The Zuñi Indians are one of the nineteen original tribes that inhabited the area now occupied by New Mexico and Arizona. According to tribal history, the tribe originated from another tribe, called the Anasazi, which lived in the same area over one thousand years prior to the arrival of Europeans. The Zuñi are believed to be direct descendants of the Anasazi.

The Zuñi are different from other tribes in that they have managed to stay intact, living on the same land that they have always claimed. "When the tribe became a sovereign entity of the United States in 1846, it claimed dominion over some fifteen million acres. On two million acres, the Zuñis grazed thousands of sheep. On twelve thousand more, they cultivated corn, beans, onions, and cotton" (Davis). Zuñi City, New Mexico is the main residence of the Zuñi, although they own an area approximately the size of Rhode Island. Although some tribal members live off their reservation, they are few and far between. The tribe never took part in any problems that did not directly affect their members. They did not take sides in any war, nor did any fight. By staying out of conflicts, they were able to remain autonomous and unaffected by the changes around them.

Their religious beliefs are very deep, and influence their daily life. "The Zuñi are a ceremonious people, a people who value sobriety and inoffensiveness above all other virtues. Their interest is centered upon their rich and complex ceremonial life...and no field of activity competes with ritual for foremost place in their attention" (Benedict 60). Ruth Bunzel adds, "All of Zuñi life is oriented about religious observance and ritual has become the formal expression of Zuñi civilization" (Bunzel 509). One traditional Zuñi prayer reads,

"We are grateful O Mother Earth, for the mountains and the streams where the deer, by command of Thy Breath of Life, wander. Wishing for you the fullness of life, we shall go forth prayerfully upon the trails of our Earth Mother."

"While related to the other pueblo tribes they remain unique in many ways" (Kahn) The Zuñi believe that their Gods reside in the lakes of New Mexico and Arizona, rather than as free spirits. During the religious festivals, the chiefs and shamans carry out two very different ceremonies. "Song and dance accompanies masked performances by the cheifs while wearing masks" (Zuñi). By comparison, the shamans pray to the gods for favors, which could be anything from fertile soil to abundant amounts of rain. The role of the shamans in Zuñi society is a very important one. They are looked upon for guidance, as well as healing and knowledge. There are different levels of expertise for being a shaman, and the ultimate goal is to reach the top level, allowing them to assist in all aspects of Zuñi life. In the Zuñi prayer system, there are six separate, exclusive groups. Each has a restricted membership and its own priesthood and is dedicated to the worship of a specific group of spirits.

The foundation of Zuñi ceremonialism is the cult of the ancestors (alacinawe). Everybody participates in their worship, and they are involved in almost every ceremony. They guide, protect, and nourish human life. While priests and medicine men pray to special groups of ancestors, the ordinary Zuñi prays to ancestors in general. In Zuñi belief, ancestors are supposed to serve as mediators between the mortals and the gods. On this foundation a large number of cults have developed, each devoted to the worship of special supernaturals or groups of supernaturals, and each having a priesthood, a body of secret ritual, permanent possessions of fetishistic power, special places of worship, and a calendric cycle of ceremonies. There are six major types of cults. They are the cult of the sun, the cult of the rain makers (Uwanami), the cult of the Kachinas, the cult of the priests of the Kachinas, the cult of the War Gods and the cult of the Beast Gods. At present, the members of these cults may belong to several, or even all of them, and their beliefs overlap in a bewildering way.

"The Zuñis believe that, while all parts of the universe belong to a single system of interrelated life, degrees of relationship based on resemblance exist. The starting point in this system is humanity, which is the lowest because it is the least mysterious and the most dependent. The animals that most resemble humans are considered closest to them in the great web of interrelatedness. The animals, objects, or phenomena that least resemble them are believed to be the least related and, thus, the most mysterious and holy" (Zuñi). The Zuñi rituals and ceremonies are not only an affirmation of their cultural values, but they are also means of shaping the processes of the natural world, particularly those having to do with rain and moisture. They deal directly with the complex of cosmic forces that determine the weather, regulate the health of humans and insure the fertility of the people. The Zuñi are interested not so much in the isolated manifestations of natural processes as they are in basic harmony. By approaching the super-natural the collective force of the people in a series of great public and esoteric rituals, the Zuñi bend the processes of nature into a shape suitable both to their survival and cosmic well-being. An intensity of thought locked in a rigid pattern is, for the Zuñi, a major weapon against the harsh social and natural environment of the American Southwest.

Naming a baby was very important and was done by the relatives and tribal leaders, not the parents. When a Southwest Hopi baby was 20 days old, the father’s mother and sisters would come with blessing and give suggestions to name the baby. A young child spent most of its first years strapped to mother. When the baby grew up, the other relatives would watch over the child and begin to teach the child the tribal ways. "The uncles took care of the boys, while the aunts took care of the girls" (Zuñi) The girls would practice preparing food, making pottery, basket weaving, and sewing. The boys would learn to hunt and make tools and weapons. After a child reached puberty, the girls would go off with the women, and the boys would have to pass a test of courage.

