A Celebration of Women Writers

From "The Zuni Scalp Ceremonial" by Mrs. Matilda Coxe Stevenson (1849 - 1915).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 484-487.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 484] 



The Zuñi Indians have thirteen secret cult societies, and one of these is the Society of the Bow or Warriors. It is the common belief among many of the North American Indians, that before coming to this world they lived in under worlds, and that their point of advent is in the Northwest.

Zuñi legends recount many conflicts with strange peoples as they migrated from the Northwest to find the middle of the world; but their goal was destined to be reached at all hazards.

Watsutsi and Kôwwitumi, sons and warriors of the Sun, who had, at the command of the Sun-father, sought the Zuñi in the under world and brought them to his presence, afterward accompanying them on their journey, had grown weary with fighting and requested their father to send two others to work in their stead. In answer to their desire the Sun-father had rain fall until the cascade of the mountain-side no longer glided placidly over the rocks to the basin below, but went dashing and dancing in merriment, and in her joy she was caught in the Sun's embrace and bore twin children of the froth of her delight.

Watsutsi and Kôwwitumi, looking toward the cascade, discovered two little fellows upon the waters in the basin whom they at once recognized to be of divine origin. Kôwwitumi inquired of these wee ones, "Who is your father?" Ahaiūta, the firstborn, replied, "The Sun is our father." "Who is your mother?" and he answered, "Laughing Water is our mother." "It is well; thanks, it is good. I am very tired from fighting and I wish you to work for me." "All right," said the elder, "we will fight for you." Then Watsutsi spoke: "We have fought two days, but we can not vanquish the enemy." The new-born gods of the Laughing Water replied, "We will join you; perhaps we can destroy the enemy, perhaps not."

After many fruitless attempts to overthrow the leader of the opposing forces Ahaiūta sent his younger brother to solicit aid from the Sun-father and to learn how the Chaquena's heart could be destroyed. The Sun gave two turkis rabbit-sticks to Māāsēwe, telling him that in striking the Chaquena's rattle, he would strike her heart which she carried in the rattle. On his return he gave one rabbit-stick to his brother who threw it, but missed the rattle; then Māāsēwe threw his, striking the rattle, when the Chaquena fell dead, and her army fled. The Chaquena's scalp was divided and held by a man who stood inside the circle, Kôwwitumi, Watsutsi, Ahaiūta and Māāsēwe accompanying them.

The brothers then went to the home of the ants at Shipapolima–all ants lived here. [Page 485]  The war gods repeated their story in the ceremonial chamber of the ants, and the director of the society said: "It is well; sit down, my fathers and my children." The voice of the dead Navajo woman was soon heard calling, "Where are my husbands?" The director of the society replied, "They are sitting here." The ghost-voice said: "I wish them to come out." "You come in," said the director. Four times these words passed between them, then the being entered Shipapolima. Ahaiūta and Māāsēwe again struck her with their war clubs, and carrying her out threw her off.

The mere killing of an enemy does not entitle the victor to become a member of the Society of the Bow; he must bear as trophies the scalp, and at least a portion of the buckskin apparel as actual proof of his prowess. Thus the Zuñi, like other primitive peoples, make trophy-bearing a necessity for distinction as warriors.

There are at the present time but fifteen members of the Society of the Bow, two of these being the priest and his vicar, or younger brother, who follow in succession after Ahaiūta and Māāsēwe, and are supposed to carry the sacred traditions of their divine predecessors. The offices of priest and vicar are for life, but either one is subject, for sufficient reason, to impeachment. Now that inter-tribal wars have virtually ceased there is no further opportunity to initiate new members into the Society of the Bow, and as the scalp ceremonial is necessary in order to please the gods that they will send much rain, it occurs in every detail once in three or four years by command of the priest of the bow. The scalps used at these times are taken from the scalp vase, in which such trophies have rested since the establishment of Zuñi, or, perhaps, earlier.

The priest of the bow, having decided on a time for the ceremonial, notifies the scalp custodian, who in turn requests the priest to designate two men to act as victor and elder brother. This accomplished the priest chooses two members of the society and two other men to personate the warriors returning from battle; subsequently the scalp washers and their fellows are appointed. The evening of the day on which the actors in this drama are selected, the four representatives of the returning warriors leave the village on horseback and, fully equipped, spend the night a distance north of the Pueblo. At sunrise they start on their return, and on discovering the first ant-hill they dismount. The two members of the Society of the Bow stand a short distance off while the others stoop before the ant-hill. One of these men maintains silence while the other addresses the ants in a low prayer. Plume-offerings and shells are deposited on the ant-hill.

