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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About three miles from Halona, close to the base of the sacred mesa Dowa Yalanne, to which the Zuni have fled in times of danger, a group of middle school children are learning to make traditional Zuni walled gardens, which are divided into sunken depressions, like a waffle iron. It's a way of Zuni farming not often seen now. In the early 20th century, waffle gardens edged Halona, surrounding the pueblo with low adobe walls and yielding a bounty of vegetables and fruit. But the Zuni River flowed freely then; it does not today, largely because of dams and droughts. The pueblo has few gardens; there's simply not enough water. At Dowa Yalanne, however, the children haul water taken from a spring 12 miles away, making it possible for Jim Enote to teach them this kind of gardening. The children pour buckets of water onto their patches of earth, stirring up the mud and patting it into low walls. "Most of the time, we definitely don't get to play in the mud like this," says 12-year-old Rodney Soseeah, both hands coated with the wet, black earth. "So I like farming, and growing some stuff."

"I'm thinking of planting peppers," says Mary Quam, 15. "Then me and my mom can make salsa."

"We'll also be planting corn," says Odell Jaramillo, a teacher and adviser to this program. "For the Zuni, corn is our life, our protector. It's at the center of our religion and ceremonies." Every ceremony requires a sprinkling of white cornmeal.

Every young person i met hopes to live at the pueblo as an adult. But that means finding a job, which is not easily done. The Zuni schools, including a branch of the University of New Mexico, and a hospital offer employment possibilities. But there are very few businesses, aside from the Indian craft trading posts, a few gas stations and small convenience stores. There are no fast-food joints, no Burger Kings or McDonald's, no hotels.

"You really have to wonder why that is," says Darlynn Panteah, the CEO of one of the most surprising and successful of Zuni businesses, Zuni Technologies, the sole high-tech company in town. "I mean, the same three stores that I grew up with are still the only stores here at Zuni—30 years of the same stores! We all have to go to Gallup to do our shopping."

Panteah blames the lack of local enterprises on tribal policies that have tied up much of the land on the main highway, where hotels and restaurants might prosper. She also laments the tribe's reluctance to bring in outsiders and their businesses. (The tribe is debating whether to build hotels and casinos in their community.) "We lose so many of our young people to the outside. Yet we depend on them; they're the ones who must carry on our religion. So, it's up to us, the older generation, to make good jobs for them at Zuni."

Panteah leads the way from the parking lot outside Zuni Technologies, which operates out of a low-slung, white warehouse. Inside, 62 Zuni men and women sit in front of computers, typing and clicking as they scan stacks of military manuals, converting the heavy, printed texts into digitized forms for the Air Force, Marines and Navy. The business, started with assistance from tribal and government funds and later the Intertribal Information Technology Company, a consortium of tribes that promotes high-tech businesses on Indian reservations, is now three years old, and offering dream jobs to the mostly young people who work here.

"I honestly never thought there'd be a job here at Zuni in my field, management information systems," says Vinton Hooee, 25, and a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico. "It's given me ideas about starting my own business, like Darlynn, to help keep our young people here. It's very hard to be part of Zuni when you're living in Albuquerque. There's a ceremony here every month, and you can't really take part if you're here only on weekends. All of us young people, we're struggling to get the balance right."

Wilton Niiha, a carpenter and kachina leader, drives with me down a sandy road toward the most dominant feature on the Zuni landscape—the cream-and-rose-striped mesa, Dowa Yalanne—until we see two rocky, tower-like formations split away from the main mesa. "Those rocks are the little boy and girl who saved the people who fled long ago to the top of Dowa Yalanne during the flood," says Niiha. According to legend, "the water was rushing up to the top of the mesa, so the children of the head priest asked if they could place their prayer sticks in the water." The priest granted their request, and the children stepped into the water with the prayer sticks on top of their heads. Instantly, the floodwaters began to recede. "With that sacrifice, the boy and girl saved Zuni," Niiha says. "They became part of the mountain."

The late afternoon sun reached the two stone figures, turning them a rosy golden hue. It was easy to imagine them as children holding hands as they waded into the water and to their deaths, and asking as all Zuni do for blessings, for their people and their land and the world.


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