Mystery and Drama

Virginia Morell, author of “The Zuni Way,” on the mystical ceremonies of the Zuni pueblo

corn-grinding ceremony
Zuni or not, every woman is obliged to pitch in for the Sha'lako corn-grinding ceremony. During the religious festival, says Morell (far right), "people are expected to set aside all feelings of ill-will and hostility." Michael McRae

How did you become interested in the Zunis?
I had been to Zuni as a child in the 1960s. My folks loved to travel in the desert. They loved the Southwest, and Native American cultures, the pottery and jewelry. We had previously visited the Hopi people on their mesas, and at a time when they still permitted outsiders to see their most sacred dances. We actually saw the Snake Dance, which I've never forgotten, especially that moment when the first Snake Priest emerged from the underground kiva and began to slowly dance with a snake in his mouth. Our family also visited Acoma Pueblo, Santa Clara, Taos and several other pueblos, all of them very friendly. And then we went to Zuni. I don't remember exactly what happened—I think my folks went to one shop—but I remember my dad saying, "We're not welcome here, we should leave." And that was my impression of Zuni. It was not the same experience we'd had at the other pueblos.

So you just left?
Yes, and all I remember about Zuni was driving down the main highway that goes through the center of the reservation. I have a vague memory of some small adobe houses, nothing really remarkable.

When you returned to write about the Zuni, did you find that the atmosphere had changed?
Yes, this time it was completely the opposite. It seems to depend on the elected leaders in the tribal council, and how strictly they choose to adhere to the tribe's religious traditions. But people were very welcoming in general, and often invited me to their homes. One of the things that struck me is the Zuni sense of humor; they love to rib each other and tease. That made me feel especially welcome, since they felt relaxed enough around me to show that part of themselves.

Did Zuni still seem different from other pueblos?
I was impressed at how intact the tribe is. I've been to Hopi since my childhood visit, and found it heartbreaking to see the difference between then and now, the way that drugs and alcoholism—and tourism, to some extent—have ravaged it, particularly the First Mesa. When I was a kid, we were allowed to walk freely around the First Mesa pueblo, and we went from home to home and met many people. One woman, Laura Tomosi, was particularly friendly, and showed us all the steps in making her pottery. She was just opening her kiln, right on the edge of the mesa. It wasn't fancy, simply a pile of old pot shards and earth, but she bent down and lifted out beautiful painted pots, gold and red from the fire. Today at the First Mesa, there are signs saying visitors must first register and get a guide. I think they've been inundated by tourists, which must be tiring since the pueblo is small.

Have the Zuni kept intact as a people just because they've deliberately kept out outsiders, or is there more to it?
I think part of it is the remoteness of the reservation—they're not close to Santa Fe or Albuquerque. It's a trek to get there, and you really have to want to go to Zuni because there's not really another major attraction nearby.

Do they have the same problems with alcohol abuse that other tribes have?
Oh yes, unfortunately, they have problems. They talked about that with me; there was a terrible car crash involving alcohol while I was there, and a little girl died. They were hesitant to discuss the details, and I didn't press them because it is a sensitive issue, and it wasn't the focus of my story.

You were an outsider writing about the Zuni for other outsiders. Did you feel guilty, knowing how important their cultural privacy is to them?
Not guilty, but it puts a writer in a very difficult position. I had to be invited by the tribe through the tribal council. I met with them once, and they asked me to send a letter listing the topics I thought I might write about. Once the council agreed to my visit, they assigned Edward Wemytewa, who was then a council member, to be my liaison.

Were there things you weren't allowed to write about?
I wouldn't say that there were questions that they refused to answer. They made it very clear that they didn't want me to write about their religion, but I had to include some simple references to their religious beliefs in the story, since these are central to understanding the Zuni as a people. Without causing the Zuni grief or worry, I felt I had to give my readers some understanding of the basis of their religion—for example, that corn is sacred to them—without spelling out all the details. What they worry about, and it's a very difficult thing for us to understand, is that when people write about these things, the Zuni don't know what other people will do with this knowledge. They regard their religious beliefs as powerful, and they don't know if people will use the knowledge in a good way or a bad way. They have no control over how these beliefs will be used—or abused—once they are printed.

For example, almost all of the Zuni war gods—carved figures—were taken by museums and collectors during the last two centuries. I believe that most of these have now been returned to the Zuni. The Zuni worried about losing control of these figures, not only because they were an integral part of their religion, but also because it was dangerous for these carvings to be loose in the world. If they are in the wrong place and aren't being attended properly, the war gods can cause a lot of mischief. That is the Zuni view.

What are they worried could happen?
If the war gods aren't treated properly, they might bring disharmony to the world. Locally, the Zuni are also concerned about the neighboring Navajo people. It's no secret that the two tribes are longtime enemies. Some Zuni fear that the Navajo may adopt their dances and ceremonies, and misuse these for their own purposes. Like many of the Pueblo peoples, the Zuni are wary of the Navajo, who have the largest reservation in the Southwest.

What was the most interesting part of your visit to Zuni?
Edward Wemytewa invited me to their main religious ceremony, Sha'lako. It is their winter solstice celebration—the end of the Zuni year, and the beginning of their New Year. But it is much more than that: it's also the time when the ancestral Zuni return to the Pueblo to see how their descendants are faring. During this time, people are expected to set aside all feelings of ill-will and hostility. They must be at peace in their own minds in order to bring peace and good fortune to Zuni--and the world. All the outsiders who were invited to Sha'lako were first asked to attend an orientation meeting, where the Zuni explained what we could and couldn't do, what ceremonies we could see, and where we should stand. We were forbidden to take pictures. It's their most important religious ceremony, and we were not to get in the way of any Native American viewing it. It wasn't that we were not welcome, but we were not part of it. At one point my husband and I were watching one ceremony from a vantage point where we thought we weren't in the way. Now, I have high cheekbones and dark hair, and I have been asked many times if I am part Native American. One Zuni leader walked up and said, "You're not supposed to be here." And then he looked closely at me and said, "Unless of course you're Indian." That made me smile, but of course, we moved.

What was it like to see Sha'lako?
I have made numerous trips overseas and seen many different cultures, but I've never seen anything as dramatic as Sha'lako. The figures wear nine-foot tall masks, and dance all night, and later have races. In terms of mystery and drama, and the way the ceremony affected me, only the Hopi Snake Dance comes close. The night-long drumming and dancing engulfs you; in the morning, when you leave the Sha'lako, every cell of your body is reverberating. Even days later, I could feel the beat of the drum, and my ears rang with the sound of Zuni songs.

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