A large number of people congregate to receive the party. The scalp custodian faces the four men while the spokesman addresses the people: "We have been to the land of the enemy. The enemy no more will see the light of day." The scalp custodian expectorates on a bit of cedar bark, waves it to the cardinal points, zenith and nadir, for purification, and throws it upon the ground. The four men then retire to their homes. The following morning the two warriors who act as victor and elder brother each hand a tiny vase, filled with rainwater, and a diminutive gourd dipper, which were given to them by the arch-ruler, to the scalp custodian; and about 3 o'clock two scalps (every vestige of hair having long since disappeared) are taken from the great pottery vase which stands permanently in the scalp house. With these articles the custodian proceeds to a sequestered spot surrounded by hillocks and ravines and deposits the scalps on the ground, placing a vase of water and a gourd beside each. The scalp custodian then lights a fire between the scalps and runs a circle of meal around on the ridge. The circle is symbolic of the border of the enemy's land; the burning fagots represent the campfire; the scalps denote the enemy in camp; the water is symbolic of rain.

The custodian then returns to the village, and the chosen victor and elder brother hasten to the spot, traveling on foot. Each collects a cedar twig from the top of a tree, four equilateral triangular cuts are made with an archaic stone knife, and the twig is snapped off. Discovering the campfire, one exclaims: "I think there is an enemy." One then passes around the circle of meal to the right, the other to the left; [Page 486]  meeting on the opposite side, they hold the cedar twig in the left hand and shoot at the enemy, each arrow piercing a scalp. The arrows are not removed, the scalp being placed under the toga under the region of the heart, the feathered end of the shaft touching the chin. The tiny vases of water and gourds are transported in the blanket, where it is held around the waist.

In the meantime the warriors and officers of the Ant Society gather in a circle near the victor, each warrior depositing a plume offering at some ant-hill before joining the group. They enjoy a social smoke and chat until the arrival of the sun priest, priest of the west, and priest of the bow, when all join in a ceremonial smoke. The priest of the bow now selects two youths to stand on the mounds and clasp one another's left hands over the excavation. The victor and elder brother, stepping on the crossed yucca fronds, pass up the line of meal and under the clasped hands, each carrying a scalp. As soon as they pass under the scalps are received by the custodian and vice, who lay them on the ground a short distance southwest of the mounds. The priest of the fetich clasps the victor to his breast, while the priest of the north embraces the elder brother. The two then reverse places and are embraced, long prayers being repeated each time by the two priests; they are then embraced by the other five rain priests. The two scalp kickers then place their left arms through the right arms of the victor and elder brother and proceed a short distance north of the group, each couple going to an ant-hill, where they deposit plume wands; the men offer prayers, but the women do not speak, as no woman not past child-bearing period may speak at the house of the ants.

When all the warriors have passed under the hands the populace follow, the equestrians dismounting for the purpose. "They step over the sacred road of meal to the home of the ants that they may keep their lives when passing about the country or contending with the enemy."

The rain priests and priest of the fetich are exempt from this feature of the ceremonial, as their place is at home and not amid the danger of travel and war. The scalp kickers start the scalps with the left foot and so keep them in front, the right foot never being used for the purpose; they may not look to the right or to the left, but only straight ahead. The victor and elder brother are next the two kickers, then follow the priest of the bow, the Ant Society, the scalp custodian and his vice, the pamosontka (female aid to the scalp custodian), and then the populace, some on foot, others mounted, making the air ring with rifle and pistol shots and the war-whoop. If this imaginary scalping can produce such frenzy, what must have been the scene when they in reality came back victorious from battle with the hated Navajo!

The procession passes around the village from left to right, coil-fashion, and on reaching the plaza they form concentric circles. The scalp custodian and vice hold the scalps, which are still attached to the cedar twigs, and stand in the center of the circle. The priest of the bow approaches the custodian, who picks off a bit of scalp attaching it to an arrow of the priest, who then passes around the inner circle four times from left to right. The first time he runs his arrow over the ankles of the men and women whom he passes, the second time he draws it above their knees, the third time by the waist, the fourth over the head that their hearts may be pure and know no fear. Each time as he reaches the starting point all present expectorate on cedar bark and carry it around the head four times from left to right, the priest of the bow, instead, waving his arrow held in the right hand. After the fourth time all males give the warwhoop, and the priest shoots the arrow containing the bit of scalp toward the north–the home of the hated Navajo.

