The Zuni Indians are one of 19 original tribes that once inhabited the area that is now called New Mexico and Arizona. The Zuni tribe is said to have originated from the Ancient Puebloans, a large society that encompassed large amounts of land, riches and many distinct cultures and civilizations.
Photo By Ken Lund (Flickr: Welcome to Zuni!) CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Zuni people are, in a way, a mysterious tribe. Their culture is very reclusive and isolated, much as are their cities and their language. The Zuni are one of the few tribes who have managed to keep their ways of life the same throughout the years despite the westward push of the European immigrant settlers, the Mexican-American war, and the rough treatment they endured.
The Zuni were and are a peaceful, deeply traditional people who live by irrigated agriculture and raising stock. Their success as a desert agricultural economy is due to careful management and conservation of resources, as well as a complex system of community support. Many contemporary Zuni also rely on the sale of traditional arts and crafts for supplemental income.
Official Tribal Name: Zuni Tribe of the Zuni Reservation
Address: Pueblo of Zuni, PO Box 339, 1203B State HWY. 53, Zuni, NM 87327
Official Website: http://www.ashiwi.org/
Recognition Status: Federally Recognized
All of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and southern Colorado. It is believed that the tribe had been living in western New Mexico before 2,500 BC and first faced Spanish colonizers in the 16th century.
In fact, the 5 or 6 towns called the “Seven Cities of Cibola” in which they lived were rumored to have gold, and this was what attracted the Spaniard, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado.
In 1500, a fierce battle ensued between the tribe and the Spaniards as a result of a bloody military expedition led by Coronado. Though the Zuni succeeded in driving out Coronado, they failed to stop the Spaniards from establishing missions and military outposts when they returned again in 1632.
ln 1680, the Zuni together with other Pueblo tribes, defeated the Spaniards through the Pueblo Rebellion, but they came back in 1692 to reclaim the area they had lost, chiefly due to the disintegration amidst the Pueblo tribes.
During the mid 19th century, they were further raided by the Apaches, Navajos, and Plains Indians.
Reservation: In 1877, their reservation was officially recognized by the United States Federal Government. It is called the Zuni Reservation and Off-Reservation Trust Land.
The main Zuni Reservation is located in the McKinley and Cibola counties in the western part of New Mexico. In addition to the reservation, the Zuni tribe owns trust lands in Catron County, New Mexico and Apache County, Arizona. The main portion of the Zuni Reservation is in west-central New Mexico, which includes five villages and all the tribe’s farming and grazing areas. Three smaller sites in New Mexico and Arizona are sacred to the tribe.
Almost all Zuni tribal members have chosen to remain on their reservation, and those who leave to get an education or take jobs often return when the schooling or employment ends.
Land Area: 408,404 acres
Tribal Headquarters: Pueblo of Zuni, New Mexico
Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning:
The Zuni call themselves A’shiwi, meaning “the flesh.” They call their pueblo Itiwana, or “middle place,” because in the tribe’s origin story, it is the place to which their ancestors came after they emerged from the underworld.
Common Name / Meaning of Common Name: Zuni
Alternate names / Alternate spellings:
Name in other languages:
The Spanish word pueblo means “town” and refers to both the Pueblo people and the pueblos (cities) where they live.
Population at Contact:
In 1540 there were an estimated 6,000 Zuñi. In the late 1700s there were between 1,600 to 1,900. In 1850 there were about 1,300.
Registered Population Today:
In 2000, 10,228 people were enrolled in the Zuni tribe. Today, their population is nearly 12,000 people.
Tribal Enrollment Requirements:
Tribal membership traces from persons on the Zuni Agency census roll of April 1, 1963. Descendants of those members may be enrolled, provided they have at least 1/4 Zuni blood quantum.
In the past, the head priest of the tribe or ‘cacique’ served as the town chief. Chief Paliwahtiwa was the most famous and influential Zuni leader in history. At present, besides the cacique, there is an elected governor and a tribal council.
Charter: Act of June 18, 1934 (48 Stat. 984)
Name of Governing Body: All Indian Pueblo Council
Number of Council members: Six council members plus executive officers.
Dates of Constitutional amendments:
Number of Executive Officers: Governor, Lieutenant Governor
Elections are held every four years.
The Zuni traditionally speak the Zuni language, a unique language (called an “isolate”) which is unrelated to any other Native American language. Linguists believe that because Zuni is a language isolate, the Zuni people have maintained the integrity of their language for at least 7,000 years. The Zuni have, however, borrowed a number of words from the Keresan, Hopi, and Pima languages pertaining to religion and religious observances.
Number of fluent Speakers:
The Zuni, like other Pueblo peoples, became the descendants of Mogollon and Ancestral Pueblo peoples, who lived in the deserts of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and southern Colorado for over two thousand years. The “village of the great kiva” near the contemporary Zuni Pueblo was built in the 11th century CE. The Zuni region, however, was probably only sparsely populated by small agricultural settlements until the 12th century when the population and the size of the settlements began to increase.
In the 14th century, the Zuni inhabited a dozen pueblos between 180 to 1,400 rooms in size. All of these pueblos, except Zuni, were abandoned by 1400, and over the next 200 years, nine large new pueblos were constructed. These were the “seven cities of Cibola” sought by early Spanish explorers.By 1650, there were only six Zuni villages.
According to Zuñi oral history, their earliest ancestors came into the world with webbed feet, long ears, hairless tails, and moss-covered bodies. They acquired a human form only after bathing in the waters of a sacred spring.
Bands, Gens, and Clans
Though the clans are matrilineal, rituals are performed as per the father’s family.
- Hopi Tribe of Arizona
- Pueblo of Acoma
- Pueblo of Cochiti
- Pueblo of Isleta
- Pueblo of Jemez
- Pueblo of Laguna
- Pueblo of Nambe
- Pueblo of Picuris
- Pueblo of Pojoaque
- Pueblo of San Felipe
- Pueblo of San Ildefonso
- Pueblo of Sandia
- Pueblo of Santa Ana
- Pueblo of Santa Clara
- Kewa Pueblo (Pueblo of Santo Domingo )
- Ohkay Owingeh (Pueblo of San Juan)
- Pueblo of Taos
- Pueblo of Tesuque
- Pueblo of Zia
- Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo of Texas
Ceremonies / Dances:
Modern Day Events & Tourism:
Several seasonal feasts and ceremonial dances are open to the public. Photography and sketching is generally discouraged in all the Pueblos.
Before drawing the area and its people, or filming or taking pictures, you should inquire if it is allowed, and if so, what the rules are. Some pueblos charge a fee for picture taking, depending on what you plan to do with your pictures. Photography, videos or even sketching of sacred ceremonies is NOT allowed. Your camera may be confiscated and you may be fined or asked to leave if you take pictures without following their procedures. They take this VERY seriously.
The Pueblo and surrounding houses are private homes and should be treated as such. Do not enter any buildings unless invited, or clearly marked as open to the public.
The Zuni Tribal Fair and rodeo is held the third weekend in August. The Zuni also participate in the Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial, usually held in early or mid-August. Their location is relatively isolated, but they welcome respectful tourists.
The A:shiwi A:wan Museum is located in the historic Hebadina Building south of Highway 53 at the intersection of Pia Mesa Road and Ojo Caliente Road.
Legends / Oral Stories:
Art & Crafts:
The Zuni are best known for their fine pottery, turquoise silver jewelry, and fine rug weavings. Traditionally, Zuni women made pottery for food and water storage. They used symbols of their clans for designs.
Clay for the pottery is dug up locally. Prior to its extraction, the women give thanks to the Earth Mother (Awidelin Tsitda) according to ritual. The clay is ground, and then sifted and mixed with water.
After the clay is rolled into a coil and shaped into a vessel or other design, it will be scraped smooth with a scraper. A thin layer of finer clay, called slip, is applied to the surface for extra smoothness and color.
The vessel is polished with a stone after it dries. It is painted with home-made organic dyes, using a traditional yucca brush. The intended function of the pottery dictates its shape and images painted on its surface.
To fire the pottery, the Zuni originally used animal dung in traditional kilns. Today Zuni potters might use electric kilns, while others still fire it the traditional way. While the firing of the pottery was usually a community enterprise, silence or communication in low voices was considered essential in order to maintain the original “voice” of the “being” of the clay, and the purpose of the end product.
The Zuni also make fetishes carvings and necklaces for the purpose of rituals and trade, and more recently for sale to collectors. They are also known for their fine silversmithing, which began in the 1870s after they learned fundamental techniques from the Navajo.
Lanyade was the first Zuni silversmith, who learned the art from Atsidi Chon, a Navajo silversmith. By 1880, Zuni jewelers set turquoise in silver.
