The Snake Priest depicts a squatting American Indian, thrusting at a coiled snake with a snake whip, an important accessory to the Hopi Snake Ceremony. An unpublished biography of Charles Russell, written by Daniel Conway from information provided by Russell's wife, explains that the figure is Lomanakshu, Chief of the Mishongnovi Snake Fraternity. While Russell might not have ever seen such a ceremony, he may have been familiar with a report about them by George A. Dorsey, published in the "Field Columbian Museum Anthropological Series," June 1902. Dorsey witnessed a ceremony in Mishongnovi, a village in New Mexico.
According to Dorsey, the whip was made of a shaft of wood about nine inches long, painted red, to which were fastened two long eagle tail feathers by many wrappings of buckskin thong. The sculpture seems to capture the moment when Lomanakshu exerts control over the coiled reptile. "As soon as the snake is dropped the gatherer concerns himself with it, either picking it up at once or first letting it glide away a short distance," Dorsey wrote. "If the reptile be a rattlesnake and threatens to coil, the man touches it with the points of his snake whip, moving the latter rapidly. A rattlesnake already coiled up and ready to fight, even the most experienced priest will not touch it until he has induced it to uncoil."