The Great Dancing Tarantula:
A Zuni Pueblo Tale
by Don Arthur Torgersen
Introduction: A Brief History of the Pueblo Indians
A branch on the Tree of Tales stems from the oral tradition of the
Native American Indians. It was a rich and varied tradition that
has continued to delight people throughout the ages. The tales reach
way back into the distant past and the unwritten record of the first
people to inhabit America.
tales relive the myths of origin, legends, fables, folkways, humor,
and the deeds of the ancestors and spirit guardians of the Indian
people. In many marvelous ways, these images of the past were always
greater than life. In order to fully appreciate the tales, it is
necessary to know some of the history, customs, and culture from
which the tales arose.
years ago, small bands of Indian people wandered though the southwestern
part of the country. They moved with the seasons, hunting deer,
antelope, rabbits, and wild turkey. They gathered sunflower seeds
and ate the edible parts of wild plants. They made shoes and clothing
from yucca and other plants, the hides of animals, and the feathers
About 4000 years
ago, some of these people began to settle down in farming villages
built along rivers and in the high desert country of what is now
Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. They began to raise several varieties
of corn, the main staple, as well as squash, beans, peppers, and
cotton. Their farming systems enabled them to establish more permanent
Some Indian groups
built villages on the tops of steep-walled mesas. Beautiful dwellings
with circular kivas and many interconnecting rooms were carved into
the sandstone cliffs of Mesa Verde and along other great canyons
in the Southwest and remain there today.
The Ashiwi (AH-she-wee),
or Zuni people, migrated over large areas in the Southwest in search
of what they called Halona Itiwana (Hah-LOH-na EE-tee-wah-na), the Middle
of the World. A description of these
wanderings was recorded by Frank Hamilton Cushing and published
in The Mythic World of the Zuni:
passed and the people had almost forgotten their search for
the Middle when once again the conch shells sounded in
warning. Gathering their children and their precious seed corn
they journeyed on as one people, building great stone houses
to live in on the hills, with shelters made of juniper branches
in the valleys to watch over their sacred corn fields. But they
wearied of the constant traveling and fell to devising ways
that they might more effectively search for the Middle.
Indians in the Southwest built multi-storied apartment houses made
from stones, timbers, and adobe clay. Wooden ladders were used to
climb up three, four or five levels of these apartment buildings.
Priests and elders stood on the flat roofs to call the people together
and hold meetings. The communities were organized by secular and
The Zuni people
built seven towns near the Zuni River and developed stable farming
systems. They were among the most self-reliant and productive Indians
in the Southwest. They established trading routes with Indians from
Mexico, California, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains. They
traded turquoise and salt for macaw and parrot feathers from Mexico,
sea shells from the coast, animal furs from the Rockies, and buffalo
hides from the Great Plains.
Spaniards Seek The Seven Cities of Cibola
In Mexico, the
Spanish conquerors heard accounts from Indians about the fabled
cities to the north which were said to be rich with gold, silver
and jewels. In 1539, the Franciscan Friar, Fray Marcos de Niza,
traveled north from Mexico to locate these fabled cities. Estevan,
the Black Moor who had traveled among Indians with Cabeza de Vaca,
was his guide. They discovered several crowded villages along the
Zuni River. Estevan was killed by Zuni Indians at the town of Kyakima,
but Fray Marcos returned to Mexico with descriptive stories about
the Seven Cities of Cibola.
In 1540, Francisco
Coronado marched north from Mexico with 300 Spanish horsemen, 1000
Indian allies, and Fray Marcos as a guide. Coronado led his men
in a column up the Zuni River. Armed with crossbows and long guns,
Coronados soldiers overwhelmed the Zuni protectors and captured
the village of Hawikuh.
discovered seven Zuni settlements. The houses were not covered with
gold, but built from adobe clay and studded with turquoise stones.
The Spaniards called the crowded settlements pueblos. "Pueblo"
is the Spanish word for town or village. "Cibola" is a
Spanish word for buffalo. Spanish explorers and conquistadors soon
discovered more than 80 pueblos along the Rio Grande, Chaco, Zuni,
Little Colorado and other rivers in the Southwest. The people living
in those pueblo communities were mainly self-resourceful farmers
Some Aspects of Pueblo Life
For hunting and
defense, Pueblo Indians used bows and arrows, spears, and throwing
sticks. They usually hunted in community groups, surrounding herds
of deer or pronghorn antelope. They chased rabbits by running them
down and throwing sticks at them.
