Encyclopedia Article


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.

Photo Credit: 

"Zuni Shalako Procession, Museum of Man, Balboa Park, San Diego" by Tim Evanson is licensed under CC BY-SA.

Term Type: