The Amerindians known as the Zuni, Zuni, or Aashiwi (as they call themselves) number slightly more than 10,000. Their 640-square-mile reservation is located in the valley of a tributary of the Little Colorado River high in the rugged plateau country of western New Mexico. The main village, or Zuni Pueblo, known to its inhabitants as Halona Itiwanna, “Middle Ant Hill of the World,” is situated on land that has been continuously occupied by them for at least 900 years and legally granted to them by the King of Spain in 1689.
Culturally, the Zunis are similar to other Pueblo groups. They have been described as the most traditional and most widely known of all the Southwestern Indian groups. Their social organization is matrilocal, with many exogamous matrilineal clans. The Zuni language is classified by linguists as a separate linguistic stock, called Zunian, which is distinct from the languages spoken by all the other Pueblos and the nearby Navajo and Apache.
Zunis trace their ancestry to the builders of the ruins of Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly. These settlements flourished in the 10th through the 12th centuries. No one knows exactly when Zuni Pueblo itself was settled, but it is known to have been well established when the Spanish arrived in 1539. In 1680, the Zunis joined with their pueblo neighbors in an uprising against the Spanish. Although the uprising was successful, by 1692 the Spanish reasserted their authority with acts of legendary brutality. During the uprising the Zuni withdrew into the surrounding mountains and returned to the valley after the reconquest. They soon rebuilt their multistoried pueblo of flat stone and adobe with tall outer walls. On the grounds immediately outside these walls they created gardens, laid out in a waffle pattern to preserve the river water they used in irrigation. Beans, melons, onions, cilantro, and chili flourished in these gardens.
Their multistoried dwellings were built around courtyards with narrow alleys that allowed passage throughout the town. These courtyards were the main sites of religious dances. Also important to Zuni ceremonial life were kivas, small rooms within the pueblo where members of medicine societies held meetings and performed rituals. During public kachina dances participants dressed in costumes that included special clothing and paint, carried rattles and other noise-makers, and wore large sculpted masks that identified the dancers with ancestors as well as with characters in Zuni cosmology.
For two centuries after the Pueblo uprising, the Zuni continued a yearly cycle of farming, herding, and hunting, together with religious ceremonies. Spanish friars maintained a presence at Zuni and made many political and economic demands on the Pueblo. The year before Mexican independence, which came in 1821, the mission was abandoned. At the end of the Mexican War, in 1848, Zuni Pueblo became incorporated into the United States, and in 1877 federal officials created the Zuni Reservation. In 1881 the Santa Fe Railroad reached Gallup, bringing a new era of non-Indian settlement. Missionaries and traders arrived, encouraging the Zunis to convert to Christianity and to raise cattle. In so doing, they introduced religious pluralism and a cash economy. Despite these radical changes, the fact that the Spaniards gave the Zuni legal title to their land, long before there was a United States, has proven to be important in their cultural survival. Throughout the American period, Zuni has been recognized as a sovereign nation existing within the boundaries of the United States.
Beginning at the end of the 19th century, Zuni Pueblo served as a living laboratory for a generation of anthropologists who documented this pre-industrial society while simultaneously defining a new profession. Some believed it would quickly disappear, especially the collectors. But salvage ethnologists believed that they could rescue Zuni culture from the inevitable pollution that would come about from contact with American culture. Over a period of several decades, archaeologists and ethnographers collected thousands of Zuni artifacts, which they placed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. They also produced a large body of rather speculative literature about Zuni culture before contact with the outer world.
Today Zunis are writing self-descriptions, whereas archaeologists and ethnographers have meanwhile realized that they are enmeshed in the narratives they themselves tell about other cultures. This recognition has created a shift in methodology whereby they use their everyday social skills in simultaneously experiencing, observing, and recording their own and others’ interactions in real geographical space and historical time.
Although the Zuni economy is currently based primarily on cottage industries, mainly arts and crafts, some Zunis have found other employment in Gallup, New Mexico, and Flagstaff, Arizona. Forest firefighting brings additional income into the community, as do ranching, tribal-government employment, truck farming, cattle raising, and sheep herding. Zunis are bilingual, speaking their native language at home and English elsewhere. Some Zuni elders also speak Spanish, as well as other Pueblo languages and Navajo.
In the years since World War II, the Pueblo of Zuni has spread out from its center at Halona. Today a Zuni hospital, operated jointly by the BIA and the tribal government, and a branch of the University of New Mexico are located in the village. Modern building materials have taken the place of stone and adobe, two- and three-bedroom single-storied stand-alone homes spread out from the center of the village, and house trailers dot the landscape, providing inexpensive housing for young people. The choice of trailers instead of houses is dictated by the fact that they are the only kind of housing the banks in Gallup will finance because they can be moved off the reservation if a purchaser defaults on a loan. At the same time, the tribal government is rebuilding the central plaza in the form of a more traditional multistoried pueblo. Although the village today suffers from the social ills common to rural small towns in America, the Zunis have managed to retain their land, their religion, their language, and their culture.
- Crampton, C. G. (1977). The Zunis of Cibola. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
- Tedlock, B. (1992). The beautiful and the dangerous: Encounters with the Zuni Indians. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- Tedlock, D. (1999). Finding the center: The art of the Zuni storyteller. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.