set in the southeastern part of the Colorado Plateau - a geographic
area that extends throughout the Four Corners region of the southwestern
United States – the Zuni Pueblo is surrounded by a spectacular
expanse of tablelands, mesas, cliffs, and canyons. The Zuni refer to
their Pueblo as Halona Idiwan’a, meaning“Our Middle Place.”
The Zuni culture is thought to be derived from both the Mogollon and
Ancestral Pueblo people – The Anasazis, who lived in the deserts
of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and southern Colorado for over two thousand
The Zuni language is unique and spoken only by the Zuni people. However,
it has been influenced to some extent by languages from neighboring
tribes - Hopi, Keresan, Tanoan, Navajo and Pima. The native name for
Zuni is Shiwi or Shiwi'ma (the
Zuni way) and the Zuni call themselves A:shiwi. The name Zuni is adapted
from the Keresan Suni'tsi, meaning “unknown.”
Zuni legends have been handed down through the generations as stories
told by the elders. Zuni legends tell of a time when Children of the
Sun led their ancestors out of the underworld through four wombs of
earth searching for the center of the Universe – the Middle Place.
After many wanderings, they finally found the middle, called Hepatina,
where they built their first village, Itiwana. Zuni ancestors, according
to this legend, had reached the site of Halona, the present Zuni Pueblo.
a population of approximately 12,000 people, the present Zuni Pueblo
is the largest of the nineteen Pueblos in New Mexico. It is built upon
a small knoll on the north bank of the Zuni River, about three miles
west of the towering Dowa Yalanne Mesa. Nearby rocky mesas and
canyons probably served as quarries for the stone used in its construction.
The Pueblo has been continuously occupied since 1692. Located in the
northwestern part of the New Mexico, along its western border, the Zuni
pueblo is about 35 miles south of Gallup, New Mexico and 150 miles west
of Albuquerque. It extends over more than 700 square miles, covering
450,000 acres. Most of its residents live in the main village of Zuni
and in the nearby community of Black Rock.
pueblo construction used limestone blocks or large adobe bricks made
from clay and water measuring approximately 8 by 16 inches with a thickness
of 4 to 6 inches. The structures were modeled after the cliff dwellings
built by the Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) culture. Typical pueblo buildings
were constructed as high as four or five stories tall. Within the Zuni
Pueblo are courtyards and terraces. Defense was a key factor in the
original architectural plan for the Pueblo. Rooms were accessed through
openings in the roofs from ladders, which could be pulled up to prevent
religious ceremonies are held in Kivas, which are square-shaped rooms
- unlike the circular Kivas of many other pueblos. The Kivas are entered
by a ladder through the ceiling. The Zuni Pueblo has six Kivas.
is a sovereign, self-governed nation with its own constitutional government
led by a tribal council and a governor. The pueblo has its own courts,
police force, school system and economic base. The Pueblo has many Tribal
Programs, among which are an Environmental Protection Program, an Education
and Career Development Center, a Senior Citizen Center, a Wellness Center,
a Public Library, a Radio Station - KSHI (90.9 FM), a Tribal Records
& Archives Department, and a Youth Center. A tribal fairground and
government offices are built inside the Pueblo. The Pueblo's business
district has a mix of traditional and modern shops.
The ancient homelands of the Zunis, dating back several thousand years,
extended along the middle reaches of the Zuni River, a tributary of
the Little Colorado River. Approximately 90 miles long, the river has
its origin in Cibola County, New Mexico, at the Continental Divide.
It flows southwesterly through the Zuni Indian Reservation to join the
Little Colorado River in eastern Arizona.
The "Village of the Great Kiva" near the contemporary Zuni
Pueblo was built in the 11th century. By the 14th century, the Zuni
inhabited a dozen pueblos that had between 180 to 1,400 rooms. All of
these pueblos were abandoned by 1400. Over the next 200 years, nine
large new pueblos were constructed, but by 1650, there were only six
Zuni villages remaining. These were the Zuni villages witnessed by Coronado
and his men, who were lured to the Southwest in 1539 - drawn by the
myth of the Seven Cities of Cibola - in a quest for gold. With the exception
of the village of Zuni, all the early sites were abandoned long ago.
For the past three hundred years, since the early 1700s, most of the
Zuni have lived in the still existing Zuni Pueblo. However, today many
of the Zuni people live nearby in modern flat-roofed houses made from
adobe and concrete block. Beehive-shaped ovens (hornos) are still used
for baking at the Pueblo. Cornmeal for baking has been traditionally
ground in a stone metate.
