The Zuni Way

Though they embrace computers and TV, the secret of the tribe’s unity lies in fealty to their past

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By the time Cushing invited himself into the pueblo, the Zuni had already suffered through years of Spanish and Mexican rule. Under the Spanish, the Catholic Church had ordered them to cease their religious practices altogether. They'd managed to protect their beliefs in part by pretending the prayer songs they sang in their cornfields were simply planting tunes and in part by outright rebellion. They resisted the inquiries of other anthropologists—and from melika in general—by adopting an icy, slightly hostile stance toward overly curious outsiders. Although I was invited to several Zuni ceremonies and dances, and was warmly greeted, I was also warned not to write about them. "This is our religion."

"People outside have the idea that knowledge should be shared," said Jim Enote, the director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center. "That's what universities are built around. But at Zuni we don't think that way. Some knowledge should be protected and not shared. There are things in Zuni you can know, and things you can't. And there are certain people who deserve to be the keepers of that knowledge. It's a privilege, and the rest of us respect them for that."

Those who follow the Zuni faith greet the morning sun with a sprinkling of sacred cornmeal and mark the yearly calendar with rituals and dances, all designed to keep not only Zuni but the world at large in balance and at peace. Thus "living at Zuni" means far more than simply being able to pass down artistic traditions or eat Native foods with Zuni salt. For the Nahohais and Sheches, staying at Zuni is almost a sacred obligation. Those who assume a religious position—among the Zuni devout that translates to at least one man in every family—do so for life, and they must be present for every ceremony.

"There's one key to understanding Zuni," says Edward Wemytewa, a former tribal councilman in his early 50s, who takes me on a quick tour of Halona, where the last of the pueblo's fabled multistory buildings still stand around a ceremonial plaza. "And it's that the dances that take place here in the plaza are the heart of who we are. All the movement and colors, the singing and the sounds of the bells and the drums echoing off the walls—all this touches your spirit. From the day you are born as a Zuni until the day you leave this world, this is within you."

Although some Zuni have converted to Catholic and Protestant faiths—including Mormonism—the Zuni religion remains so dominant in the pueblo that several members of the tribe told me that despite having elected officials, they feel they live in a theocracy controlled by priests. Tribe members who violate taboos—such as the publisher of the now-defunct Zuni Post who sometimes touched on religious matters—can expect a visit from a priest or to be summoned before the tribal council for questioning. Even speaking the word "drought" is thought to be dangerous because it might lead to one. "That's just the way it is," one Zuni told me.

A few miles beyond the central pueblo of Halona, Edison Vicenti and his wife, Jennie, have built a Spanish-style stucco home. For 30 years, Vicenti designed semiconductor chips for IBM in Tucson, while his wife worked as a nurse. When they retired in 1996, they moved back to Zuni. Today, the former computer engineer serves his tribe as head kachina priest, overseeing prayer meetings, certain initiation ceremonies and dances. (With his wife, he also makes the petit point turquoise-and-silver jewelry for which the Zuni are known.)

"I don't have any trouble flip-flopping between the two worlds," says Vicenti. "There was a time when I was more interested in science, but it was always a foregone conclusion that I'd be back. My family is in the deer clan, which is a small clan, and the duties of the head kachina priest are part of our clan's responsibilities. It's my turn to handle those responsibilities now."

One important responsibility is teaching Zuni ceremonial prayers to the youths initiated into his religious society. With other tribal leaders, Vicenti worries that Zuni is a vanishing language, like more than 80 percent of the remaining 175 Native American languages. Some scholars estimate that unless something is done, these threatened languages will be gone within the next 40 years. "If we lose our language, we lose the base of our religion and culture," Vicenti says. "And if we lose our religion, we lose what binds us together as Zuni. It is like the roots of a tree; if the tree is uprooted or the roots contaminated, then it dies. It is the same with us." Vicenti shakes his head. "And we can't let that happen."

To counter the English language heard in every home on radio and television (and in movies and in daily conversation), elderly Zuni join with Zuni teachers at the Head Start program at the elementary school to encourage children to speak the Zuni language. There are immersion Zuni language programs in the higher classes as well, and programs conducted in Zuni at the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center. And there is KSHI, the Zuni radio station. "Kesh shi. Lukkya shamle don a:wan hon dena: a:lashinna dap kya: kol dena: denabekkowa ik'osh na:wa," intones Duane Chimoni, KSHI's general manager and part-time disc jockey. "Hello. On this morning's program we're going to hear some songs that used to be played in the past."

The songs, however, aren't Zuni songs; they're Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and The Who's "My Generation." "We make our announcements in both English and Zuni," says Chimoni. "If we only do Zuni, then we get lots of calls, people saying ‘uh, sorry, my Zuni isn't that good, could you repeat that part about....' But I like to think it helps, hearing us speak Zuni."


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