This year, the public was permitted to photograph Los Matachines dances at Taos Pueblo on Christmas Day. This is not a change of policy that will affect all future Christmastime ceremonials.
They have to do with religious versus secular motives. Here is the rule: On years when the tribe’s Deer Dance takes place, all photography and recording are not permitted. Any person caught taking pictures or making recordings of any kind risks having their equipment confiscated. The Deer Dance is an important part of the tribe’s Native American religion.
On years like this one, when Los Matachines are performed, photography and recording are allowed. The reason is that Los Matachines is not part of Native religion. It is a dance with deep historical roots stretching beyond the Spanish colonial era in the Southwest.
The Taos News has, in the past, published photographs of the events at Christmas, but only at times when Los Matachines is done and only after express permission from the Taos Pueblo government.
Los Matachines is one of the more colorful ethnic dances of Northern New Mexico, and it is one of the least understood. Often it is performed around Christmastime at Indian pueblos, but its origin is quite old and comes to the region via Spain.
During the bonfires and procession of the Virgin Mary on Christmas Eve, pueblo residents and visitors observed the dancers, adorned in tall, miter-like be-ribboned headdresses, vests and cowboy boots. They held palmas and rattles. They followed the canopied statue in procession through the village plaza shortly after dusk, accompanied by loud rifle shots and the singing of hymns and prayers. In among them was a little girl dressed in white, known as La Malinche.
The people who performed Los Matachines are chosen by the tribal council. “The elders took part in it and really enjoyed doing it,” said 2017 Taos Pueblo Gov. Ruben Romero of past performances. Romero was in charge of organizing this year’s performance and conducting practices for the dancers.
One of the more curious aspects of this dance to the uninformed observer is that although this dance is Hispanic in origin, it is performed by Native American people along with a few Hispanic participants. The distinctive fiddle and guitar music is obviously non-native and the regalia is certainly not that of ancient Pueblo Indian tradition. According to historians, the dance evolved over hundreds of years, starting with the Moors and borrowed by Spanish colonists, who brought it with them to the New World. By the time the dance made its way into New Mexico, it is thought that Spanish priests used it to help convert native people to Christianity by illustrating spiritual ideals through its essential morality play.
Over time, like many things here, an assimilation took place, blending elements from both cultures that resulted in the performance taking on a life of its own.
While many Pueblo Indians follow the Roman Catholic religion, they also maintain extreme loyalty to their ancient native religion, evidence that the initial motive behind the dance was not entirely successful. However, because this dance comes to us now as a blend of two seemingly opposing traditions, it remains one of those Southwestern anomalies that scholars continue to puzzle over.
Romero said, from when he was very young, he remembers how men from the Pueblo would sometimes borrow vests and other non-Indian accoutrements from Hispanic friends in town.
“Now, of course, they purchase their own,” he said, which can be rather expensive.
“It’s pretty hard on some of the people,” he acknowledged, “even for the tribe. But, every year, they put money aside. They made a budget to cover some of the expense just in case this kind of dance does come up during Christmas.”
In the version of the dance he teaches, Romero said there are 12 main dancers, one represents each of the apostles, six chosen from the north side of the village and six from the south. Also, there is the “Malonca (Monarca), [who] represents Joseph, and the little girl (Malinche) represents Saint Mary.”