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Scenically 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 years.

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.

With 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.

Traditional 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 enemy access.

Zuni 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.

Zuni 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.

Although 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 or mid-August.

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.

Zuni women have traditionally made pottery for food and water storage. They decorate the bowls, jugs and vases with symbols of their clans. Clay for the
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 cultural advisors.

Although 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.

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Edited 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 the
University of New Mexico Press.

Special Thanks to Wrights Gallery of Native American Arts, Albuquerque, New Mexico for providing images of Zuni arts and crafts.