By this time the moon has risen and the scene grows more picturesque. The sun priest, who stands on the south, calls to the populace to "join in the dance." It must be appreciated that an enemy destroyed becomes a friend; therefore, the destruction of the enemy so pleases the gods that a reward of rain is made, the scalp ceremonial being a rain festival. The custodian and vicar now attach the scalps to a pole and plant the pole in an excavation previously made for it in the center of the plaza. [Page 487] 

After the pole is hoisted all hands gather about it for a time; then the crowd disperses to take the evening meal. Later, the populace again encircle the pole and dance throughout the night. This dance is repeated twelve nights, under the very shadow of the old church erected by the Spanish invaders nearly three hundred years since, with the hope of bring these people to the Christian faith. None are too aged and few too young to participate in this dance of rejoicing and song for the destruction of the enemy.

The members of the Society of the Bow and the two scalp kickers adjourn to the ceremonial chamber of the bow where a feast is served. The first four nights are spent by the two scalp kickers, the victor and elder brother in the ceremonial house of the warriors, when the men sit apart from the women and do not speak to them. On the fifth day the scalp custodian removes the scalps from the pole and they are carried by the scalp washers to a secluded spot on the river bank and washed. A bit of the scalp is eaten by each man for courage in destroying the enemy.

At midnight on the twelfth night, idols of the war gods, Ahaūita and Māāsēwe, and objects to be deposited with them are carried by their makers to the ceremonial chamber of warriors. An all-night ceremonial is held, and at sunrise the custodian removes the scalps from the pole and attaches them to a pole some six feet high, planting it in the northwestern corner of the plaza. By 9 o'clock the six rain priests and all the warriors have collected in the ceremonial chamber. After entering the ceremonial chamber, each has a large white buckskin doubled and tied at the throat, hanging over the shoulders and caught at the waist by an embroidered Tusayan sash. The priest of the bow applies to their faces an ointment made of the fat of the animals of the cardinal points, and the water-sprinklers rub on the faces of the warriors a red pigment and afterward galena. The victor takes his seat, extending his legs and leaning back in his chair with an air of making himself as comfortable as possible. The priest of the bow places a cloth around him, barber fashion, and stands behind the chair pressing both hands on the victor's forehead, while the sun priest prepares to paint the face. He has a small black and highly polished archaic pottery vase and an old medicine bag; the vase is supposed to contain a black paint brought from the under-world, and the bag contains corn pollen. The sun priest dips a stick of yucca into the paint and proceeds to paint the lower portion of the face. He then applies corn pollen to the upper portion by stippling with a mop of raw cotton, a corn husk being laid over the black during this process to protect it from the pollen. The warrior of the Ant Society covers the chin, upper lip, end of nose and forehead with eagle down, and a wreath of the same is fashioned around the crown of the head, the down being held in place by a paste of kaolin. The sun priest then places an arrow point in the mouth of the victor and elder brother with a prayer. The arrows are not removed from the mouth until sunset. The warclub, pouch, quiver and bow complete the toilet.

The priest of the bow whirls the buzzer which calls for the rains to come. This instrument is commonly called a bull-roarer, and is extensively known among savage peoples. It is said by writers to be used in work savage warriors into frenzy, though such is not the case with the Pueblo tribes by whom the instrument is used to create enthusiasm among the rain-makers.

If the nightly dancing around the scalp pole arouses these people, the dances on the closing day of the ceremonial fires them to the extreme.

The epic songs of the Society of the Bow during this prolonged ceremonial are histrionic. They are inspiring and are devoid of any exhibition which could stir a single brute element within the breast of man. These warriors honor the gods with the song and dance that they may have rain in plenty, for in this arid land the highest gift of the gods is from the clouds.

[Page 484] 

Mrs. Matilda Coxe (Evans) Stevenson was born at San Augustine, Tex., May 12, 1849. Her parents were Alexander H. Evans and Maria Matilda (Coxe) of Washington, D.C. She was educated at Miss Anable's Academy in Philadelphia, and has traveled extensively over the Western United States and in Mexico. She married Col. James Stevenson, explorer and ethnologist, in 1872. Her profession is that of ethnologist of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, D.C. The intrepidity and zeal which she had manifested in her researches among barbarous tribes are noteworthy, and her investigations have been rewarded with gratifying results, for they have increased in a substantial degree our knowledge of tribal life and society. Her postoffice address is Bureau of Ethnology, Washington, D.C.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Kris Kleeberg.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom