake of relieving the silence. They worked side-by-side until Cornflower finally worked up the courage to face her mother with her disturbing news. She was near tears. “Mom, I’m pregnant again.”
“So soon? It’s only been three months since the miscarriage. And you’ve already lost three.”
“I know. It just happened. “The doctor said that I should rest.” She hesitated, turned her back, and then continued. “He’s not sure if I can carry it.”
Leandra turned to her daughter and lightly took her hand trying to console her. “You have three.”
“That’s not the only problem, Mom. He said this one could kill me. He wants me to have an abortion.”
“Did you tell Harvey?”
“No. Only that I’m pregnant. He’s got enough problems right now without worrying about this.”
Leandra nodded agreement. “What did you tell the doctor?”
“I said no!”
Both women shared the veneration of life that was the very heart of their culture, and the veneer of Catholicism that had been assumed by the village enhanced their aversion to abortion. The thought of aborting the child was unthinkable, even with the chance of death a distinct and present possibility. Saddened Cornflower shared her plan. “I’ll have to take Tomacita out of school in Santa Fe so she can help with the others. She loves the school and I hate to.”
“I can take care of them,” Leandra suggested with practicality. She had absorbed the problem and would do whatever needed to alleviate pressure on Cornflower. It would be better if Harvey weren’t governor, she thought. She knew his absences and the distraction caused by the responsibilities of his office would be a contributing factor of strain for her daughter, but nothing could be done about it, so she put the thought out of her mind. It was best to deal with things that were possible.
“The breakfast dishes are finished, Leandra,” Karen announced as she intruded into the back room.
“What else can we do to help?” Helen asked.
Leandra answered as if to one of her children. “There’s nothing to do until later,” she said, subtlety implying that they amuse themselves.
“When will the dances start?
“Later, about ten o’clock,” Leandra answered patiently.
“We can set the table in the dining room.”
“Not yet,” the Matriarch said firmly, wondering why they didn’t find something to do which would take them out of her hair.
“You can help me with the potato salad,” Cornflower suggested, picking up on Leandra’s dismay. She headed back to the kitchen with the two Anglo women in tow leaving Leandra alone in the pottery-room.
The matriarch sat down at the table she used for making pottery and ran her finger over its warm earth-stained surface. She brushed a hair from her face and stared past the adobe walls and out the painted blue-silled window toward the church and the layered mesas beyond. Clouds were beginning to gather darkly over the Jemez and their shadows deepened the dark patches of spruce that showed on the snowy peaks. The pinks and reds of the mesas were deepened by the darkening sky. All of the natural beauty was an inseparable part of her and she took strength from the rugged land. But just as she knew the clouds gathering above the mountains would bring a storm to the land of the People of the Earth, she knew that this Feast day, with Cornflower’s news, had begun with a portent of inevitable disaster.
By the time Barbara had bathed and dressed the baby, the bedroom had turned into a full-fledged dressing room. Even though Mary was standing on a low wooden stool, Leandra was forced to bend over. She carefully wrapped the white buckskin uppers of the moccasins on Mary’s legs while Ada adjusted the mantas and capelets on Tomacita and Lisa. Satisfied with look of the wrappings on Mary’s legs, Leandra beckoned to Lisa who obediently got onto the stool for the same purpose. The sheepskin under-wrap felt warm and cuddly and the little girl curled her toes up with pleasure and giggled. All of the women’s dance-moccasins were snow white and spotless thanks to Tomás’ successful trading with a friend from Hopi where the special white clay for the moccasins was dug. No one was able to say just how old the dance moccasins were. They had been passed down in the family for generations and were carefully stored between uses. The manta and capelets were treated in the same fashion and the collection continued to grow yearly.
Each year Ada, the seamstress of the family, added new mantas and shawls for the women and intricately detailed tucked wide sleeved shirts for the men. Her detailed wide sleeved shirts appeared on the men and boys and her mantas and capelets were the most beautiful produced by anyone in the pueblo. Having finished dressing the dancers, Leandra lined them up to get a last appraisal before they left the house for the kiva. She adjusted a coral necklace on Lisa and added a turquoise pin to Tomacita’s manta.