Within the present day Zuni Pueblo’s boundaries are located the
small farming villages of Pescado, Nutria, and Ojo Caliente, which date
back to the eighteenth century. Today, they are occupied only during
planting and harvest seasons. Beyond the boundaries of the reservation,
are ancient sites and areas, sacred points and shrines, and places of
pilgrimage central to Zuni life and history.
It was the Zuni Pueblo where Europeans made their first contact with
the Native People of the Southwest, when in 1539 Friar Marcos de Niza
and a black Moorish former-slave named Estevanico led a party from Mexico
in search of gold and the fabled "Seven Cities of Cibola.”
Estevanico arrived at the ancestral Zuni village of Hawikku before Marcos,
but was killed in an ensuing dispute with the Zunis. Fray Marcos was
forced to retreat to Mexico without having actually seen the Pueblo,
however, upon his return to Mexico, he spread embellished but fictitious
stories about the fabled cities of gold they had found. Perhaps what
he had seen was the late afternoon sun reflecting on the walls of the
village of Hawikku, which gave an appearance of gold.
Before the Spanish came, Mexican Indians had long traded with the Zuni,
exchanging shells and tropical bird feathers for salt, turquoise and
red paint. The Indian traders knew what the Spanish thought were the
Cities of Cibola were actually small adobe villages.
Friar Marcos' tales of riches enticed Francisco Vasquez de Coronado
to mount a full scale expedition to explore and claim the fabled lands
of Cibola for Spain. A year later on July 7, 1540, Coronado reached
Hawikku with a force of men 2,500 strong that included several hundred
Spaniards and a couple of thousand Amigos Indios, who were the Mexican
Indian allies of the Spanish. After a battle with the Spaniards and
their Indian allies, the vastly outnumbered Hawikku warriors withdrew
under the cover of night. They later returned to their homes and co-existed
with the Spanish, who remained in the area for several months before
continuing eastward in search of more lands to claim for Spain. Coronado
returned to Mexico in 1542 with the truth about the cities of Cibola.
It was, however, forty-three years later before the Spanish returned
to establish missions at some of the Zuni villages.
In 1680, agitated by the harsh treatment of the Indians by the Spanish,
all the Pueblos in New Mexico, including Zuni, joined in a Pueblo uprising
to plan and carry out a coordinated revolt against Spanish domination.
After attacking and burning the Spanish mission at Halona Idiwan'a,
the people of all six ancestral Zuni villages sought defensible refuge
on the nearby sacred, Dowa Yalanne, a steep mesa southeast of the Zuni
Pueblo. (Dowa means corn and Yalanne means mountain.) They remained
in a defensive position on the mesa until 1692, when the Spanish made
peace with the Pueblos. The Zuni people then returned from the mesa
and consolidated into a single Pueblo at Halona Idiwan'a, which is the
present-day Zuni Pueblo. Although at peace with the Spanish, the Zuni
Pueblo still faced raids by the Apaches, Navajos, and Plains Indians.
After the Mexican territories gained independence from Spain in 1821,
the Zuni Pueblo, along with the rest of New Mexico, became part of the
Republic of Mexico.
Following the Mexican-American War, New Mexico, including the Zuni Pueblo
became a United States Territory in 1848. The Zuni reservation was officially
recognized by the United States federal government in 1877. New Mexico
gained statehood in 1912.
Frank Hamilton Cushing, a pioneering anthropologist and ethnologist
associated with the Smithsonian Institution, lived with the Zuni from
1879 to 1884. He was one of the first participant observers of their
culture. He studied and wrote extensively about Zuni life and culture.
He learned their language and their customs and even dressed in native
attire. In 1881 Cushing was initiated into the Zuni warrior society,
the Priesthood of the Bow and received the Zuni name Tenatsali,
"medicine flower." The Bow Priesthood was thought to have
obtained its power from the twin War Gods who led the Zuni out of the
Earth in ancient times. In 1882 Cushing took his Zuni father and fellow
Bow members on a tour of the Eastern United States, where they met President
Chester Arthur and attracted considerable media attention.
responsible for the Pueblo's defense and keeping order in the villages,
the Priesthood of the Bow also dealt with Zuni witches, who were thought
to possess supernatural or magical knowledge and could cast evil spells
or cause harm to people in the Pueblo. Bow Priests conducted trials
of people accused of witchcraft or other crimes and sometimes performed
executions of people judged to be guilty.
