The Zuni Visitor and Arts Center, on N.M. 53, sells tour tickets and photography permits. Knowledgeable staffers offer info about ceremonies and times when businesses are closed for religious reasons. It includes a small exhibit and an exquisite 18th-century statue carved by Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, the founder of the santero art form. (Ask for the story of how it was taken from the mission church and later returned.) Bonus: Artists often sell their goods outside the center. (505) 782-7238
Shalako and other ceremonies aren’t publicized, but the visitor center can clue you in. Photography is not allowed. Don’t interfere with the dancers, and save your questions for another time. During more private ceremonies, parts of the Pueblo are closed.
The A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, in the heart of Middle Village, provides a detailed exhibit on Zuni history. Call ahead; staffers are sometimes busy with outreach programs. (505) 782-4403; ashiwi-museum.org The Inn at Halona, near the museum, features eight cozy rooms from $75 a night, along with breakfast and make-your-own snacks. A small grocery store is next door. (505) 782-4547; halona.com
The Ancient Way Arts Trail website
(ancientwayartstrail.com) lists artists willing to open their homes or studios to visitors; or pick up a brochure at the visitor center. Zuni Community Live Eagle Project heals injured eagles that live in an aviary next to the Pueblo’s fairgrounds. (505) 782-5851
Nearby attractions: Turn to “True West” (p. 20) for more suggestions on lodging, dining, shopping, and touring.
Their legend on this earth begins thousands of years ago, deep in the Grand Canyon, at Chimik'yana'kya dey'a. There, in a place now known as Ribbon Falls, the Zuni people rose from darkness, their feet touching soil for the first time. The ancestors embarked on a millennia-long search for Halona:wa Idiwan'a, “the Middle Place.” Their sojourn, dangerous and lonely, covered most of the Southwest and part of Mexico. Finally, they stood amid miles of towering mesas, the rocky sides swirled with raspberry and gray. The giant water strider, K'yan'Asdebi, stretched his limbs to the corners of the earth and lay down, his heart resting on home.
Today, travelers come by car to this volcanic valley, 40 miles south of Gallup, snuggled up to the state’s western border. More remote than most of New Mexico’s pueblos, Zuni, or A:shiwi, was the place where North American Indians first encountered Europeans. Notable for its hospitality, artistry, and amazing wintertime Shalako dances, Zuni is also a frontline defender of Native culture against daunting and historical odds. It defies simple descriptions. It invites visitors, then holds them at arm’s length. It rewards people who wait.
“We’re a village of artists with sensibilities that are uniquely Zuni,” said Jim Enote, director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum. “It takes time, a lifetime, to understand why Zunis prefer certain foods, why Zunis prefer certain colors, certain shapes. Maybe Zuni is a place where you hold on to your questions and you experience by seeing and listening.”
Sprawling across 400 square miles, Zuni Pueblo claims about 10,000 residents, most of them clustered near Middle Village, or Halona, which hugs the southern edge of N.M. 53. Once filled with multistoried dwellings, the village’s maze of dirt roads now twists among one-level red-stone houses plugged into 21st-century living.
Some 70 percent of its households rely on artwork for all or part of their earnings, making Zuni a de facto art colony. Besides the museum, it boasts a tourism department that guides visitors through the village and to nearby archaeological sites. The Inn at Halona, a small bed-and-breakfast run by a chatty Frenchman, sits kitty-corner to the museum. Six trading posts sell traditional art, including menageries of carved-stone fetishes and silver jewelry so intricately inlaid with turquoise and other stones that its styles are defined as “needlepoint” and the even finer “petit point.”
One of its must-sees is Our Lady of Guadalupe mission church, often touted as “the Sistine Chapel of the West.” Given its slumped condition, tourism director Tom Kennedy said, “now is the time to see it.”
Built in 1629, it fell into ruin after Mexico’s 1820 independence from Spain. In the late 1960s, a massive renovation saved it. The late Alex Seowtewa, a tribal leader and renowned artist, then took on the task of re-creating barely remembered murals in its sanctuary. It required extensive scaffolding and years of patience to learn and then paint the details of tribal ceremonies.
“Our history is not written down,” said Ken Seowtewa, one of Alex’s sons, who joined the unpaid painting project in the 1970s. “With this work, we’re creating a living library for our people.”
He stood in the sanctuary and waited as a group of first-time visitors adjusted to the dim light. High above the weathered pews, jaw-dropping images slowly bloomed into view. Rendered in Zuni’s recognizable style—intensely populated scenes with brilliant colors and three-dimensional shading—the paintings depict two lines of dancers, including stately Shalakos and the mischievous mudheads. They act out winter dances on the north wall, summer dances on the south.
