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Tigua Indians: Dancing for St. Anthony
Article first published in Vol. 10, 1992.
By Lynn Cordova, Daniel Morales and Jose Hernandez.
Thum-thum! Thum-thum! As the sun rises on another hot June day, special Tigua dancers and drummers gather for prayer on this religious holiday. Even though their traditions came from persecution and capitulation, they feel the reverence imparted from generations before them as they gather to worship.
Dancers in procession through Ysleta. Photo by Victor Calzada.
The Tigua Indians people came originally from the northern pueblos of Isleta, New Mexico. In the early 1500s, 20 different villages existed near present-day Taos and Albuquerque. Coronado's expedition to New Mexico between 1540-1542 brought Catholicism to the native people. The Spaniards forced the Indians to construct a mission church in 1612 and dedicated it to Saint Anthony of Padua.
Then followed years of forced labor, enslavement and destruction of the Pueblos by the Spanish conquerors. On August 10, 1680, led by a man named Popé, the Pueblo Indians drove the Spanish out of New Mexico in an act known as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The conquistadors feared for their lives and fled south to the Paso del Norte. Three hundred five Tiwas, as they were known in the north, were coerced into being a barrier between the Spanish and the angry Pueblos.
The Tiwas camped briefly near present-day Canutillo while the Spanish leaders left for the Paso del Norte to ask permission of the governor to settle in the area. At that time the Piro Indians were settled at Socorro and the Spanish in Senecu, near the current location of the Juárez Race Track. That left the Tiwas to settle in what is now Ysleta, Texas.
Once settled, they built a mission church, Sacramento de los Tihuas de Ysleta (Sacrament of the Tiguas of Ysleta) with San Antonio de Padua as their protector. This followed the tradition set by the earlier Isleta, New Mexico, mission. Spanish friars lived with the Tigua people to enforce their conversion to Catholicism.
The Spaniards, still not ready to admit defeat, tried in 1681 to recapture the lands they had once held in northern New Mexico. Defeated once again, they returned with 317 Tiwa hostages as human shields from further attack.
Every year since 1681 the Tiwa Indians of Ysleta have held day-log dances to honor to St. Anthony on his feast day, June 13. At five in the morning the dancers gather at the tuhla (pronounced too'-lah), a ceremonial chamber. The cacique (tribal leader) and war captains meet with the women and men who have committed to dance in the ceremony. The dancers will perform all day, so the event is a test of physical endurance.
Special clothing and symbols are worn during the celebration. Tigua men dress in khaki fringed shirts and trousers belted with a wide , colorful hand-woven sash, traditionally worn on ceremonial occasions. The men dance with a bow in their left hand and a gourd rattle in their right hand.
Women wear the traditional ceremonial black "manta" ( a straight dress with one shoulder bare) over e white blouse and a sash similar to the one worn by men.
Both men and women accent their costumes with jewelry of their choice, most likely silver, turquoise and coral pieces. They also wear knee-high, soft leather moccasins with hard soles to support their feet throughout the traditional ceremonial event.
At sunrise the ceremony starts. The dancers dance at the three symbolic locations for their people: tuhla, the mission and the pueblo's community center. The dance begins at the tuhla. Entrance is prohibited to outsiders because of its meaningful symbolism and activity.
After the meeting at the tuhla, the Tiguas proceed to the next symbolic building , the Ysleta Mission. Onlookers stand outside their houses to watch the Indians pass. Soon spectators will follow to witness the dancing. Sounds of the drums and the songs mingle with blasts from shotgun fire, which announces the procession.
As they arrive at the mission door, the men line up facing north to the left of the door, and the women face south, lining up to the right. The dance is performed in groups of four, separated into couples of men and women, with as many as 24 or more dancers participating altogether. The tribal singers gather around the drum and sing in chorus, setting the tone for the dance.
A good male dancer sharply lifts his knees as he dances, maintaining the rhythm of the chants and drum beats. Women are more conservative with their movements and use more of a flat, shuffling step. The couples dance a slow, rhythmic step into the church for mass.
Following the mass, the dances carry a statue of St. Anthony around the mission, returning it to its niche inside the church after the procession.
Next, members of the tribal council and the dance captains stand at the entrance to the church, and the dancers line up before them. Members of the community with mandas to St. Anthony (promises made for favors granted) kneel before the council members and assume a penitent position. The council members alternate whipping the backs of the individuals' legs with fresh green willow branches taken from the Rio Grande and neighboring immigration ditches.
After the rite of penitence, the dancers stay in the church square and dance through the late morning. Then they continue by proceeding about a quarter of a mile through the Ysleta community until they reach their pueblo. A special feast is served for the occasion.
The food for the feast is primarily prepared by the women of the mayordomos, families charged with the year's organization of the St. Anthony ceremony. The dancers are served first, and then the community at large is let in to enjoy the traditional food. Chile con carne, albondigas (meatballs) and special bread casserole is prepared only for the feast.
The dancers then perform all afternoon under a shelter in the front yard of the community center. At three o'clock, the mayordomo families officially turn over their stewardship of the St. Anthony feast to the following year's three families
Near sunset, which occurs late in the summer, the tired dancers go in procession back to the tuhla, the center of the pueblo's ceremonial life. The procession ends, and this completes the ceremonial event.
Before the invasion of the world by the Spanish, the Tiwa believed in nature, harmony and balance. Once they were indoctrinated in the faith brought by the Spanish friars, their heritage was expanded to include Catholic tradition. The dancing on St. Anthony's day integrates a Tiwa corn dance with Catholic prayer and belief.
The Tiwa annually recreate their religious "roots" in a tradition dating back to 1612 with the construction of the first mission to St. Anthony in Isleta, New Mexico. Even older is their reverence for the corn, which gave them life. In their unique position in the history of the border the Tiguas have maintained a unique mixture of cultures.