Shalako Messenger Birds

Encyclopedia Article


In Tony Hillerman's 1972 retelling of the Zuni myth THE BOY WHO MADE DRAGONFLY, he makes reference to the Shalako Messenger Birds. 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. Hillerman's mention of the Shalako Messenger Birds is most likely a reference to the Shalako messengers, personated by trained dancers, who are very tall kachina accompanying the personated Council of the Gods. These six dancers enter the pueblo at sunset, accompanied by their attendants, and tower over the attendees and participants, as their giant beaked masks make dancers rise to about nine feet tall.

Photo Credit: 

"Untitled, Plate 29, Szwedzicki Portfolio, 1932," lithograph by Alfonso Roybal (San Ildefonso). SILD-84; Gift of William and Luanna Johnson and the IBM Corporation, 1993; Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, NM.

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