Men wore kilts
made of cotton and colorful, embroidered shirts. Their deerskin
moccasins were ankle high. Robes were made of rabbit fur or turkey
feathers. Blankets were made from cotton, wool, or buffalo hides.
The men were the weavers of cotton and other fabrics which they
wove on tall, upright looms kept in the family household.
Women wore cotton
dresses with sashes at the waist. Their deerskin boots were calf-high.
In cold weather, they kept warm by wearing cotton shawls or woolen
robes. The women made the pottery. The pots were shaped from clay,
baked in the sun, and painted with colorful patterns. Each pot was
said to have its own voice which could only be heard and released if the pot
was the sole means of transportation. After the Spaniards brought
horses to the Southwest, the Pueblo Indians traded for them, or
stole them from the rancheros, and became good horsemen.
The Pueblo Indians enjoyed
games. They held races, shot arrows at targets, bowled, played a
form of soccer, tossed hoops on poles, and walked on stilts.
Pueblo Indians formed separate communities and spoke different languages,
they otherwise shared a common culture. Their ways of building,
farming, hunting, making pottery, raiding, holding ceremonies, and
praying to the spirits of nature were remarkably the same.
and the heads of clans organized the community into secular and
religious governments and advised the people. The Sun Priest was
keeper of the calendar; he kept track of the movements and position
of the sun. Each morning the Sun Priest greeted the sun with offerings
and prayers. Sun Priests, Rain Priests, Seed Priests, Medicine Priests,
Bow Priests, and Hunting Priests had specific duties that applied
to the way of life in the pueblos.
The Zuni Rain
Priests planted feathered prayer sticks near sacred streams and
chanted prayers to Uwanami, (OOwa-NAH-mee) the rain spirits, the
rainmakers, the givers of rain. In the dry country of the Southwest,
rain was the most important gift from the spirits of nature. It
was vital to the growth of corn and other seed crops.
The Uwanami played
major roles in the tales, songs, and prayers of the Zuni people.
According to the ancient myths, the sacred rainmakers lived along
the shores of the great ocean that encircled the earth. Their heads
were feathered in mist, their arrows were lightning, their shield
was the fog.
were so sacred they could not be seen by people. The Uwanami came
hidden in the clouds, wearing clouds as masks to hide their faces.
That is why Zuni kachina dancers, who impersonate the rainmakers
and other spirits of nature, wear masks during religious ceremonies.
The Zuni Indians
call themselves Ashiwi (AH-she-wee). Many live in the present-day
town of Zuni in western New Mexico. In their language, the town
is called Halona, or Halona Itiwana. Other Pueblo Indians living
in the region are called Hopi, Acoma, Laguna, and Taos. Today, these
people live in towns, on farms, and on reservations in the Southwest.
They are skilled jewelry makers, silversmiths, weavers, pottery
makers, sheep farmers, soil farmers, teachers, librarians, businessmen,
councilmen, and governors. The oral tradition is still highly honored
year, colorful ceremonies are held in Pueblo communities. There
is singing, chanting, drumming, dancing, and clowning. Kachina dancers
wear colorful masks and costumes, pretending to be good and bad
spirits and the animal spirits of the people. The dramatic Shalako
ceremony is led by six giant kachinas who are the messengers of
the gods. Among Zuni, Hopi, and other Pueblo people of the Southwest,
kachina singing and dancing are vigorous expressions of spiritual
life. These expressions of religious and cultural tradition are as
important today as they were long ago.
The Zuni Tradition of Storytelling
was an honored tradition among the Zuni people. There was a proper
time and place to tell stories. During the winter season, when people
were not planting seeds or harvesting crops, and the earth lay dormant
anD dead, the people sat in a dark room with their backs to the walls.
They listened to the storyteller give life and voice to many of
the old tales.
