DocumentCitationsKeywordsRelated Material

“Zuni Encounters with Anthropologists”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

Zuni Pueblo has been a crossroads in the American Southwest for hundreds of years. The Zuni world included encounters with neighboring and more distant tribes. The Zuni world expanded with the Spanish entradas beginning in the 1500s. It expanded still more when General Kearny and the American army arrived in 1846. Adventurers, traders, government officials, and settlers came in Kearny's tracks. In the late 1800s, the newly created US Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution sent anthropologists to Zuni. They believed that indigenous people were dying out and their traditions should be preserved in museums. The Smithsonian sent field workers to collect artifacts and document the practices of native peoples in the American Southwest.

Frank Cushing at Zuni Delegation“Frank Cushing at Zuni Delegation,” Unidentified (Photographer)

Frank Cushing arrived in Zuni in 1879 with a scientific expedition for a three-week assignment and stayed for more than four years. He lived across the river from the pueblo for several weeks with a team of anthropologists. Then he moved into the Zuni governor's house. He sought to become part of Zuni life so that he could document it for the Smithsonian. Cushing wheedled, bluffed, and forced his way into many Zuni rituals and societies, including the prestigious Bow Priesthood.

Cushing wrote down everything he observed about the Zunis. He learned their customs, stories, and songs. He collected artifacts and sacred items and sent them back to Washington, DC. To this day, both Zunis and anthropologists view Cushing's behavior at Zuni with a mixture of admiration and criticism. He mixed the roles of scientific observer and passionate participant in the culture.

“To this day, both Zunis and anthropologists view Cushing’s behavior at Zuni with a mixture of admiration and criticism.”

There are many tales about Cushing's close relationship to the Zunis and his participation in Zuni society. According to one story, Cushing actually took a scalp in battle with a neighboring tribe of Navajos or Apaches. He needed the scalp in order to become a warrior in the traditional Bow Priesthood. Cushing's own account suggests that he obtained the scalp from friends at the Smithsonian or in the army.

Cushing choked on a fish bone and died in April 1900 at the age of forty-three. Some believe his early death was punishment by Zuni war gods for revealing sacred secrets.