Hopi Snake Dance

Hopi Snake Dance

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hopi)
Date of Observation: August (or early September) for sixteen days
Where Celebrated: Arizona
Symbols and Customs: Kisi, Kiva, Pahos (Prayer Sticks), Sand Painting, Snake Youth and Antelope Maid
Related Holidays: Flute Ceremony, Soyaluna


The Hopi Snake Dance is a Native American religious ceremony. The history of this and other Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

The Hopi observe a ceremonial calendar in which the year is divided into two parts. According to tradition, during one half of the year the kachinas (nature, ancestral, and guardian spirits) live in the village and reveal themselves to the people through ceremonial dances. During the other half of the year, the kachinas separate themselves from the village and return to live in their homes in the mountains. The Kachina season begins around the time of WINTER SOLSTICE, as people begin to prepare the ground for planting, and it closes in late July with the bringing in of the first harvest.

The Snake Dance held every two years by the Native American Hopi tribe dates back to the earliest era of human life in what is now the southwestern United States. Scholars believe that the dance was originally a water ceremony, because snakes were the traditional guardians of springs. Today it is primarily a rain ceremony, since the Hopis regard snakes as their "brothers" and rely on them to carry their prayers for rain to the underworld, where the gods and the spirits of the ancestors live. The tourists who flock to the Hopi villages to observe the ceremony, however, are usually more interested in the spectacle than they are in its power to influence the weather.

Performed by members of the Snake and Antelope clans on the three mesas in Arizona where the Hopis live, the dance represents the grand finale of a sixteen-day ceremony that begins a few days after the NIMAN KACHINA FESTIVAL or Going Away of the Gods. Preparations for the dance take place during the last nine days, and they include making the PAHOS or prayer sticks, designing the SAND PAINTING , and building an altar around the painting that includes bowls of water from a sacred spring, green cornstalks, and trailing vines of melons and beans-all symbolic of the rain that is needed for the survival of the Hopis and their crops.

During the last four days, the Snake priests leave their villages to gather snakes, often taking young boys with them. According to Hopi legend, boys of the Snake clan can capture and handle snakes without fear from the time they are born. They stroke the snakes with a feather to make them straighten out of their dangerous coils, then grab them behind the head. The priests are usually armed with a digging stick to dig the snakes out of their holes and a snake whip, which is a rod with two eagle feathers attached.

Foot races are held on the last two mornings. The runners streak across the plain and up the steep slope of the mesa just before sunrise in a symbolic gesture representing the rain-gods bringing water to the village. Although the runners at one time were naked, with their hair worn loose in imitation of the falling rain, nowadays they usually wear underwear and cut their hair short. The winner of the first race is given a ring and a prayer-plume, which he plants in his field to ensure a good harvest. The trophy for the second race is a jar of sacred water, also poured over the fields to bring rain.

On the day of the dance itself, the snakes are washed in a large jar filled with water and herbs and then thrown on a bed of clean sand. Young boys guard the snakes to keep them from slithering away, and they use their snake whips to prevent them from coiling. Finally the snakes are gathered up in a huge bag, carried to the village plaza, and placed in the KISI or snake-shrine. The highlight of the ceremony occurs when the Snake priests reach into the kisi and grab a snake, carrying it first in their hands and then in their mouths. Each priest is accompanied by an attendant who uses the snake whip to prevent the reptile from coiling. As the pairs dance around the plaza, each is followed by a third man called the gatherer, whose job it is to make sure that when the time comes for the dancer to drop his snake, it doesn't wander into the crowd. At just the right moment, the gatherer touches the snake with his feathered wand, drops meal on it, and catches it behind the head. Then he lays it over his arm and goes after another one. As many as 50 or 60 small whip-snakes, long bullsnakes, and even rattlesnakes can often be seen curling around the gatherers' arms and necks.

When the bag of snakes is empty, one of the Snake priests makes a large circle of meal on the ground. The gatherers throw all of their snakes into the circle, while women and girls scatter meal on the wriggling pile. Then the Snake priests dash in, scooping up armfuls of snakes, and rush out of the plaza. They carry them off to special shrines, where they are released so they can carry the prayer for rain from the mouths of the priests to the underworld, where the rain-gods live. The dance concludes with the drinking of an emetic, which makes the dancers vomit and thus purges them of any dangerous snake-charms (see BLACK DRINK under GREEN CORN DANCE ). With a little luck, dark clouds will gather later in the afternoon and the rains will come.