There was a customary
way the storyteller began his tale. He would sit cross-legged on
a blanket near the fire. To call attention to the beginning of the
tale, a few words were spoken loudly:
SON-ti Inooooo . . . te!
Then, in a dreamy-eyed
manner, the Zuni storyteller begins to tell the tale that
was lived long ago.
speak of the ancestors of the people, they often call them Grandfather,
Grandmother, or the Old Ones. The people imagined that fabulous
animals and the spirits of nature were their Grandparents. The Grandparents
would always return from the spirit world and the Lake of the Whispering
Sounds to help the people, to bring benefits to the land and the
crops, to help those who called to them in songs, prayers, and dances.
The central theme
of Pueblo Indian belief is that nature has many kindred faces. The
faces of nature include the sun, rain, wind, earth, sky, plants,
animals, insects, and human beings. These faces look kindly on one
another in the great web of interrelated life. The relationships
between the people and their environment are lived over and over
again in the telling of countless tales.
often lasted into the wee hours of the morning. If a story is to
be true, then the storyteller must put something of himself into
the tale. In this way, the tales can be told with endless variations.
When the people enjoy a story, they are supposed to stand up and
take a good stretch to show appreciation.
The study of
anthropology and folklore is indebted to a young ethnographer named
Frank Hamilton Cushing from the Smithsonian Institution. He traveled
to Zuni in the 1870s and spent four years living among Zuni Indians,
trying to think and behave like an Indian himself. He learned the
Ashiwi language, social structure, myths, legends, and folk stories.
Cushing was initiated
into the Zuni Priesthood of the Bow. Cushing would wear Indian clothing,
perhaps a leather helmet, and a buckskin cape. He was armed with
a bow, a quiver of arrows, a short club, and a shield. In the olden
days, the Priesthood of the Bow was responsible for defending the
people from the repeated raids by Apache and Navaho Indians.
many hours with tribal speakers and storytellers, translating the
tales he heard, writing them down them for Smithsonian reports.
I have selected a Zuni tale from Cushings writings about a
larger-than-life tarantula, who tricks a young man on his way to
give offerings to the rain spirits and steals his sacred headdress
and clothing. The young man needs the wisdom of his grandparents
and the help of the entire community to get them back.
The young mans
name is Kaloona (Kah-LOO-nah), which is derived from Kiaklo (Kee-AHK-loh),
the mythical Keeper of Zuni History, son of the Kachina Maker, a
Rain Priest. The dialog is set in a context that is somewhat more familiar
to North American readers and storytellers and less redundant than
the original tale. And, to make sure the story is true a Zuni requisite
I have put something of myself into the tale.
The town of Zuni,
or Halona, is located near the Zuni River and the Zuni Mountains.
One of the main features of the landscape is a large mesa that the
Ashiwi call Dowa Yalanne, (DOH-wah YAH-lah-neh) or Corn Mountain.
The mesa was the place the Zuni people carried the corn seed long
ago to protect it from a great flood that swept through the valley.
It has also been called Thunder Mountain because when thunder strikes
in the clouds, it echoes off the mountainside. Two great pillars
of stone rise on the western side of the mesa and take on an important
role in this tale.
the tale, I have stressed a number of Ashiwi words and expressions
characteristic of this story genre. This adaptation is an effort
to call into life the enduring aspects of the Zuni culture, to embroider
the plot, and to capture the guiding spirit and unique humor of
the original tale.
Great Dancing Tarantula:To be continued...
A Zuni Pueblo Tale
Rewoven by Don Arthur Torgersen
te. This story was lived long ago.
In the days
of the Old Ones, the creatures of the earth were much larger than
they are today. In those days long ago, a young man named Kaloona
lived in the pueblo village of Kyakima. The village stood at the
foot of a great mesa called Dowa Yalanne, or Corn Mountain. Some
people called the mesa Thunder Mountain because of the thunderbolts
that echoed from its side during the great rainstorms.
as the Sun Father lifted his bright shield above the Zuni Mountains,
the young man would put on sacred garments. Then he would run all
the way around the great mesa, chanting and dancing in the custom
of his people.
run to a sacred place beside a small stream. There he planted prayer
sticks in the ground. The feathered prayer sticks were offerings
to the rain spirits and the seed spirits.