Today jewelry making thrives as an art form among the Zuni. Many Zuni have became master silversmiths and perfected the skill of stone inlay. They found that by using small pieces of stone, they were able to create intricate designs and unique patterns with stones that would otherwise have been wasted.
Another Zuni jewelry style incorporates many small oval-shaped stones with pointed ends, which are set close to one another and side by side. The technique is called petit point, and is normally used with turquoise in creating necklaces or rings. Many Zuni and Navajo people store their wealth in petit point jewelry.
The Zuni raise many sheep. Apart from walking, the tribe used a travois, a kind of sled that was pulled by dogs to carry heavy objects. Once horses were introduced by the Europeans, the tribe could move about more easily.
The men originally wore breechcloths, short kilts but during the 1800’s, they switched over to cotton tunics with a leather belt around the waist.
The knee length cotton dresses, known as “mantas”, that women wore exposed their left shoulder and since it was not considered modest by the Missionaries in the 1900’s, many started wearing shifts underneath.
Their traditional headdress is comprised of leather or cloth headbands, while during ceremonies, pointed masks or crowns of feathers were sported by dancers.
Today, the tribe wear modern clothes such as jeans in place of breechcloths and put on traditional items only during their traditional ceremonial occasions.
Some Zuni still live in the old-style Pueblos, while others live in modern single family flat-roofed houses made from adobe and concrete block. A pueblo is kind of like an apartment building that can be several stories high and have as few as 12 rooms or as many as 1400. Most Zuni people live in the Pueblo of Zuni on the Zuni River, a tributary of the Little Colorado River, in western New Mexico.
Archaeology suggests that the Zuni have been farmers in their present location for 3,000 to 4,000 years. At the least, they have been there for at least 2,000 years.
They also ate the meat of deer, turkey, and small game as well as crops produced locally. Nuts, berries, and fruits such as melons were also eaten.
Modern Zuni people follow much the same diet, comprised of trout, catfish, bass and farmed vegetables. Occasionally, they supplement their agriculture with domesticated animals and big game hunts.
The Zuni traditionally were a peaceful tribe that centered on agriculture with their main crops being corn (maize), squash, and beans.
Gradually, farming gave way to cattle and sheep herding and since the early 19th century, vocations such as making silver and turquoise jewelry, baskets, beadwork, animal fetishes, and pottery have greatly added to their economic development.
Men generally took charge of agriculture, politics, and war, while women looked after the home and family. Both genders participated in storytelling, music, and artwork. Boys accompanied their fathers on hunting trips, while girls assisted mothers with chores and naturally had less time to play with toys and dolls.
Tools and Weapons:
At first, they used a type of spear, called an “atlatl” which later came to be replaced with a bow and arrows. Besides these, they worked with wooden hoes and rakes for farming, spindles and looms for cotton weaving, and pump drills for making holes in shells and beads.
The Zuni economy is primarily based on tourism and raising sheep. The tribe also owns Zuni Rental Enterprise, which is a pueblo business involved in the restoration and renovation of old houses and renting them out to Pueblo members and contract workers.
Zuni Skies Unlimited Enterprise serves as an agent for CellularOne of Northeastern Arizona, Show Low, Arizona.
Zuni Home Health Care Agency is owned and operated by the Pueblo of Zuni. It originated to serve the Zuni people in 1980 and expanded to serve the neighboring communities of Ramah, Pinehill, Fencelake, and Vanderwagon in 1982. It is located on the Zuni Indian reservation, approximately 40 miles south of Gallup, New Mexico.
Zuni Medical Supply Enterprise rents and sells medical equipment such as hospital beds, wheelchairs and oxygen concentrators.
Other local businesses include a Bed & Breakfast, four restuarants, ten arts and crafts galleries and trading posts, gas station/convenience stores, a bakery, hair salon, bank, lawyer, tax services, propane services, a grocery store, hardware store, video store, and a towing company.
The Zuni people have farmed the Zuni River Valley and many of its tributaries for thousands of years, raising primarily corn, squash, beans, and other vegetables. Many varieties of these plants are native to the Zuni Rservation. Many Zunis also raise livestock, primarily sheep, and the reservation is divided into 88 individual grazing allotments.
Religion & Spiritual Beliefs:
Religion is central to Zuni life. Their religious beliefs are centered on the three most powerful of their deities: Earth Mother, Sun Father, and Moonlight-Giving Mother, as well as Old Lady Salt and White Shell Woman, as well as other katsinas.
