San Benito Lifestyle

Rain dances return to San Juan Bautista in a time of drought

Local Native elders invite the community to join in prayers.
Laynee Reyna. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Laynee Reyna. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Sonne and Laynee Reyna with Navah (3) and Noam (7) Cherniak. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Sonne and Laynee Reyna with Navah (3) and Noam (7) Cherniak. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Jim Ostdick with rain stick. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Jim Ostdick with rain stick. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Sonne and Laynee Reyna with Navah (3) and Noam (7) Cherniak. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Sonne and Laynee Reyna with Navah (3) and Noam (7) Cherniak. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The first day of August was a beautiful, sunny day, and Native American Elder Laynee Reyna intended to change that, bringing rain to San Juan Bautista if she could.  

For the third Sunday in a row, Laynee and her husband Sonne Reyna were at the plaza in front of Mission San Juan Bautista, encouraging passersby to join them in performing a rain dance, a tradition they began here almost a decade ago.

“We started this years ago during a terrible drought,” Laynee said. “I met a woman at the bank who told me she was going to have to sell her ranch because she could not take care of her cattle. She was standing there crying and my heart went out to her. So I called rain dancers from various areas to come out and dance with us. We had a huge turnout and we carried on every Sunday after that until the rain started to come.”

For that first rain dance in 2004, Laynee enlisted Indian Canyon’s Kanyon Sayers to help recreate a dance and song to perform.

Not all the dancers were quite on the same page, though.

“There were some sun dancers there the first time,” Laynee said. “They were doing sun dances, which is not at all what we wanted. We needed rain, not the sun! We had to tell them to dance the rain dance instead.”

The Reynas plan to come out every Sunday to continue their ritual and prayers until the rains begin to fall. The hour-long ceremony and dance begins with honoring the four directions of the compass, leading to chanting and dancing.

“We pray and our prayers go up to the sky,” Laynee said. “We start off turning to the west, Wakiyata, and honor the things that fly: the rainbird, the thunderbird. Then we turn to the north, which is waziyata, and then to the east, yampa, and to the south, okaga. ”

The crowd that weekend was smaller than usual, perhaps because the last day of the Gilroy Garlic Festival drew people away from the small tourist town. But the nine people attending, with their drums and rain sticks, put forward their best effort to get the rain to come as dozens more watched.

For Laynee, the dance was in part aiming to coax the monsoons that are creeping up through Southern California to come north for a while, and in part hoping to educate people on the perils of climate change.

“We need to bring awareness because we are damned and dying,” Laynee said. “That sounds harsh but it is true. All the fossil fuels, everything they are putting up in the air, has created this problem in the environment. We are very worried about our beautiful planet and we have to be more aware. We have to focus, each individual, on living our most excellent life and take care of each other and the earth.”

Local author and geologist Jim Ostdick has taken part in many of the rain dances in the past.

“Doing the songs and the rain dance sure can’t hurt anything” he said, “We are not just in the middle of this terrible drought, but also in the middle of fire season. Where I live, there are a lot of redwood trees and the drought is visible—they are thirsty. If you believe in the power of prayer, then maybe we can drag some of the rainstorms down south up here with positive actions and positive thinking.”

Rain dancing may be associated in people’s minds with Native American culture, but similar weather rituals to bring rain are found in the ancient traditions of Egypt, China, Africa and Europe. Prayers for rain also appear in the Bible in Zechariah 10:1: “Ask rain from the Lord in the season of the spring rain, from the Lord who makes the storm clouds, and he will give them showers of rain, to everyone the vegetation in the field.”

Sonne believes that the modern world needs to be more in touch with the beliefs and faith of earlier times.

“People need to wake up and realize that our ancestors had the power and the will to pray to the rain,” he said. “When we pray, we call to the rain and it comes. The rain is an energy force and it can’t say ‘no.’”

 

 

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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink approached me as a photographer by have since encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.