Deer Dance By Matthew J. Barbour

February 14, 1694

Governor Vargas,

This morning we received word from Father Baca that the Pueblo peoples were gathering to perform their heathen rituals. Immediately, I departed with the priest and a detachment of sixteen men from the villa of Santa Cruz. We made our way due south along the Rio Grande to the heathen settlement of Santa Clara or as the natives refer to it, Kha’p’oo Owinge—which they say means ‘the land of the wild roses’. The journey did not take long and we arrived at the outskirts of the village at dusk.

As we approached, the sounds of drum beats and chanting told me that they were indeed practicing the forbidden arts. The whole village had gathered on the plaza. From the safety of some distance, I could make out that the barbarians were painted black and dressed in the skins of animals. Evergreen branches were fixed to their legs and arms. Adorning each pagan’s head was a crown of antlers: mostly deer but some on antelope, elk, and buffalo. They stomped in time with the beat of the drum.

I ordered the men to take up positions to secure the area. Father Baca approached the blasphemers and demanded that they disperse immediately or face the wrath of God! If they heard the holy man, they appeared not to notice.

We loaded our flintlocks and took aim at the dancers. The salvo silenced the beat of the drum and the choir of the damned. Then the smoke from the firearms enveloped us. We were briefly blinded, but through the fog of war we could hear a great commotion rise from the silence.

A deer ran by. First one and then another. Something larger passed too, with hair like that of an African, a bison perhaps. Now do not mistake my words, these were beasts not men. They moved on all fours, and fled as if startled by the gunfire. In the brief glimpse I was afforded, I could make out hooves and horns. They smelled of pinyon and juniper.

By the time the haze cleared, they were gone. The plaza lay empty of both man and beast, save for the crumbled body of Father Baca. He appeared to have been trampled to death. Animal tracks, those of deer, antelope, and buffalo, could be clearly seen in the sand surrounding his body. Yet, no foot prints were found. I ordered that a search of the village be conducted immediately, but not a single native was found.

Night has fallen. It is dark now. Bonfires blaze atop the black mesa to south. From its peak, I hear again the same despairing beat of the drum and the chant of the blasphemer. It is the sound of war. I dare not approach. Instead, I will make haste back to Santa Cruz. I beg of you! Send more men and another priest!

Your faithful and loyal commander,

Captain Luis Godoy


Matthew J. Barbour is the Manager of Jemez Historic Site (Giusewa/San Jose de los Jemez Mission) in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. He is a regular contributor to the Sandoval Signpost and Red Rocks Reporter newspapers. Mr. Barbour has published more than 50 nonfiction articles and monographs on the archaeology and history of the American Southwest. In 2012, he was awarded City of Santa Fe Heritage Preservation Award for Excellence in Archaeology.

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