Part of the Totems to Turquoise exhibition.

Maintaining Harmony: Pueblo Dance and Ritual

Various Artists (Hopi)

"We do it for the whole universe. We don't just do it for our own people."
—Joe Herrera, Cochiti artist

More than mere holiday observances, Southwest rituals maintain balance and harmony for the individual, the society, and the spirits of the natural world. In Pueblo cultures such as Zuni, Hopi, and Santo Domingo, the purpose of rituals is to benefit not just people but the entire natural world, from the largest land mammal to the smallest insect.

Ceremonial societies dedicated to controlling rain, health, war, and social order perform elaborate ritual dramas, according to a yearly ritual calendar. Performers require years of training in complex ceremonies that last up to 16 days and include dancing, singing, praying, costumes, feasting, and private religious events.

Navajo Healing Rituals

Like Pueblo ceremonies, Navajo rituals also focus on maintaining harmony, order, beauty, and health. But Navajo rituals are often led by a single shaman or "Singer," not a ceremonial society, and they usually focus on curing disorder and illness within specific individuals, not the entire world.

Navajo sandpaintings—made by "Singers" (curing shamans)—are used to restore health and balance in the patient, not to produce a lasting work of art. Indeed, it is dangerous for a sandpainting to exist after a ritual is complete because the designs attract powerful supernatural beings.

Giving It All Away: The Potlatch Ceremony

© AMNH / Denis Finnin

"We were broke after it was all over, but the return comes hundredfold.... Spiritually I feel rich—rich to have experienced it."
—Haida artist Robert Davidson, after his 1981 potlatch

Perhaps the best known tradition among Northwest Coast peoples is the potlatch—a ceremonial gathering in which a high-ranking host gives away huge numbers of gifts to his guests. For their part, the guests publicly acknowledge the host family's status and position. Many occasions may call for a potlatch, including the transfer of a chief's name or privileges, a chief's death, and the building of a new communal house.

For centuries, the potlatch has reinforced the structure of Northwest Coast society. By hosting a potlatch, a chief can boost his reputation by demonstrating his wealth and power. Among the Kwakwaka'wakw, potlatching also became a way to engage in rivalries. A powerful chief might throw a large potlatch to challenge a lesser chief's claim to a song or crest.

What was given away?

Potlatch gifts have always been a mix of precious goods, traditional art objects, practical items, and storable foods. In the 1800s factory-made wool blankets were the standard potlatch gift, given away by the hundreds or even thousands. Other popular gifts included sacks of flour, cookware, and for high-ranking guests, copper, silver, or gold bracelets. Potlatch hosts today still happily spend most of their savings on thousands of gifts, ranging from bracelets and woven blankets to money and plastic laundry tubs.