The Zuñi live in flat-roofed stone adobe homes and are isolated from any major metropolitan areas. The Zuñi economy is mostly based on the sale of fine, handmade jewelry. Their jewelry is as unique as their culture. Unlike other Native American forms of jewelry, the silver base is inlaid with exquisite things, such as coral, turquoise, shell, lapis, lazuli, and recently with sugilite as well. Sugilite is an expensive purple mineral imported from the Kalahari Desert in Botswana.

The Zuñi originally began silversmithing in the 1890's, from the Navajo. The Navajo had been taught by Spaniards. Before the turn of the century, the Zuñi made their jewelry mainly to trade with other Indian tribes. As tourism increased after 1900 however, the Zuñis found a new market for their handicraft.

The main characteristic of Zuñi jewelry is the use of inlaid stones and other objects. Whereas in Navajo jewelry the purpose of inlaid objects is to draw attention to the silver, the Zuñi use silver as a way of drawing attention to the beautiful inlaid patterns. Fetishes, which were tiny figurines that were believed to embody the spirit of the animal they portrayed, are another form of Zuñi artwork. These were commonly made from precious stones and silver as well.

The use of fetishes by the Zuñi Indians dates prior to pre-Columbian times, and their use is as common today as it was in the past. All tribes in the Southwest make use of fetishes, but the Zuñi have always had the reputation for being the most skillful at carving them. For this reason, all other tribes have always looked to Zuñi Indian fetishes as their source for personal charms, talismans, and amulets. There are many purposes for which fetishes can be used: hunting, propagation, protection or even as a pet. The most prevalent belief is that the power resides in the spirit dwelling within the fetish, rather than the fetish itself. The difference between a carving and a fetish is purely a matter of belief. If a particular object is believed to possess power, then it is a fetish. The fetishes include bears, moles, badgers, mountain lions, goats, sheep, frogs, turtles, horses, coyotes, wolves, and birds. The materials used to carve fetishes include such traditional stones as black jet, abalone, sandstone, marble, serpentine, red coral, turquoise, alabaster, and mother-of-pearl.

Perhaps the most important event in the history of the Zuñi tribe was their discovery by Fray Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan missionary, in 1539.

"Fray Marcos, accompanied by some Indian guides, had set out in that year to prepare the way for his fellow missionaries in unexplored regions. Estavanico had been sent forward to inspect the unknown lands; when Fray Marcos arrived in Arizona after passing through Sonora he learned that Estavanico had been killed. Nevertheless, he continued his journey and got sight of Hawikuh, one of the seven Zuñi villages or pueblos. Owing to the hostility of the inhabitants, he was forced to return to Mexico, where he published an account of his journey, relating what he had heard of the Kingdom of Civola. This glowing description of the region led to the expedition of de Coronado in 1540, the little army being accompanied by Fray Juan de Padilla" (Catholic Encyclopedia).

"Coronado, after storming Hawikuh, discovered that Fray Marcos had been misled by the reports of the Indians, and that Cívola's rich cities were only seven ordinary Indian pueblos, none containing over 500 houses. In 1598 Fray Andres Corchado was sent to preach to the Zuñi and the neighbouring tribes. This first permanent mission among the former wa begun at Hawikuh in 1629 by the Franciscans. On 22 February, 1632, Fray Francisco Letrado, and, five days later, Fray Martin de Arvide were martyred by the Zuñ. When the Apache attacked Hawikuh on 7 August, 1670, and destroyed the Zuñi church, another Franciscan, Fray Padro de Avila y Ayala, gained a martyr's crown. In 1680 the Zuñi joined in the Pueblo rising, killed their missionary, and fled, as they usually did when stricken with fear, to their fortress of Taaiyalone. The mission was continued until the nineteenth century, when it decayed from a want of priests and resources" (Catholic Encyclopedia).

Today, the Zuñi reservation in New Mexico is governed by a Governor, Lieutenant Governor and a six member Tribal Council. Tourism is permitted, and there are several different restaurants, as well as a few chain stores. The Zuñi Public School District is the only Indian-controlled independent public school system in the nation. The district is associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools through Brown University and the Re:Learning project through the State of New Mexico.

The reservation itself occupies four hundred and fifty thousand acres, at elevations ranging from six thousand to eight thousand feet. Due to this high elevation, the climate is very temperate. Although the winters are short, they are also very cold, and the Zuñi reservation receives snowfall. During the rest of the year the temperature stays at about eighty or nintey degrees during the day, and sixty degrees at night.

Over the past several thousand years, the Zuñi have managed to adapt to the world and to survive. Although their society was based on limited daily interaction with other cultures, they adapted well to the changes which time and exploration brought. By limiting their involvement in disagreements and disputes which did not concern any members of their own tribe, they were able to remain completely autonomous. The Zuñi Tribe has been able to survive, and has not become totally aculturated as many other tribes have.

Zu"ñis (?), n. pl.; sing. Zuñi (). Ethnol.

A tribe of Pueblo Indians occupying a village in New Mexico, on the Zuñi River.


© Webster 1913.

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