Shalako Ceremony

Shalako Ceremony

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal, Religious (Zuni)
Date of Observation: Late November-early December
Where Celebrated: New Mexico
Symbols and Customs: Shalako
Related Holidays: Winter Solstice


The Shalako Ceremony is part of the religious tradition of the Zuni Indians. 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 Shalako Ceremony is the most important event of the year for the Zuni Indians of New Mexico. It takes place in the early winter, after the crops are in, and the timing is crucial. Like several other Native peoples, the Zuni divide their ceremonial year into two parts: winter and summer. Winter begins at the WINTER SOLSTICE ; ceremonies during this half of the year tend to emphasize healing, conflict, and fertility. Summer ceremonies, which begin at the SUMMER SOLSTICE, are concerned with agriculture and the necessity for rain.

In former days, it was the duty of the Sun Priest to ensure that the Shalako Ceremony coincided as closely as possible with both the WINTER SOLSTICE and the full moon. During the eight days preceding the solstice, the Sun Priest would pray and fast, making pilgrimages to the sacred Thunder Mountain to commune with the Sun Father. On the ninth morning, he announced the approach of the solstice with a low, mournful call.

Nowadays everyone knows when the Shalako Ceremony will be held, and it attracts more outside visitors than any other Zuni festival. Preparations begin a full year in advance. Each of the SHALAKO must be housed and entertained during the festival- an expense that can take a family years to recover from. Although other members of the village help each host bring in his crop and fix up his house, the brunt of the expense falls to the individual. Sometimes a new house must be built to accommodate the Shalako dancers. At the very least, the existing house must be replastered.

About eight days before the ceremony, the Mudheads-clown-like figures wearing mud-daubed masks that resemble deformed human faces-announce the arrival of the SHALAKO . Early on the morning of the ceremony, the "impersonators of the gods" and their attendants leave the village quietly, carrying their masks and other paraphernalia hidden under their blankets. The Fire God-usually a young boy with his body painted black and spotted with red, yellow, blue, and white-and his ceremonial father visit each house where the Shalako will be staying and leave two prayer-plumes, symbolizing the original man and woman, in a box. The Council of the Gods arrives next, making the same rounds that the Fire God has made and pausing in front of each house to dance and shake bunches of deer bones. The Council includes Sayatasha, the Rain God of the North, and Hu-tu-tu, the Rain God of the South. They enter the house designated for Sayatasha through a hatchway in the roof and are greeted by the host and his family, who sprinkle them with sacred meal. Food is put out for the Council members, and everyone eats.

By the time the Council of the Gods disappears, it is sunset and time for the Shalako to appear and perform their dance. Spectators gather behind a barbed-wire fence set up in an open field. The SHALAKO appear just at dusk-six huge figures who tower above their attendants, wearing headdresses with eagle feathers that fan out like the rays of the sun. They carry their masks on long poles hidden under blankets, and the same man who carries the pole manipulates the mask's bulging eyes and clacks its wooden beak. Each Shalako has two attendants: a manager and a man who will relieve him when he tires of dancing while maneuvering the heavy superstructure. The switch in dancers takes place behind blankets so that no one will see what is going on and the children won't know that these images aren't really gods. The dancers take great pride in balancing their masks and never missing a step as they bend their knees, dip their heads, and then right themselves. At the end of the ceremony, each Shalako enters the house that has been prepared for him, and a welcoming ceremony is performed there.

More dancing begins at midnight in the SHALAKO houses, where the men take turns handling the heavy, swaying masks. The departure of the gods takes place around noon, with the Fire God followed by the Council of the Gods and finally the Shalako themselves. Long lines of spectators watch them leave, with their peculiar swooping motion and clacking wooden beaks. Since the Shalako act as messengers to the gods, their departure is the final prayer for rain to fill the rivers, wells, and springs before summer arrives.



According to Zuni legend, their ancestors emerged from the underworld to the earth's surface and searched for their "center," where they would find water and security. The Water Spider led them to an anthill, which he proclaimed was the center of the earth, instructing them to build their village there.

The Shalako, who are believed to have first appeared at Zuni around 1840, retrace the wanderings of the Zunis from the center of the earth to the modern pueblo. Since they are the couriers of the gods, they run back and forth all year carrying messages, bringing moisture and rain when it is needed. When they leave, they carry the Zunis' prayers for rain with them.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Fergusson, Erna. Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1931. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1993. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.


Pueblo Cultural Center
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009