Zunis have a cycle of religious ceremonies. Each person’s life is marked by important ceremonies to celebrate the passage of certain life milestones. Birth, coming of age, marriage and death are especially celebrated.
The Zuni make a religious pilgrimage every four years on the Barefoot Trail to Kołuwala:wa, also called Zuni Heaven or Kachina Village; a 12,482-acre (50.51 km2) detached portion of the Zuni Reservation about sixty miles southwest of Zuni Pueblo. The four-day observance occurs around the summer solstice. It has been practiced for many hundreds of years and is well known to local residents.
Another pilgrimage conducted annually for centuries by the Zuni and other southwestern tribes is made to Zuni Salt Lake. They harvest salt during the dry months, and celebrate religious ceremonies. The lake is home to the Salt Mother, Ma’l Okyattsik’i, and is reached by several ancient Pueblo roads and trails.
Coming of age, or rite of passage, is celebrated differently by boys and girls.
Girl’s Pueberty Rites
A girl who is ready to declare herself as a maiden will go to the home of her father’s mother early in the morning and grind corn all day long. Corn is a sacred food and a staple in the diet of the Zuni. The girl is declaring that she is ready to play a role in the welfare of her people.
Boy’s Peuberty Rites
When it is time for a boy to become a man, he will be taken under the wing of a spiritual ‘father,’ selected by the parents. This one will instruct the boy through the ceremony to follow. The boy will go through certain initiation rites to enter one of the men’s societies. He will learn how to take on either religious, secular or political duties within that order.
Before marriage, a couple was allowed to go for a trial period of living together and if a relationship did not materialize, divorce could be easily attained.
Traditional Symbols and their Meaning:
The Zuni sun symbol, featuring a kachina mask surrounded by rays and the bear symbol, depicting an arrow protruding from its mouth and leading to its tail, hold the greatest importance in their culture.
According to their creation myth, “Awonawilona”, the creator of the world is believed to have become the sun and thereafter made “mother-earth” and “father-sky.”
The bear symbol, on the other hand, is said to convert its owner’s passions into true wisdom.
Other fairly recognizable symbols are that of the Owl and the Paluluka, a feathered snake. They respect the owl, believing it to contain the souls of their wise ancestors and elders.
Different games like the ‘Po-ke-an’ or the ‘Po-ki-nanaertne’ were popular among the Zuni. In these, light shuttlecocks made out of bundled corn husk and feathers were thrown into the air with bare hands and the skill lay in seeing how long, one could keep them in the air.
Zuni Chiefs and Leaders:
About 1400 years ago, an unknown event caused the Zuni to abandon all their pueblos except the Zuni pueblo.
1600s: All Zuñi villages are destroyed by raiding tribes.
Zuni Tribe History:
By around 1250 Zuñi was a major trading center for a region that stretched from California to the Great Plains and into Mexico. Items such as corn, salt, turquoise, cotton cloth, and jewelry were exchanged at the pueblo for macaw feathers, seashells, coral, and copper.
In 1539, the Moorish slave Estevanico led an advance party of Fray Marcos de Niza’s Spanish expedition on a quest to find the fabled, gold-paved “Seven Cities of Cíbola,” thought to be on Zuñi land. During the trip Esteban entered the Zuñi village of Hawikuh and demanded gifts of turquoise and women. Some Zuñi men became angry at Esteban’s attitude and threats and killed him so he could not reveal their location to his allies. His companions retreated without entering the village. This was Spain’s first contact with any of the Pueblo peoples.
In 1540 a second Spanish group, led by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (c. 1510–1554), reached Hawikuh. Coronado’s timing could not have been worse; he arrived during a sacred ceremony. The bow priests (see “Government”), who were in charge of the pueblo, drew a line on the ground and told Coronado his party could not cross it while the ritual continued. For some unknown reason, the Spaniards proceeded to cross the line. In the bloody battle that followed, twenty Zuñi were killed.
Spaniards built a mission at Hawikuh in 1629. The Zunis tried to expel the missionaries in 1623, but the Spanish built another missoin in Halona in 1643.
Before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Zuni lived in six different villages. After the revolt, until 1692, they took refuge in a defensible position on top of Dowa Yalanne, a steep mesa 3.1 miles (5 km) southeast of the present Pueblo of Zuni. Dowa means “corn”, and yalanne means “mountain”. After the establishment of peace and the return of the Spanish, the Zuni relocated to their present location, only briefly returning to the mesa top in 1703.
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