The kisi is a shrine built to hold the snakes used in the Hopi Snake Dance. It is supported on four sticks-usually fresh-cut cottonwood boughs-driven into the ground and tied together at the top to form a cone-shaped structure, open on one side and covered with a piece of canvas or animal skin. A hole about a foot deep is dug in front of this opening; a board is laid over the hole, and the ground around it is smoothed over until the board is barely visible. This is the sipapu or symbolic entrance to the underworld, where the spirits of the Hopi ancestors and the raingods dwell.

The kisi can be traced back to the ancient brush shelters in which the Hopis' ancestors, who were wandering tribes with no permanent homes, often lived. When they turned to agriculture and needed more permanent structures, they would dig a circular room into the ground, cover it with mud-daubed logs, and enter it from above by means of a ladder. Today such a structure serves as the KIVA or ceremonial lodge.


The original kiva was an underground home that could only be entered by climbing down a ladder through a hole in the ceiling. When Native Americans first joined together to form villages, they maintained their blood relationships through ceremonies conducted in the kiva, thus establishing the clans (such as the Hopi Snake and the Antelope clans) that are the basic unit of pueblo organization to this day.

The modern-day kiva is a ceremonial room that serves as the center of a tribe's clan and religious life. Until recently, male tribe members were expected to sleep in the kiva until they were married. While modern kivas may be either round or square and built either above or below ground, most retain the basic features of the original: a windowless room entered by a ladder through a hole that serves as a smoke-vent with a fire in the center and a sipapu or hole in the floor that represents the gateway to the underworld. All important clan and pueblo business is conducted in the kiva, and the preliminary rituals for every dance-including the Hopi Snake Dance-take place there.

Pahos (Prayer Sticks)

Pahos or prayer sticks are usually no larger than a man's middle finger. One of the sticks has a flat side and is known as the "female" stick; the other is the "male" stick. Both have faces painted on one end.

At one time, according to Hopi legend, actual human sacrifices were part of the Snake Dance. But now it appears that the pahos serve as symbolic substitutes for human victims. The Aztecs used images made of dough as substitutes for human sacrifices to the gods, so there is good reason to assume that this practice was familiar to Native Americans.

Pahos are made by the Antelope priests and the Snake priests on the day before the Snake Dance. The male and female sticks are tied together in the middle along with a small bundle of herbs. Then the sticks are laid in front of the altar in the KIVA in tray-shaped baskets. Eventually they are used as offerings to the rain-gods, as rewards to the winner of the footraces, and in the arrangement of symbolic objects around the SAND PAINTING .

Sand Painting

In the center of the altar erected in the KIVA before the Snake Dance begins is an elaborate picture made of colored sand. The border is usually composed of four bands: yellow, green, red, and white. These bands are separated by black lines and represent the cardinal points of north, south, east, and west. The rectangular space they enclose, which can be as large as three by four feet, is filled with rows of semicircles arranged to look like fish scales. These represent rain clouds, and the short parallel lines on the border behind them represent the falling rain.

There are zigzag designs that represent lightning in the form of snakes, also colored yellow, green, red, and white with black outlines. Each of these lightning symbols has a triangular head with two dots for eyes, parallel bands around the "neck," and a single horn attached. The upright sticks set in clay holders and lined up on either side of the sand picture probably represent arrows or weapons of war, and there may be other symbolic items arranged around the border as well, such as cornstalks and gourds.

The sand painting is more than a work of art to the Hopis. It symbolizes the forces that bring rain to the fields and provide the crops so essential to the tribe's survival.

Snake Youth and Antelope Maid

A few days before the Snake Dance takes place, two children about fourteen years old are selected to represent the Snake Youth and the Antelope Maid. The girl is dressed in white robes, with her hair worn loose and a great deal of jewelry. She holds a ceremonial jar filled with trailing bean and melon vines-symbolic of the crops that need rain to flourish. The boy wears a white kirtle (tunic) and sash, and he holds the tiponi, which is a hollow cottonwood root containing snake rattles and tied with the feathers of eagles and other birds symbolizing the directions of the compass.