Satisfied that everyone was properly arrayed, she went back into the kitchen to check upon the progress of the food. It was time to add the chile powder to the meat, a task she trusted to no one but herself. Jenny had prepared the onions by lightly browning them with flour and Leandra dumped the fragrant batch into the huge pot. Reaching for the large canister of finely ground chile, she took out a generous handful and placed it in the pot. It steamed pungent and turned the broth bright red. Tasting to check the flavor, Leandra threw another generous handful into the brew, guaranteeing a substantial bite in the palates of her guests. The Anglo guests had left the house and headed out into the people-filled plaza to see the Buffalo Dance which was going on in the south plaza while the Comanche Dancers were still dressing.
Just a short while passed and Little Eyi came running into the room with excitement. “Saiya, the dancers are coming out!” Cornflower and Leandra slipped plaid fringed shawls over their shoulders and went out onto the porch to watch the Comanche Dancers descend from the kiva. The Kwitara sare was a pueblo version of a Plains Indian dance and was performed mostly for fun, but with strong religious undertones. In imitation of their Plains Indian cousins, the men were wearing breechcloths, huge war bonnets and multi-colored feathered rings on their backsides. The thunderous drumming and the chorus’ singing, combined with the multi-colored feathers and face paint on the men, mixed with the bright manta and capelets of the women, created a loud and garish swirl of color and movement in the predominantly beige adobe plaza.
The dancers lined up in front of the kiva and began the even cadence of the dance, making their way to the front of the church for the first round. The south plaza dancers were still dancing the Buffalo Dance and the crowd split between the two groups. It was still very cold, but as the day progressed the sun was beginning to warm the plaza. By the time the dancers returned to it to complete the required four times four pattern, the mornings heavy frost would be gone. The women watched the gathering clouds to the west that were growing and moving slowly east toward the village. Rosanna came to Leandra with a worried look. As with all important or personal conversations, they spoke in Tewa.
“D’yiya, Lewis left the house and I don’t know where he is.”
“When did he go?”
“I’m not sure. I was getting Jenny’s dance things together and didn’t pay attention...”
“Did he take the car?”
“No. I think he went off with those guys, Atencio and Ben from Santa Clara. I saw their truck come up the road.”
They were his drinking buddies, and Leandra shook her head sadly. “There’s nothing you can do, Rosanna. Nothing any of us can do...”
“I’ll help here,” her daughter said cheerlessly. “With everybody dancing, you need the help. Maybe it’ll help get my mind off him.”
“The two ladies from California want to help,” Leandra said with a smile. “Let them wash and dry the dishes. They seem to think its fun.”
Rosanna shrugged. “There’s no telling what they’ll do. I’ll set the table.”
“Wait until the dancers go back into the kiva,” Leandra instructed. “If we set the table now people will want to eat and it’s too early.” The women hadn’t missed the crowd gathering in the living and dining rooms. Visitors from other pueblos, Anglo friends from Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque, and Spanish neighbors all congregated and waited to be fed. Everyone was welcome and everyone was served on a feast day. The Feast fell on a Friday this year, and Leandra was grateful it wasn’t on the weekend. She didn’t look forward to the years when it fell on a Saturday or Sunday because more people came. It was particularly hard when the north plaza was performing the Kwitara sare and most of the women of the household were dancing and unable to help in the kitchen.
Leandra heard Karen and Helen’s laughter in the kitchen and had mixed feelings about their unexpected visit. She needed the extra help this year, but they were so boisterous and forward they were an embarrassment to her and her Indian guests. Where there was good, bad always seemed to be, and she accepted the situation philosophically. Rosanna snickered and spoke to Leandra in Tewa so their Anglo guests couldn’t understand them. “Should I tell them to be more quiet?”
“No. It’s just the way they are. They don’t know any better,” Leandra answered. After feast they’ll be gone.”
In Leandra’s mind the situation resembled that of handling a child who hadn’t learned proper manners quite yet. Until the child was able to understand what was expected of him, Tewa tradition called for no disciplinary action to be taken. Manners and discipline came naturally with understanding and were considered a natural growth development. Social behavior was learned by example and was a natural transition for pueblo children.