“We lost the Echo,” Seowtewa said, pointing to one of the figures. “This gentleman did not pass on his knowledge, so we lost that dance. We interviewed him to know how to paint him. Two weeks later, he died.”
Other ceremonies are likewise at risk. Some of the dancers’ prayers take days to recite. Recruiting youths to learn them in the Android era is but one preservation problem. To demonstrate yet another, Seowtewa picked up a piece of plaster that had blistered off the wall—evidence of a grievous error during the renovation. The exterior cement plaster trapped water inside the adobe structure, slowly eroding it. The murals may be the first to fall. The church is next.
Pueblo officials, no strangers to poverty, are yet debating the high cost of salvation. Some wonder whether the dancers should simply return to the earth.
Visitors can see the murals—and the patches of lost plaster— twice a day, with the Tourism Department. Sometimes, Ken Seowtewa joins them. On this day, he raised that chip of plaster before us. “This is what’s holding up our murals,” he said, before squeezing it into his palm. Sand sifted out of his fist.
Already, the Zunis have lost so much. In 1539, the A:shiwi village of Hawikku became the site of first contact with Europeans. Esteban, a Moor and former slave, had traveled ahead of Fray Marcos de Niza to scope out what the pair hoped would be one of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. A year later, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado arrived, fueling a major battle. He eventually retreated, but the Spanish kept coming. They brought a new language, a new religion, new crops and livestock. Cushioned a bit by their distance from the Spanish capital of Santa Fe, Zuni sometimes resisted the newcomers but more often adopted the food, tools, and animals that made their lives better—while hanging on to the language and customs that make them who they are.
In the 19th century, Zuni drew the eyes of American researchers. Anthropologist Frank Cushing lived among them from 1879 to 1884. But his revelations of Zunis’ spiritual practices troubled Pueblo members, who were soon subjected to even more study—and more loss. During a 1917–23 excavation of Hawikku by the Museum of the American Indian’s Frederick Webb Hodge, 20,000 artifacts and 996 skeletal remains were packed into crates and sent back east. Among the most popular items were Ahaya:da, carved war gods left in open-air shrines, including a spot on the hallowed ground of Dowa Yalanne, a massive mesa.
Visitors to the A:shiwi A:wan Museum, set inside a former trading post, can learn this and more, but that’s not the main goal.
“It’s important for visitors,” Enote said, “but it’s primarily for Zunis to come in and reflect, to better understand why we are the way we are. The museum has programs that go to schools, hospitals, jails, artist communities. We have a community garden. This is a small museum doing big things.”
Artifacts abound in its exhibition. Some tribal members hope to bring other pieces back. In the 1970s, Zuni began demanding that U.S. museums let go of what was taken. That effort blossomed into the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Since 1990, it has guided the return of nearly one million items to tribes all across the nation.
Most recently, Zuni leader Octavius Seowtewa, another one of Alex’s sons, and Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, an anthropologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, traveled to Paris to talk with European museums about their collections.
“There were a lot of good conversations and also a lot of difficult ones,” Colwell-Chanthaphonh said. “There is a very good chance of getting back an Ahaya:da from a museum in the Netherlands.”
Colwell-Chanthaphonh began visiting Zuni in 2002, during research trips. Now he considers it “one of the most beautiful corners of North America.”
“It’s lush and rich. There’s the most beautiful sky,” he said. “But the main phenomenon I marvel at every time I go there is their survival. A single epidemic, a single show of force, and they would have been gone from the face of the earth. But they’re still here.
"It's a story of hope, of survival, of persistence, and of how brilliant the zuni people have been at figuring out themselves."
Outside of the Zuni trading posts bursting with items for sale are lone artists who invite visitors to check out wares pulled from a pocket. The Zuni Cultural Arts Council works to help all of the Pueblo’s artists improve their work, market it better, and counter the ever-improving iterations of foreign-made fakes.
“Our primary goal is sharing the knowledge so they don’t make the same mistakes I did when I started,” said the council’s president, Carlton Jamon, an award-winning silversmith whose ultra-contemporary works include a chalice now housed at the Vatican.
Jamon helped organize an art expo last fall by clearing waist-high weeds from a field near Dowa Yalanne and hosting a few dozen artists, traditional dancers, and a performance by the Zuni Pueblo Band, an old-fashioned marching band that performed in President Bush’s 2005 inaugural parade. One of the trumpeters was Todd Westika, who also serves as vice president of the arts council.