The two young people stand at the head of the SAND PAINTING while the priests blow ceremonial smoke wreaths, sprinkle meal and water over the painting, and recite the legend of the Snake Youth and the Antelope Maid-a process that can take several hours. Because the Snake Dance is actually a form of ancestor worship-not snake worship, as many believe-the Snake Youth and the Antelope Maid represent the ancestors of the Snake and Antelope clans.


Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. Fergusson, Erna. Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1931. Fewkes, Jesse Walter. Hopi Snake Ceremonies. Revised ed. Albuquerque: Avanyu Pub., 2000. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.


Hopi Tribe www.hopi.nsn.us
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Hopi Snake Dance

Every other year in August
The Snake Dance is the grand finale of ceremonies to pray for rain, held by individual Hopi tribes in Arizona every two years. Hopis believe their ancestors originated in an underworld, and that their gods and the spirits of ancestors live there. They call snakes their brothers, and trust that the snakes will carry their prayers to the Rainmakers beneath the earth. Thus the Hopi dancers carry snakes in their mouths to impart prayers to them.
The ceremonies, conducted by the Snake and Antelope fraternities, last 16 days. On the 11th day preparations start for the Snake Dance. For four days, snake priests go out from their village to gather snakes. On the 15th day, a race is run, signifying rain gods bringing water to the village. Then the Antelopes build a kisi, a shallow pit covered with a board, to represent the entrance to the underworld. At sunset on the 15th day, the Snake and Antelope dancers dance around the plaza, stamping on the kisi board and shaking rattles to simulate the sounds of thunder and rain. The Antelope priest dances with green vines around his neck and in his mouth—just as the Snake priests will later do with snakes.
The last day starts with a footrace to honor the snakes. The snakes are washed and deposited in the kisi. The Snake priests dance around the kisi. Each is accompanied by two other priests: one holding a snake whip and one whose function will be to catch the snake when it's dropped. Then each priest takes a snake and carries it first in his hands and then in his mouth. The whipper dances behind him with his left arm around the dancer's neck and calms the snake by stroking it with a feathered wand. After four dances around the plaza, the priests throw the snakes to the catchers. A priest draws a circle on the ground, the catchers throw the snakes in the circle, the Snake priests grab handfuls of them and run with them to turn them loose in the desert.
The Hopi Flute Ceremony takes place in alternate years.
Hopi Cultural Center
P.O. Box 67
Second Mesa, AZ 86043
520-734-2401; fax: 520-734-6651
Video of Hopi Snake Dance in 1913, Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave. S.E.
Washington, DC 20540
202-707-5510; fax: 202-707-2076
BkHolWrld-1986, Aug 22
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 1030
EncyNatAmerRel-2001, p. 276
EncyRel-1987, vol. 10, p. 520
EndurHarv-1995, p. 302
HolSymbols-2009, p. 383
RelHolCal-2004, p. 258
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
The Hopi Snake Dance has attracted many chroniclers, some of whom have been more careful and observant than others.
To view a short film of a Hopi Snake Dance filmed in 1913, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfmPGc yV7lM
The book's elegant title has always been confusing because the three ambitious essays that follow--"Indians and Entertainment," "The Dance of the Sprouting Corn," "The Hopi Snake Dance"--are about native American ceremonial dances in New Mexico.
Hyde's "supplementary note" describes the three-page essay as "an early version of 'The Hopi Snake Dance'"--which is sixteen pages long--but also acknowledges that "Just Back from the Snake Dance" is indeed "an independent creation." I believe that it's more accurate to characterize "Just Back from the Snake Dance" as an earlier, quite different response to thesnake dance rather than an earlier version of "The Hopi Snake Dance." As such, the essay should not be relegated to Appendix status.
I went to that area as well, in the '60s, and my experiences there have stayed in the back of my mind all these years--seeing the Hopi snake dance profoundly affected me--though I've never referred to them directly in my work.
First is the Hopi Snake Dance, an intensely sacred ritual that Whites originally dubbed "hideous" and "weird," and then flocked to by the thousands to witness.
A Hopi Snake Dance exhibit at Denver's Museum of Natural History