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.
These wonderful 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.
Nearly 10,000 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 of birds.
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 communities.
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:

Time 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.

Many 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 religious governments.
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, Coronado’s soldiers overwhelmed the Zuni protectors and captured the village of Hawikuh.
The Spaniards 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 and hunters.

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 broken.
Originally, walking 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.
Although the 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.
Priests, elders, 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.
The rainmakers 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 among them.
Throughout the 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
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:

Storyteller says: SO-Nahchi!
Listeners respond: EE-so!
Storyteller says: SON-ti Inooooo . . . te!

Then, in a dreamy-eyed manner, the Zuni storyteller begins to tell the tale that was lived long ago.
When storytellers 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.
Storytelling 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.
Cushing spent 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 Cushing’s 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 man’s 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.
In retelling 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.


The Great Dancing Tarantula:
A Zuni Pueblo Tale

Rewoven by Don Arthur Torgersen

SO-nah-chi!
EE-so!
SON-ti Inoooo…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.
Each morning, 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.

Kaloona would 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.
Whenever Kaloona 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 man’s belt—chi-li-li-li, chi-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 man wore.
The crafty tarantula often told himself, "If I could only get hold of the young man’s garments, then I would be the most handsome dancer in the desert."

One morning, 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!
"I’m in a hurry," said Kaloona. "I’m on my way to morning prayers."
Old Crooked Legs said, "I don’t think you know what a fine looking young man you are in your colorful garments."
"What do you mean?" asked Kaloona.
"Let me show you. If you take off your clothing, I’ll take off mine. Then I’ll put yours on so you can see what a handsome dancer you are."
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.
Kaloona laid 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 Kaloona’s 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. "I’m a most handsome dancer!"
"Ha-yi! Indeed! Most handsome," said Kaloona.
The tarantula 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?"
"More handsome," 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 hole.
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 tarantula’s breechcloth and soiled clothing and ran home to the pueblo to tell his family what had happened.
Kaloona felt 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.
Kaloona’s 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.
"Hi-ta! 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. We’ll 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 tarantula’s 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.

To be continued...