Resisters. No word better describes the Zuni. They resisted the Spanish. They resisted acculturation. They resisted change to their ceremonial cycle. They are a complex people. They have survived because they have resisted.
The Zuni come from the Sun. Awonawilona shaped himself into the Sun and gave life to Earth Mother and Sky Father, who in turn created the Beloved Twins in the Place of First Formation. They helped humans by moving them to the Moss World, which soon became overcrowded. A second Great Ladder enabled the beings to climb into the Mud World, which again became over crowded, and the beings moved to the Wing World. Finally the humans and creatures emerged in to the world of the Sun, where they evolved as the world was hardened. They sought out the middle of the world, where, they were promised, “all would be stable and they could rest in peace”. In their search, they divided into three groups, which would later be reunited. As a great flood came, some of the people made their way to Corn Mountain. After sacrificing a Rain Priest’s children, the flood receded, and the people returned to their valley. And there they began to practice their ceremonies, so as to resist further misfortune.
Between A.D. 650 and 900, the people lived in pit-house villages near present day Zuni. It was between A.D. 900 and 1150 that the shift was made to the contiguous-room pueblo. The pueblos were built around the central plaza with a large, square great kiva. By the time contact, most of the people had come together at Zuni, Hopi, and Acoma. The Zuni lived along the Zuni river at Hawikku, Kwa’kin’a, Halona:wa, Mats’a;kya, Kyaki:ma, and Kechiba’wa.
Fray Marcos made first contact with the Zuni in 1539. The next year Coronado arrived with his requiremento and hostilities ensued. The Zuni resisted. No further contact was made for forty years. Thereafter, numerous Spaniards made contact with the Zuni and by 1680 there were only three Zuni villages remaining. That was the year of the Pueblo Rebellion that resulted in the Spanish losing control of the area. The people moved to Corn Mountain for a twelve year period, later consolidating at Zuni.
Living at around 6,400 feet, surrounded by sandstone mesas and open deserts, the Zuni developed agricultural methods that allowed them to survive for centuries. Farming lands that were owned matrilinealy, or by individual males, the men of a household would all till the fields until done, and then move on to the next. Dry farming, the men would clear the field and build a diversion dam to collect runoff. They would plant in May with digging sticks, punching holes every six feet or so, to accommodate the 15-20 kernels of corn. The fields were tended with care and protected from wind, weeds, and birds. Harvesting the crops in late September or October, hopefully before the monsoons became destructive, the corn was dried in the sun. The corn was of six different colors and was grown along with beans and squash. The Spanish later introduced wheat and oats.
The harvest belonged to all of the women of the household, who also owned their own “waffle gardens”. These were used to grow tomatoes, onions, and chili peppers. They built adobe walls around these gardens so that the crops could resist the wind and animals, and they watered by hand. Fruit trees, brought by the Spanish, especially peach, were grown to supplement the hunting of large and small mammals and the gathering of wild plants. The Spanish also introduced sheep to the Zuni. The sheep are owned by the men and are herded by kinsmen who each tend the herd for a month at time.
The people lived in spartan multi-storied pueblos in Zuni. The men built the structure and the women did the plastering and painting. The woman-owned homes made use of several built-in features including small wall niches, a low bench along one wall, and rafters that allowed the hanging of poles to place clothing on. Hatchways were incorporated in the roofs of upper story homes to provide access by way of ladders. Interior doors connected some of the homes. Living rooms often harbored a three-compartment “milling box”, allowing three women to grind corn at the same time. People slept on the floor, spreading blankets and skins for comfort. Large ovens were built in the communal plaza, where up to twenty loaves of bread could be cooked at once. After contact, small windows were plastered over to allow the Zuni to resist the Spanish.
Modern Zuni homes are usually one story, four or five rooms, and have glass windows and steel ranges. Television is available, and cars are prevalent. The marvels of modern technology have not been resisted.
Traditional dress for Zuni men was a short cotton kilt. Cotton was obtained from the Hopi, and after contact the men wove and wore white cotton pants and shirts. The women wore the manta, a knee-length, black gown. It was diagonally woven and embroidered on the top and bottom in dark blue. The manta was belted at the waist with a long sash.
The simple clothing worn by the Zuni seems antithetical to their idea of beauty. Beauty was seen in things that were dynamic, multi-colored, moving, and asymmetrical. The Zuni called this concept tso’ya. The black and white clothing seems somewhat dull. Yet it was not attanni either. Attanni was the Zuni embodiment of the dangerous, the unpredictable, and the powerful. The Zuni Aesthetic system combined the beautiful (tso’ya) and the dangerous (attanni). Attanni was embodied in bears and ravens. Flowing and changing movements or songs were tso’ya. Dancers wearing multi-colored and bright costumes, which were arranged in an asymmetrical line was tso’ya. The dangerous was represented by things that are dark and beyond reach, unpredictable and ambiguous, powerful and perilous. Aggressive, terrifying, and ambiguous behavior was attanni. The mixture of tso’ya and attanni is what really defined the Zuni aesthetic. The beautiful often found the dangerous nearby. At times it was right in midst of the beautiful.