“Saiya, I brought more wood in for the stove.” It was Cloud with an armful of firewood. He kicked the door closed behind him and then set the wood down in the box next to the stove. “Need any more?”
Leandra appraised the pile. “A little more. Maybe later you can come back and refill the box.”
“Sure,” Cloud said, happy he was needed.
“Have some stew.” Leandra led him into the bustling kitchen.
Cloud helped himself to a large bowl and headed for the pot of red chile. He took a generous portion, piled some potato salad on the side and sat down at the kitchen table. He pulled the cutting board toward him and helped himself to a large slice of fresh bread. Leandra brought over a cup of coffee. “Thanks, Saiya,” he said politely as he dove into the food enthusiastically.
Cloud wasn’t prepared for the Californians entry into the kitchen. “That was absolutely beautiful,” Karen said as she entered. Then she spotted Cloud at the table. “And who is this young man?” She rushed over and patted Cloud on the shoulder.
He flinched. On display again, he thought bitterly. He couldn’t wait to get out of there. Even though he was feeling stressed and couldn’t wait to escape, Cloud took his bowl, silverware and cup to the sink for washing as was expected.
“You hardly ate anything,” Leandra noticed.
“We’re having feast at our house too,” he said by way of an excuse.
“Gloria is home?” Leandra asked in surprise.
“Yeah, and her new boyfriend from Chimayo.”
“Oh,” Leandra responded, at a loss for words.
“Gotta go. Thanks, Grandma.” He bolted for the door. It was a relief to be out of the house and away from those women. Cloud decided he would go home and eat there. He still was hungry. It‘s too bad those ladies came in, he thought sadly. Grandma Leandra’s a much better cook than Mom.”
The Montoya kitchen was close, steaming hot, and smelled of corn, chile, and fresh cut bread. Cornflower and Rosanna began doling the stews and accompanying other courses into large bowls and platters to be served to the guests, but first they filled a special set of bowls and baskets that were to be taken to the kiva for the dancers. Barbara, Tomasita, Rosanna, and Lisa had come from the kiva to fetch the food and were joined by Ada and Cornflower forming a small parade of food-laden women heading up the stairs to the ceremonial chamber. Heaped high in baskets were breads, oranges, apples, and candy. The steaming bowls of stews and dishes of multi-colored Jell-O, potato salad, and sweets, disappeared through the doorway. Having delivered the food, the women dancers came back from the kiva into the kitchen or pottery-room, and helped themselves from the huge pots and the refrigerator. They made a colorful parade as they headed for the dining room to join the guests at the table. As always, the men and boys remained in the kiva for their meal. The table in the dining room was crowded with food. Bowls of red and green chile, posole, chicos with chicken, hot fresh green chile, bread, potato salad, Jell-O, sopa, biscochitos, pie, and pots of scalding hot coffee were filled and refilled by the women who guarded the table and made sure all were fed and the meal went smoothly. As one group of guests finished eating another took their places in a never-ending procession of hungry people. “Thank you,” a man from Cochiti said when he got up from the table to make room for another.
Just the slightest nod of acknowledgement from the women answered. Cornflower went into the living room to ask another person to sit down for lunch. There was an unspoken rule, followed subtly so as not to offend anyone, to which she adhered: Indians were seated first, unless they indicated they wanted to sit in a group.
Indians, Anglos, Spanish, old and young, shared the board and conversation. Tewa, Tiwa, and Keres, and sometimes Zuni, Hopi and Navajo, intermixed with Spanish and English, and the sounds of spoons on china, joined to give an unusual mixture of sound. The differences in clothing styles were even more miss-matched. Blanketed men and women from Taos mingled with Anglos in slacks and heavy warm boots; the traditional haircuts and mantas of the Keresen guests clashed dramatically with the slacks and velvet squaw skirts worn by the women of Santa Fe. Leandra and her family wore the traditional manta, mostly on feast days and other special occasions. It was the usual Feast-Day conglomeration and Leandra only occasionally peeked into the dining room to see how things were going or to greet a special friend.
