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“Zuni”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

Zuni Pueblo, ca. 1900“Zuni Pueblo, ca. 1900,” Frederick Maude (Photographer)

The Zuni, who call themselves A'shiwi, tell the story that long ago their gods cut off the peoples' tails, split the webs between their toes with stone knives, and led them from the underworld to seek their home in the center of the universe. When at last the Zuni people arrived at the center, a water spider named K'yhan'asdebi stretched his legs in four directions to touch the oceans of north, east, south, and west. He stretched two legs to touch the zenith and nadir, the highest and lowest places. The spot where the spider's heart touched the earth marked the exact center of the Middle Place.

The place termed “Zuni” by the Spanish conquistadors is a land of mesa, butte, plain, mountain, river, and lake. According to oral tradition, Zuni pueblo lands extended west to San Francisco Peak, north to Steamboat Wash, east to Mount Taylor, and south to the Salt and Gila River basins.

The Zuni are probably a mix of prehistoric southwestern cultures. The ancestral Pueblo peoples lived in the Four Corners area; the Mogollon inhabited the mountains and plains south of Zuni; and the Hohokam were centered in Southern Arizona. The Zunis tell stories of their origins and migrations, as well as colorful tales that illustrate their enduring ways.

Map of Zuni Trade Relationships“Map of Zuni Trade Relationships,” Troy Lucio (Artist)

Zuni Pueblo stands along what has long been a major north–south trade route. As far back as the 1300s, trading trails radiated from Zuni. Zuni Salt Lake was the destination of the earliest trails. The Zunis traded salt, turquoise, cotton, and bison skins with southern people in Sonora for shells, copper, parrots, and quetzal feathers. In Pecos Pueblo to the northeast, they traded for bison skins and pottery. Zuni trails led to turquoise mines in the Rio Grande Valley. Western trails extended south to the Gulf of California and west to the Pacific Coast. These brought shell and coral to the Zunis and their Hopi neighbors. The Zunis traded for silver with the Navajos and Mexicans. The Zuni–Acoma trail through the malpais lava flows connected Zuni and Acoma Pueblos.

Sometime after 1300, trails leading up from Mesoamerica may have brought the katsina religion to Zuni. At certain times of year, spirit ancestors embodied in masked figures perform rituals to pray for rain, fertility, and prosperity. The katsina religion may have organized the 50,000 Zunis into fifteen clans and six or seven towns.

“The place termed ‘Zuni’ by the Spanish Conquistadors is a land of mesa, butte, plain, mountain, river, and lake.”

During the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors followed the Indian trading trails north from Mexico to the Zuni lands in pursuit of the Seven Cities of Cíbola, also known as the Seven Cities of Gold.

In 1539, Fray Marcos de Niza approached Zuni Pueblo. Zuni warriors killed de Niza's advance scout, the Moorish slave Esteban. De Niza turned around and fled back to Mexico.

Fray Marcos de Niza“Fray Marcos de Niza,” J. Cisneros (Artist)

In July of 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his advance guard crossed the path of Zunis who were making a ritual pilgrimage to the sacred Lake Kothluwala. After a skirmish the Spaniards attacked the Zuni village of Hawikuh. When the Zunis fled to their sacred mesa Dowa Yalanne, the starving Spaniards looted the town's maize supplies.

The following centuries saw further encounters between Zunis and Europeans. Raiding Navajos, Utes, Apaches, and Comanches also brought conflict. The Zuni people experienced drought, starvation, and a steep decline in population. The Spanish colonists and missionaries introduced new foods (peaches, chili peppers, melons) and livestock (sheep, horses, and cattle). They also brought hardship to the Zunis. The Spaniards demanded that the Zunis pay tribute and work for them without reward. They also required the Zunis to convert to Catholicism. These pressures eventually triggered the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

Anglo–American interaction with Zuni increased after the Civil War. The people had to deal with the coming of the railroad, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, cattle ranchers, settlements, Protestant missionaries, boarding schools, anthropologists, and land speculators. The smallpox epidemic of 1889–1899 further devastated them.

The Zuni people have survived nearly 500 years of incursions from Spanish entradas, American settlers, and raids by other groups of Native Americans. Today they are a community of about 6,000 tribal citizens. They sustain their culture, as they have for centuries, by maintaining a complex, close-knit social organization and by practicing their traditional ceremonies.