Dance Hall of the Dead (1973)

Dance Hall of the Dead (1973)


A sing is another way of referring to something as formal as a Navajo healing ceremony, as well as something as intimate as an individual prayer, because the use of songs or chants is a central element of Navajo spirituality. There are nearly 100 Navajo healing sings of varying range and intricacy, each originating from the Navajo Creation Story. These formal sings are so nuanced and complex that a Navajo singer, also known as a hataałii, learns only one or two sings over many years of apprenticeship. Sings can last anywhere from one to nine days and can include chants, songs, prayers, lectures, dances, sweat baths, the use of prayer sticks, and the creation of sand paintings. Of course, prayers and observances that are sung by individuals on a daily basis might last only a few seconds and involve merely the ability to observe, appreciate, and maybe sprinkle a few grains of corn pollen.

Other Native American traditions also have ceremonies, traditions, and healing practices in which songs are significant components. Hillerman mentions Hopi singing in some of his novels, for example. The Hopi believe strongly that these dances and songs, when combined in the proper way, work to give them a good life full of rain for agriculture and therefore success and prosperity for the people.


A bundle of blankets and bedding materials that have been rolled up and tied together so that they can be transported from place to place. A bedroll can be easily rolled out and used for camping outdoors or sleeping on the floor, and then rolled back up. These days, lightweight sleeping bags have replaced bedrolls, but the principle of a transportable bed is the same.


A plant from the nightshade family. The leaves are cured by drying or fermenting and then smoked or chewed. Tobacco is a plant species indigenous to the Americas and, similar to other nightshade species, has a history of cultivation and use for ceremonial purposes among many indigenous cultures throughout the Americas.

Sun God

The sun retains a significant position in most cosmologies, often taking on anthropomorphic features. From Ra, Apollo, Buddha, and the Christ figure, to indigenous appreciations of the creative power and potential of the solar disc, the figure of the Sun God is assigned an importance and range of powers pertinent to the specific needs and value systems of each group. For example, Sun-Father is a Navajo Holy Person, husband of Changing Woman, while in the Kiowa tradition, Sun Boy is the originator of the sacred tribal items.

Often the term "Sun God" is used inappropriately, generally as a blanket term to signify dominant male figures in non Judeo-Christian religions, specifically those of Native American tribes.


Also known as the Little Fire God, Shulawitsi is an important spiritual figure in the Zuni pueblo tradition. Personated by a young boy of the Badger Clan, this figure’s body and mask are painted black with various multicolored dots, and his role is to carry a fire brand during the Shalako ceremony, which marks the end one year and the beginning of another. The ceremony intends to ask the protective spirits to provide the community with rains and sustenance. The Little Fire God also carries a small deerskin bag within which are seeds to be blessed during the fertility rites that are a part of the Shalako ceremony.

It is important to note the use of the word “personate” in the discussion of Zuñi and other Pueblo people’s gods and kachinas. Generally speaking, in Pueblo culture, when a dancer dons a mask for a specific ceremony, that dancer becomes the god represented by the mask, just as the mask becomes animated by the god as it is worn. Masks are sacred objects that facilitate communication and connection between man and gods. Even when not worn during ceremonial dances, masks are revered objects that are fed and taken care of by kiva societies or clans who are responsible for their well-being. These masks are believed to be vital and dynamic objects, if not sentient things. Therefore, the young boy, who spends a year preparing to wear the mask of Shulawitsi during the Shalako ceremony, does not impersonate or merely act like the Little Fire God; he actually becomes--or personates--Shulawitsi during the ceremony itself.


In the tradition of the Zuni people of the American Southwest, Shalako refers both an annual winter solstice ceremony, as well as to spirit deities perceived as giant, beaked messengers to the gods. Six Shalako messengers, one for each cosmic direction (the four cardinal directions as well as one for above and one for below), carry prayers from the Zuni people to the gods all year long. After the fall harvest, close to the winter solstice, as the year transitions from old to new, the Shalako ceremony takes place. It includes dances, prayers, remembrance of ancestors, and ritual blessings for health and fertility. The Shalako messengers, personated by trained dancers, are depicted as very tall kachina who accompany the personated Council of the Gods in a ceremony that lasts all evening.

The participating members of the Zuni Council of Gods and their retinue enter Zuni on the evening of the Shalako ceremony in a very specific order. First enters Shulawitsi (Fire God), accompanied by a ceremonial "father" who has tended a sacred juniper fire in the days prior to the ceremony. Second enters Sayatasha (Rain God from the North), wearing a mask with a turquoise horn sweeping out from the right side of his face. Third is Hu-tu-tu (Rain God from the South), followed by two Yamukato protector warriors, one from the East and one from the West. Two Salamobia enforcers with their beaked masks, ruffed necks, and yucca whips bring up the rear, followed finally the giant Shalako. The six Shalako figures enter the pueblo at sunset, accompanied by their attendants, and tower over the attendees and participants, as their giant beaked masks make these dancers rise to about nine feet tall.

Preparations for the next Shalako begin as soon as the current year’s celebration is over, and involve the entire community. On the one hand, the ceremony marks several days of concentrated spiritual observance and ritual practice; on the other, Shalako remains a vital and active presence in the Zuni pueblo’s daily life all year long.

Dance Hall of the Dead

A reference to the holy village beneath Lake Kolhu/wala-wa, where the Zuni go to be with their ancestors after they have died. In Zuni mythology, before settling into permanent pueblos, the Zuni were in search of their final home in the Middle Place or Halona: Itiwana. While they traveled, the Zuni made temporary camps in various places, which later became sacred places. Eventually the groups split up and one group traveled down the Little Colorado River and founded a village at the lake at the junction of the Zuni and Little Colorado Rivers, this was Lake Kolhu/wala-wa. This village is known as Zuni Heaven or Kachina Village, or as recounted in Tony Hillerman's telling of the Zuni myth, Dance Hall of the Dead, as the lake is also the location where Zuni kachina reside when they're not among the people. In the tradition of the Pueblo peoples of the U.S. Southwest, the term kachina generally refers to protective deities that are generally understood to be supernatural manifestations of elements occurring in the natural world, such as weather phenomena, plants, and animals. When kachina interact with the people, they are summoned by the sacred ritual of dance, and they move among the people by dancing.


A rock formation in which the top part protrudes forward horizontally to hang over the vertical parts of the rock face.


Windmills are structures that use spinning vanes, sales, or blades in order to convert the force of wind into energy and/or power. Different versions of the windmill have been used for centuries. Before the widespread use of electricity, windmills were used to mill grain and pump water. More recently, windmills in the format of wind turbines have been used as a more energy efficient and environmentally friendly tool for generating electricity.

A specific water-pumping windmill on joint-use territory land between the Hopi and Navajo reservations becomes the subject of major conflict in Hillerman's novel The Dark Wind. This windmill is occasionally referred to by its very specific identifier: Windmill Number 6.

smoke hole

In the traditional construction of a hogan, the Diné dwelling house, a hole is cut in the roof in order to let smoke from the hearth fire below out of the room. The hole is usually placed off-center and aligned above the rock slab that serves as a hearth so that as the smoke rises it leaves the residence. In later, more modern hogans, flues that facilitated the removal of smoke directly from the rock-slab or adobe hearth have replaced the hole in the roof.


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