Years ago, he earned a geological engineering degree but found he preferred carving the rocks he loves into fetishes—the little bears, badgers, and fish that can be used for ceremonial purposes or, unblessed, serve as treasured talismans. To make his work stand out, he scouts gem shows all across the Southwest for the most unusual stones.
“People ask me what I do for a living, and I say, ‘I play with rocks,’” he said, laughing. “I just happened to find real joy in this.”
Such bootstrap entrepreneurship crops up throughout the Pueblo—at Paywa Zuni Bread, which loads its huge horno with pies and bread, and at the roadside trucks offering tamales, cinnamon rolls, and “Kool-Aid seeds,” sunflower seeds soaked in the bright, sugary beverage. Perhaps the most visible entrepreneur in town is Andres “Chu Chu” Quam, who replaced his onetime pizza stand with a sprawling hand-built adobe restaurant that offers the only sit-down eating option on the Pueblo. Although pizza still pays the bills, he offers fresh fish and salads, in part to extend his patrons’ lifespans.
Sitting in the Governor’s Room—a meeting space decorated with leather furniture and art—he motioned out the picture window toward Dowa Yalanne and said it’s where the present can meet a past that includes magical beings, midnight dancers, and powerful forces with ancient roots.
“A lot of the time, if you listen very carefully—shooo, shooo— it’s still going on.”
Every October, Zuni’s Bow Priests go into a private retreat during which they determine that year’s date for the Shalako ceremony. A world-famous all-night drama featuring a series of 10-foot-tall costumed dancers, it’s neither open nor closed, neither secretive nor publicized.
Kennedy walks a fine line in explaining how outsiders can witness Zuni ceremonies, including Shalako, with this bottom line: “It’s best if someone at Zuni invites you to be their guest. To be able to witness one of the most awesome experiences in our country is a gift.” Even without an invitation, polite visitors will find the Pueblo accommodating. A little bit of discretion, said innkeeper Roger Thomas, goes a long way.
A native of Chambéry, in southeastern France, he married into the family of Christian Reformed missionaries who had built the Inn at Halona’s trading post. During one of his first winters there, he said, drumming awoke him in the middle of the night.
“It’s drizzling, muddy, rainy,” he said. “I looked through the window and I saw this group of very traditional-looking people carrying some kachinas. There’s no fanfare, there’s no lights. I remember thinking, ‘Man, how much of this is going on?’”
Quite a lot, he’s since learned. Ceremonies occur throughout the year, often closing down businesses for several days during ritual periods of fasting.
The inn’s public spaces drip with Native blankets and rugs, and rows of Shalako kachinas line the top of a piano. Guests come from around the world, staying a night or two for an experience that’s as authentic as an outsider can have. Through the Tourism Department, groups can arrange to dine with a Zuni family on traditional foods, which could include everything from mutton stew to tamales with both red-and blue-corn mush. The Ancient Way Arts Trail invites visitors to contact artists like Westika and visit them in their homes or studios.
Harvard-educated Hayes Lewis, the superintendent of Zuni Public Schools, has studied how communities in Africa and the Middle East have taken that concept further. He hopes to help Zuni families empower themselves to offer a hyper-local version of cultural tourism.
“There are so many good things happening in the community that make it unique,” he said. “During the night dance season, we completely changed our instructional calendar to correlate with the tribal calendar. We have fasting around the ceremonies, and that’s a renewal time.”
Beyond changing the calendar, his schools underscore what Zuni means by teaching their native language. Considered a linguistic isolate with no known cousins, Zuni broke off from its mother tongue some 8,000 years ago and held fast. Today, it burbles throughout the trading posts, at the gas station, among the artists (although Jamon jokes that some of his less fluent friends speak “Zunglish”).
For every keshi (hello) and elahkwa (thank you) that you hear, you’re reminded of Colwell-Chanthaphonh’s observation that Zuni is a place of survival against the odds. There’s joy in that fact. But you have to listen for it.
At the art expo, a few people gathered on rickety bleachers near the Zuni Pueblo Band. As the musicians polished off an invigorating march, folks listening from pickup trucks honked their horns.
“That was so good, we’ve gotta have another song,” a band member yelled. “One more song!”
A driver honked. The musicians laughed, raised their instruments, and kept the sound alive.
Kate Nelson is an award-winning journalist, author of the biography Helen Hardin: A Straight Line Curved, and marketing manager at the New Mexico History Museum, where she indulges a love of New Mexico’s art, history, and culture.