Tso’ya was reflected in the jewelry of the Zuni. Using jet, abalone, coral, and mother-of-pearl, the Zuni make jewelry that is irradiant, multi-colored, and complex. World famous for their jewelry, nearly every household now has a silversmith. Once made by the men, jewelry making has been taken up by women, either making the jewelry themselves or helping their husbands with the small, delicate inlay of turquoise and abalone. Silversmithing was not always a talent of the Zuni. It was taught to them by the Navajo in the 1870’s, and was encouraged by the traders. Their style has changed over the years; needlepoint and cloisonné were developed. Tso’ya is evident in the inlay work of onyx, turquoise, and abalone in their favorite designs of the Knifewing supernatural and the sacred Dragonfly.
Pottery, now disappearing, was another craft the Zuni mastered. Their aesthetic ideal was expressed when the images dominated the shape of the pot. Their pottery was a polychrome ware with red and black designs on a chalky-white surface. The early potters produced pottery that enabled archeologists to distinguish between regional peoples on the basis of style; the Ancestral Pueblo produced a utility gray-ware while the Mogollon made a utility brown-ware.
Zuni social, political, and religious systems were so closely intertwined with the ceremonial cycle and the kin and clan system, that it is best called a socioreligious organization. Kinship was matrilineal, and residence was martilocal, with the household being the basic religious, social, and economic unit; it was more important than the clan. A household could have as many as 25 persons.The clan system was fluid, providing for the creation of new clans as others became inactive. Clans regulated marriage and allocated ceremonial offices, but had no political function. Each had its own fetish. Marriage within one’s clan was prohibited and levirate and sororate were absent. Divorce was simple and could be affected by either party. The husband simply returned to his mother’s house.
The Zuni had a multi-layered religious organization. Led by the Cult of the Ancestors, there were six esoteric cults. The Cult of the Ancestors played a part in every ceremony. The ancestors lived in “the blessed place of the waters” and were identified with the rain and clouds. While honoring their ancestors, the Zuni had the common fear of ghosts. When someone died, paternal kinsmen buried him or her as soon as possible. The soul was believed to go to Kachina Village, under the water of Sacred Lake, where it would become one of the “rainmakers”. The name of the dead was never mentioned.
The six esoteric cults included the Katsinam or Kachinas, who would dance for the people in the plazas. This was the most vital and popular cult, where all men were initiated and required to participate. The Katsina Priests bestowed fecundity and included the Koyemsi (Mudheads). These were the clowns of the Zuni. Each Kachina priest had a sacred mask that was passed on from generation to generation. The Cult of the Sun included the Pekwinne, the holiest of all the Zuni. He was responsible for the welfare of the people. The Rainmakers were worshiped by twelve priesthoods, and membership was open to men and women, but was limited by clan affiliation. The Cult of the War Gods was presided over by the Bow Priests, whose membership was limited to those who had taken a scalp in war. These priests led in times of war and protected the pueblo.This cult honored the Ahayuda who came to the people when they needed military leadership. Lastly, there was the Cult of the Beast Gods, the beasts of prey; the most violent and dangerous gods of all. This cult included twelve medicine societies. If a person was cured by a particular society, he or she became a life member.
The Zuni were governed by a theocracy headed by the Council of High Priests. The Bow Priests were the executive arm in matters of crime and warfare, and executed the witches. Witchcraft was the only recognized crime and the Council of High Priests decided who the witches were. The Council of High Priests also appointed secular officer that included a governor, a lieutenant governor, and eight assistants or tenientes who dealt with the U.S. government, settled disputes among the people, and handled matters of civil law.
Ceremonialism was so imbedded in the Zuni that it has been called “the formal expression of Zuni civilization”. Almost all Zuni ceremonies were calendrical. The desire for rain was the predominant theme in Zuni ritual. Water imagery was plentiful, because it was believed that every body of water was interconnected; ponds, lakes, seeps, and caves were entrances to this system that was connected by underground passages. Rituals could be practiced by individuals or by the large esoteric cults and they could be public or private. The Zuni held many beliefs that were associated with individual ritual. The ritual sucking of the dying breath of an animal was said to bestow knowledge of which animals to kill and to give success in hunting. A willow next to the one picked by an individual was offered cornmeal and prayer.
To the Zuni, everything was interrelated. The sun, clouds, plants, mountains, even physical human made objects had a spiritual core that was the same. There were six cardinal directions that stretched into three dimensions. Each direction had its own color, animal, and bird. The Zuni call their home the Middle Place and they believe it is located at the center of the universe.
Today the Zuni suffer the same issues as all other southwestern native tribes. Underemployment, unemployment, lack of sufficient education, and substandard living conditions are common. The major source of income comes from wage labor, though livestock and agriculture bring in some income. Nearly every household has someone involved in the lapidary and silverwork trade, but per-capita income is still far below the national average. Major changes were made in the Zuni political system when power was shifted from the priests to politicians in 1934, but this change was not fully accomplished until 1970 when the tribal constitution was ratified. The Zuni reservation has been expanded several times, and the tribal councils have sued the federal government for land claims. They continue to resist the taking of their lands. They have been awarded millions of dollars as a result of this resistance. They have resisted acculturation and are trying to improve their living conditions with the construction of 800 homes in suburban subdivisions. They have resisted and they live on.