The young man
sat down at the edge of the stream to sing morning prayers. He sang
to Uwanami, the rainmakers, to bring water to the corn crops. He
prayed for trails of wind and rain clouds to cross the fields. He
sang to the seed gods to give growth to the plants.
At the western
end of the great mesa stood two tall columns of rock. A great tarantula
lived in a sandy den at the base of these columns. The people called
him Old Crooked Legs.
ran past the den on his way to morning prayers, Old Crooked Legs
perked up his ears. He heard the sound of feet running on the sandy
earth and horn bells rattling on the young mans beltchi-li-li-li,
The great tarantula
climbed to the mouth of his den to watch the young man run by. He
admired the headfeathers and the colorful clothing that the young
The crafty tarantula
often told himself, "If I could only get hold of the young
mans garments, then I would be the most handsome dancer in
when the great tarantula heard the horn bells sound chi-li-li-li,
chi-li-li-li, he poked his woolly head out of the hole. He jumped
out and cried, "Ho-Ya-Yah! Young running man, Cha-kotchi! Stop!
in a hurry," said Kaloona. "Im on my way to morning
Old Crooked Legs
said, "I dont think you know what a fine looking young man
you are in your colorful garments."
you mean?" asked Kaloona.
show you. If you take off your clothing, Ill take off mine.
Then Ill put yours on so you can see what a handsome dancer
Kaloona was curious.
He began to take of his clothing. He took off the white leggings
with fringe down the front. He took off the painted moccasins and
the anklets made from shells. He removed his belt, his kilt, and
his colorful shirt.
But there was
more. He took off the long, turquoise earrings which swept to his
shoulders and the strings of colorful beads hanging around his neck.
Finally, he removed the sacred headdress his people called la-pap-po-wan-ne.
It was a braided headband with a cluster of macaw tailfeathers standing
upright at the back of the band.
out the painted moccasins, the white fringed leggings, the colorful
shirt and kilt, the beads and turquoise jewelry on the ground. Then
he placed lapappowanne, the feathered headdress, on the earth with
great care because it was very sacred.
Now the great
tarantula began to take off his own clothing. He removed his soiled
blue leggings, his dirty gray shirt, and his breechcloth. He laid
down the grubby clothing in pile.
Old Crooked Legs
dressed up in Kaloonas colorful dance clothes and the sacred
headfeathers. Then he began to do a crooked dance on his eight crooked
legs, boasting, "Look at me, young running man. "Im
a most handsome dancer!"
Indeed! Most handsome," said Kaloona.
said, "Let me step back so you can take a better look."
And backward he walked in funny, zigzag movements and said, "Now
how do I look?"
laughed the young man.
The crafty tarantula
backed up a few more steps near the mouth of his den. Then he cried,
"Ho-Ya-Yah!" spun around, and plunged headfirst into the
Kaloona ran to
the edge of the hole. He peered down into the dark den and saw nothing
in the hole, nothing in the hole but the eyes and ears of shadows.
He yelled, "Get out of there, you old rascal. Come back with
my clothes and my sacred headfeathers! Hai-iiiii!"
The young man
soon realized he was standing there naked. He put on the tarantulas
breechcloth and soiled clothing and ran home to the pueblo to tell
his family what had happened.
angry and ashamed. He told his father how the old tarantula had
tricked him out of his clothing and sacred headdress and disappeared
into his hole.
father was A-pi-thlan Shi-wan-na, a Bow Priest. He was a respected
elder and one of the leaders at Kyakima. He climbed up a ladder
to a high, flat roof of the pueblo, and called the people together.
Listen!" shouted the Bow Priest. "Old Crooked Legs has
stolen the sacred clothing my son wears to morning prayers, and
we must get it back. Let all the men, women and children get hoes
and digging sticks. Well dig the old rascal out of his den."
The people walked
out to the two tall columns of rock. They carried baskets, pots,
hoes, and digging sticks. The found the mouth of the tarantulas
den at the base of the two columns.
The people began
to dig into the den. They raised sandy dirt from the hole with clay
pots and baskets. But the more they dug, the deeper and darker the
hole grew. They could not find hide nor hair of Old Crooked Legs.