The winter solstice signals the beginning of the year for the Zunis, who commemorate the occasion with a ceremonial dance, Sha’lak’o.
The winter solstice arrives tonight at 12:30 a.m. EST (officially December 22)—the moment when the Earth’s maximum axial tilt is the farthest away from the sun, ushering the shortest day and longest night of the solar year.
The Sha’lak’o dance bids farewell to the old and asks for blessings in the new year. “The Zuni word ‘Shalako’ refers to the ceremony, to the costumed figures of the dance, and to the spirits they personify,” states the book Two Zuni Artists: A Tale of Art and Mystery.
In Sha’lak’o, a Zuni boy, carrying a burning cedar torch and wearing a bag of seeds over his shoulder, represents the Fire God. He is painted black with circles of red, yellow, blue and white—the colors of the sun in Zuni iconography. The Fire God is followed by the Rain God of the North, who emerges behind a mask of black and white stripes. A long curved horn juts out of his right side, and he is dressed in white buckskin and adorned with jewelry. Others of the Council of Gods come, including the Shalako, the messengers of the gods. The Shalako wear masks symbolizing birds with clacking bills topping nine-foot-tall costumes of painted buckskin stretched over willow-wood frames.
Crossing the Zuni River, the Shalako dance in intricate patterns, reflecting “the village and the people’s state of grace,” the book states. Dancing ensues for four more days, and then new dancers are chosen for the next year, so as the cycle ends, it also begins.
The sacred ritual is generally only open to members of the tribe, and photography is strongly discouraged.