“If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it.”
—Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
As of the middle of July, more than half the country is in the grips of one of the worst droughts in decades. 1300 counties across the United States are already declared disaster areas and water rationing of some kind is in effect in cities from Indianapolis to the far west.
The biggest fire in Arizona history is slowly burning itself out and Colorado has seen fires devastate the fringes of urban areas south of Denver.
The American consumer is looking at higher prices as corn crops across the Midwest are dying in the fields. This is the context in which Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently said: “I get on my knees every day… and I’m saying an extra prayer now. If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it.”
As an American Indian all my life I have been cursed with the myth of the “Indian rain dance.” I am here to say there is no such thing. Not in my Potawatomi tribe or in any other tribe across the Americas.
My great-grandfather Mose Bruno was well-known down in Oklahoma as someone who could more often than not successfully predict the weather. But as far as I know he had no song or dance that could change it.
I should add a caveat—a family secret as it were. Whenever we have our ceremonies, conducted in a rather leaky round house, and a storm is coming our way? One of my relatives will bury an ax in the fork of a tree in the direction of the bad weather to split the storm. As often as not it works and I must say I, along with my kinfolks, believe it works.
If the ax in the fork of a tree does not work, it is because it was not planted in the right tree, or it was planted too late, but never do we question the ritual of planting an ax in the fork of a tree to split the storm.
And that’s the key to understanding rain ceremonies of some Indian nations, especially those most often cited as doing “rain dances,” the tribes in the arid Southwest.
Every summer, during July and August, as the superheated air off the Mojave desert to the west moves east to encounter the Coconino Plateau (7000’) and the San Francisco Peaks (13,000’+) the hot air off the desert and the cool air of the high mountains cause thunderstorms to form. These storms move from the southwest to the northeast right toward the Hopi reservation in north-central Arizona.
The weather pattern, called the ‘monsoon’ in Arizona, is predictable (monsoon actually comes from the Arabic word for season). Arizona’s monsoon may deposit only a few tenths of an inch of rain, but there may be 2-3 storms a week in the dry summer, just enough to water the corn at a critical time in its growth cycle.
Because the Hopi plant their crops in the mouths of washes, any runoff also waters the crops. For centuries Hopi farming techniques have utilized every drop of moisture and they remain one of the most culturally conservative native groups in the United States.
Every summer the Hopi hold late summer dances—but not to bring the rain. Like the ax in the tree, the rain is coming or not regardless of the ax or the dance. The dances are held to welcome the rain.
One summer I was hiking with friends at the Wupatki National Park which is exactly on a line from the San Francisco Peaks to the Hopi reservation. The day was clear, cloudless, until about one o’clock in the afternoon. Clouds began to roil over the peaks to the southwest and by two o’clock thunder could be heard in the distance. By 2:30 we were soaked to the skin by a “sudden” thunderstorm headed northeast to the Hopi reservation. I remembered it was the day of the Hopi Snake dance which is most often cited as a “rain dance.”
Snakes and rain are almost universal partners occurring in cultures from Eastern Europe to Chumash of Southern California. I’ve seen a lot of Chumash rock art and at almost every spring there is a painted figure with the familiar crosshatched markings of the diamondback rattlesnake.
So here is a suggestion for Secretary Vilsack about the rain dance he wants to do. Get half-naked, wear some feathers, put a live rattlesnake in your mouth and dance around outside. Likely it will not bring rain because few understand the cycles of the rain like the Hopi.
I know how the Hopi keep from getting bit by the snakes but I ain’t telling. And there is anti-venom of course.