Unfortunately, continual appropriation and abuse of Zuni lands by the
U.S. Government and unscrupulous land grabbers led to the gradual shrinkage
of the Zuni's original territories and the Zuni eventually became constrained
to a reservation that was only a fraction of its original size. Following
years of negotiation with the U.S. Government, the Zunis finally won
a $25 Million settlement as compensation for land taken from them.
Throughout the year, the Zunis hold traditional ceremonial celebrations.
Tribal dancers perform in plazas within the Pueblo. Visitors to the
Zuni Pueblo are allowed to witness some of the Zuni dances and ceremonies.
The most sacred Zuni event is the annual Sha'lak'o festival, which is
a winter solstice celebration held annually by the Zuni Pueblo. The
celebration includes Sha'lak'o dancers who purify and bless Mother Earth,
the people, and the community. Zuni religious beliefs are based on the
three powerful deities: Earth Mother, Sun Father, and Moonlight-Giving
Mother, as well as Old Lady Salt, White Shell Woman, and other Kachinas.
Katchinas are deified ancestral spirits impersonated in religious rituals
by masked dancers. Other Zuni ceremonies celebrate the passage of certain
life milestones that include birth, coming of age, marriage and death.
Every four years the Zuni make a religious pilgrimage to Kachina Village
about 60 miles southwest of Zuni Pueblo on the Zuni Reservation. The
four-day observance occurs around the summer solstice. Another pilgrimage
conducted annually is made to the Zuni Salt Lake, home to the Salt Mother.
Here the Zuni harvest salt and celebrate religious ceremonies. Other
events held throughout the year include the Zuni Tribal Fair and rodeo,
which is held the third weekend in August. The Zuni also participate
in the Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial that is usually held in early
The Zuni livelihood has traditionally been based on irrigated farming
with the growing of corn, squash, pinto beans, wheat, chili, cabbage,
onions and beets, and the raising of livestock. Much of Zuni ceremonial
ritual centers the production of crops. Over time the Zuni began to
farm less and concentrate more on raising sheep and cattle as a means
of economic growth. Their success as a desert agri-economy is based
on careful management and conservation of resources. Some Zunis also
work in nearby towns, particularly in Gallup.
Many contemporary Zuni also rely on the sale of traditional arts and
crafts as a source of income. The Zuni are noted for their excellent
artistic work, which includes paintings, silversmithing, needlepoint
work, and pottery making. They also create fetishes, which are representative
images of deities made of wood and decorated with paint and feathers.
The Zuni silversmithing began in the 1870s, after they learned fundamental
silver-working techniques from the Navajo. By 1880, Zuni jewelers learned
to create intricate designs and unique patterns by inlaying turquoise
in silver, to create jewelry, such as necklaces, bracelets and rings.
They also do inlay work, using mother-of-pearl and coral. Many Zunis
are master silversmiths. Silversmiths sell their jewelry to traders
in Gallup, Santa Fe, Albuquerque and other cities.
women have traditionally made pottery for food and water storage. They
decorate the bowls, jugs and vases with symbols of their clans. Clay
pottery ,which is found locally, is ground, then sifted and mixed with
water. It is then rolled into a coil and shaped into a vessel or other
design, then scraped smooth with a scraper. A thin layer of finer clay,
called slip, is next applied to the surface for extra smoothness and
color. The vessel is polished with a stone after it dries. Images are
then painted on the pottery with home-made organic dyes, using a traditional
yucca brush. In the past, the Zuni used animal dung in traditional kilns
to fire the pottery. Today Zuni potters sometimes use electric kilns.
The Zuni have always had maps. The Zuni Map Art Exhibition is a project
developed and produced in partnership with the A:shiwi A:wan Museum
and Heritage Center in Zuni, New Mexico. It is a collection of Zuni
map art paintings that illustrate ancestral Zuni sites throughout the
Colorado Plateau and depict it as a cultural and sacred landscape. The
paintings were created by 14 Zuni artists in collaboration with Zuni
Zuni life continues today, honoring its ancient traditions and culture,
its people have also adopted modern day technology, such as cell phones,
microwave ovens, computers and the Internet – to keep pace with
the ever evolving lifestyles of today's world.
more information, visit:
by Mel Fenson from information obtained from web sources and from:
“The Zunis of Cibola”
by C. Gregory Crampton,
“The Zuni” by Nancy Bonvillain, “Treasures of the
Zuni” by Theda Bassman, and "New Mexico" published by
University of New Mexico Press.
Thanks to Wrights Gallery of Native American Arts, Albuquerque, New
Mexico for providing images of Zuni arts and crafts.