Native Artist Fred Kabotie
If we look at Fred Kabotie's representation of the Hopi Snake Dance, we can discover no visual elements that
correspond to these or the other concepts so clearly exemplified by Couse's work. Neither sublime nor
picturesque, neither romanticized nor treated as spectacle, Kabotie's painting proceeds from an entirely
independent set of formal and observational criteria, reflecting a perspective that deeply engages the artist's
self-knowledge and that of his society.
One of the most striking differences between Kabotie's work and that of Carpenter and Couse is its organization,
which brings a structure of geometric clarity to the representation of the Snake Dance that is totally foreign to
the other compositions. This rational approach pertains in some measure to the segment of the ritual Kabotie
elected to represent. Carpenter appears to have taken his photograph at a stage in the performance when the
snakes are first exposed to public view, portraying an event that Euro-American spectators might have found the
most shocking moment of the entire rite. The serpents, collected days earlier and cared for in the Snake Society
Kiva, are housed on the day of the event in a ceremonial bower called the kisi.
At Right: Upclose View
of Kabotie's Snake Dance
After a series of preparatory dances, chants, and ritual circuits through the plaza have been completed, the lead
Snake Dancer enters the bower and emerges with the first reptile dangling between his teeth. As he begins his
dance, which will circumscribe the courtyard once again, he is joined by a second dancer, who places his hand on
the lead dancer's shoulder and uses a special feather-tipped wand to soothe the agitated snake. A third man
follows to control the serpent when it is finally released, preventing it from escaping into the crowd. Other
Snake Society participants follow, first completing a circuit of the plaza, and then dancing in independent groups.
Couse appears to have added additional elements that evoke the subsequent phase, when, after all the dancers have
joined the performance, as many as fifty to sixty snakes may fill the dance area. The scene he illustrates
suggests chaos, as well as the viewer's uncomfortable sense of how close the creatures are to the spectators
who line the plaza's edge. In their circuits of the courtyard, the dancers press close to the crowds who assemble
along its walls. As early as the 1890s, the Snake Dance had already begun to attract throngs of visitors, whose
eyewitness accounts emphasize the fascination and alarm with which they greeted this particular phase of the
Kabotie's representation, however, focuses on a different stage of the ritual which represents the climax of the
nine days of open and closed observances that are required to complete its full ceremonial cycle. It is a moment
that underscores the dance's most significant religious purposes, and Kabotie illustrates it with a composition
that alludes to the profound reciprocity the Hopi perceive between their religious actions and the natural order.
At the rite's conclusion, when all the serpents have been released, the chief Snake Society dancer sprinkles
sacred cornmeal on the ground to form a large circular design. He then tosses cornmeal offerings from each of
the six cardinal directions toward the circle's center, generating a ritual pattern that replicates the spatial
geometry of the Hopi universe.
These conceptions of unity and directional order provide the model for many aspects of Hopi sacred and secular
life, influencing social organization, the divisions of the ritual calendar, and the individual's orientation with
respect to family, community, and a richly conceived spiritual world. Other dancers then gather the snakes and
place them in the circle, where women and girls will enter to bless and honor the animals by sprinkling them with
meal. With this last step complete, the Snake Society members remove the reptiles and carry them away from the
village along four paths, finally releasing them at certain shrines. There they will become messengers who convey
the community's goodwill and prayers to the powerful spirits who dwell at each cardinal point. The rewards that
follow a dance correctly performed are fertility, rain, and the well-being of the Hopi people, with benefits for all
The scene Kabotie portrays includes elements that suggest he intended to depict this pivotal moment of the
performance. The Snake Society dancers, distinguished by their brown kilts and mask-like facial paint, gather in a
tight circle that confines the mass of slithering snakes. Their kilts are decorated with undulating black and white
bands, which serve as symbols for both serpents and lightning. Each wears a crown of red-dyed feathers and broad
areas of black paint applied to his upper face contrast with the white zone that covers his mouth and chin.
Several men bear serpents in their arms to deposit in the sacred ring, while two dancers in the foreground move
to capture others that have begun to escape.
Behind the Snake Society dancers stand a row of figures whose white feathers, kilts, and body paint identify
them as members of the Antelope Kiva, who traditionally assist the Snake Society in this dance. Holding the
rattles they use to provide accompaniment for the dancers, they appear before the kisi, the bower of cottonwood
branches that serves as a shrine for the ceremony. In addition to providing a repository for the serpents, the
bower's vegetative symbolism alludes to the revitalizing purpose of this performance. Unseen at its base is a pit
dug in the floor of the plaza that symbolizes the sipapu, the place of emergence in Hopi accounts of cosmogenesis.
A medium for communication between the living Hopi people and the ancestral spirits who will receive their
prayers for healing, renewal, and rain, the sipapu reflects the ritual's vital role in linking the present and future
to the generative wellsprings of their ancient past. A group of women clad in red and white mantas waits
patiently toward the left side of the composition for their role in what will be the final gesture of the dance.
Each holds a plaque of cornmeal, and the first to step forward has already entered the circle, scattering the
offering toward the serpents at her feet.
By electing to represent this key moment of the Snake Dance performance, Kabotie not only has emphasized its
most meaningful act, but has also allowed the viewer to witness something of its inherent orderliness and solemn
beauty. The circle formation brings the dancers and their attendants together in a gesture of cooperation that
reflects the harmonious integration of individuals within the social collective, one of the most fundamental
ethical precepts of Hopi life.
Although Kabotie does not represent the spectators who would be present to behold the rite, his vantage point,
which draws the observer within the picture plane, into the midst of the dancers circle, introduces the
understanding that this community embraces the observer as well. Kabotie's vantage point is situated high,
slightly above the dancers, permitting a panoramic view. This strategy not only permits the observer to fully
comprehend the group's formation, but to assume something of the perspective enjoyed by the Hopi themselves,
who generally view plaza dances from the rooftops of their homes.
While Kabotie's image uses the dancers' centripetal action to draw attention to their unity, he also devotes
special attention to their individual features of height, posture, gesture, and stance. Each assumes a balanced
role in the composition that strikes harmony between individuation and belonging in the larger social unit,
reflecting a concern for the parity between individual and society that is shared among all Pueblo groups.
Deats, L. Contemporary Native American Artists. 2012.
Reno, D. Contemporary Native American Artists. 1995.
Schaaf, G. American Indian Jewelry I: 1200 Artist Biographies. 2003.