Ada, taking a silent cue from Leandra, had taken Karen and Helen out on the portal to watch the dancers. Although she made no point of it, her eyes scanned the crowd in the plaza for Cloud. He had, as usual, refused the call to the kiva to dance and had vanished after his aborted meal at Leandra’s. Maybe he really did go home. She hoped he did.
When the Comanche Dancers emerged from the kiva again, Leandra made a point of going out to see them. She watched with pride as the members of her family each made their way down the kiva steps and onto the hard-packed still damp plaza. The sun had warmed the plaza and the porch had trapped the heat. Her shawl was sufficient to warm her for a short time. She noticed clouds in the west were moving faster now, and the sun was blocked for a moment as the weather front approached. “I hope the snow holds off until after the dance,” Ada said, eyeing the dark gathering clouds.
“It’s simply wonderful!” Karen declared sincerely. “No one will believe how marvelous this all is. Wait ‘till I tell my friends about living in an Indian village with you.
“You take them to Santa Fe tomorrow,” Leandra said in Tewa.
Ada nodded and Leandra went back inside the house.
“Wait!” Helen called as she snapped a picture of Ada and Leandra. “I’ll send you a copy,” she promised. She thought their conversation in Tewa quaint and had no idea it concerned her.
“You better put that camera away or get a permit, Ada advised. Then she answered Leandra in Tewa. Haa. I’ll take them Santa Fe tomorrow.”
Just the slightest hint of a snowflake touched the ground as four o’clock approached. The last round of the Buffalo Dance had ended in the south plaza and what was left of the crowd came to the north plaza to see the last round of the Comanche Dance. As the dancers turned to the north and faced the kiva for their last round, Stefano stood on the top step of the kiva supported by Manuel and Lewis. He looked across the plaza, at the mesas and mountains, and then down at the dancers. The cottonwood tree that dominated the north plaza was beginning to catch the snow on its branches, and a film of white was beginning to show on the highest of the nearby hills. The branches of the venerable tree in the plaza reached to the heavens as did their prayers this day. Stefano stepped out of the kiva into the cold. The old man raised his bony hands to the sky, matching the gnarled tree’s limbs and chanted a prayer for his people:
“May ask you, old woman gods!
To give us long life together.
May we live until our frosted hair
Is white; may we live then
This life that we now know!
Our old woman gods,
Give to us long life
And our people!
Stefano reached into his leather pouch and sprinkled sacred meal into the wind and on the path the dancers would take back to the kiva.
For arm-leg nourishment
We bring you meal
Then grant to us
Our span of life
And to our children also!
Cornflower, Ada, and some of the other younger women climbed the ladder up onto the roof and were watching the proceedings on a level with the kiva roof. Taking up the drumming again the chorus sang the last round while the brilliantly garmented dancers went up the ladder, headed for the kiva. The first set of dancers arrived at the top of the steps and the kiva door closed abruptly, prohibiting their entry. The local residents watching laughed at the joke as the chorus was forced to sing another verse and the dancers danced on the kiva steps awaiting entry. The door opened and the first couple, bending to protect their feathered headdresses, disappeared into the dark recess. The door hastily closed again before the second couple could enter. Louder this time, and with laughter intruding on their song, the chorus continued their chant. The door opened to admit the second couple. When the third pair arrived at the door quickly closed again. By this time the first two couples appeared on the roof of the kiva, dancing above the rest as they entered the door, slowly, pair by pair.
As the numbers of the clan grew each year, the line of dancers had gotten longer and the end of the dance was prolonged even more. No one was in any hurry to end the festivities so it really didn’t matter how long it took to get all of the dancers back into the kiva and the game went on even though it had begun to snow more heavily. From their vantage point the Montoya women could see the beginnings of the rough adobe walls of the much-needed new expansion of the ceremonial chamber. As the clan grew so did the need for space. They were thriving and it was good.
Sample Chapters: Ch.1 Introduction Ch.7 Pueblo Life Ch.8. Cloud's Vision