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“A Zuni Life: A Pueblo Indian in Two Worlds”

by Virgil Wyaco

Virgil Wyaco was born in Zuni in the mid-1920s. In the seventh grade, he left the pueblo to attend the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school in Albuquerque. This is his telling about his experiences at school and when he returned to Zuni.

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In 1936, when I was in the sixth grade, I heard about the Indian School in Albuquerque, one of the BIA boarding schools, and I thought about having a different lifestyle and learning new things in a big city. My principal, Mrs. Gonzales, sent in an application for me, and my parents agreed to let me go, accepting my desire to broaden my life. These were the good reasons. They were true enough, but there were other, more compelling ones: girls had begun paying attention to me.

“In Zuni, boys and girls grow up separately”

In Zuni, boys and girls grow up separately, boys running together and girls staying with their mothers as children. I'd come to think that girls might be interesting long before they had paid any attention to me, but it took me some time to overcome my early years when I'd been undersized. Recently, however, I'd noticed the girls looking at me and looking away, giggling when I caught them at it. There are no secrets at Zuni; soon everyone would notice and the teasing would begin. I had lots of aunts and uncles who would be most unhelpful in any attempt I made to make room in my life for girls. I knew no one in Albuquerque. It would make the whole process much easier.

But when I first went to Albuquerque in the summer of 1937, there were too many other new things to get used to. The city itself was a revelation. I've seen the Empire State Building in New York, but it didn't make anywhere near the impression on me that seeing the First National Bank Building in Albuquerque did. It was ten stories tall! And I rode a train for the first time, from Gallup to Albuquerque. Even the bus ride from the station to the school was a new experience.

I was placed in a barracks with fifty other boys, keeping my extra clothes in a locker in the basement. That first night I hardly slept at all, wondering if I hadn't made a mistake, leaving my home where everything was familiar.

The next day they tested us and I was placed in the advanced class for seventh grade, mostly because my English was better than most of the other students. We also were assigned vocational training, on the assumption that, as Indians, we probably wouldn't be going to college and we should get something practical out of our school experience. I chose to work at the swine farm, where they fed twenty to thirty hogs to provide meat for the school. One of my uncles kept hogs and I liked them. They smelled bad sometimes, but we kept them clean, and anyway, Indian kids were used to living in a rural setting around animal excrement all the time. At that time, we Indians still had outhouses instead of inside toilets. Smells were just smells. They couldn't hurt you.

Everyone was homesick. For me, it was the food I missed most. I used to write home and ask for Indian bread and roasted corn. I would eat it before I went to bed. It helped me to get to sleep. I had only two dollars with me when I came to Albuquerque, and I spent it all on pop and cinnamon rolls. Nothing else tasted good to me. I remember I was hungry all the time. The school stored corn for the pigs, and I used to secretly roast it and eat it by myself. By the time I was in the eighth grade, I'd shared my secret with the three other Zuni boys at the school, for they felt the same way I did about the school food. But someone told on them, and they got caught with the roasted corn. I was implicated, too, even though I wasn't with them that time, and all of us were punished. We were required to chip the mortar off of old bricks in our spare time. I don't know what they were planning to do with the bricks, but each of us had to clean a thousand of them. We figured we'd cleaned enough bricks to build a house twenty by fifty, bigger than any house in Zuni back then. This calculation was the only use I found at the time for the mathematics I was learning. It gave me little satisfaction.

Shalako Cross to South Side of the River to Dance and Plant the Plums, ca. 1896“Shalako Cross to South Side of the River to Dance and Plant the Plums, ca. 1896,” Ben Wittick (Photographer)

My real father, Otto, came to the school to bring me back to Zuni for Shalako over the Christmas vacation, and he found me on the brick pile. He thought it was wrong of the school to punish me for stealing food when I was hungry. Being hungry was an ever-present threat to Indian families then. And refusing to give food to someone who asks for it was one of the reasons that people were hurt by witches; anger at such a refusal could bring about witch thoughts in anyone.

Even when I was attending the Albuquerque Indian School I came home to Zuni summers and worked with the sheep and cut and hauled wood. I was big enough to do a man's work. Cutting wood took all day. We had to take a team and wagon to where we could find both piñon pine and cedar juniper. The piñon burns too fast if you use it by itself, but in the wintertime you can smell piñon smoke long before you see Zuni. It is still one of the things I like best about living here. Of course, sometimes the smell of piñon meant the women were baking bread or roasting corn, my favorite Indian food. They'd throw the ears of corn, still in their husks and fresh from the fields, right on top of the live coals in the hornos, then seal up the entrances with mud. Next morning, the corn would be ready to eat. I still grow corn every year.

By the time I was in the tenth grade, I could help plow. Farming was a vast change from sheep herding, a lot more work, heavy work, when you don't have a tractor. It would take two days to plow an acre-and-a-half with a team of horses. My foster father drove the horses and I held the plow handles. It was not only difficult, it was boring. Plowing and planting season lasted a month, but then we had corn, melons, pumpkins in the ground. My foster mother did her garden with her sisters. The distinction between men's and women's work is very clearly defined, with the exception of hauling water. Anyone can haul water. Water is a holy thing, and it is a blessing to work with it.

I was in Four-H that year. Four-H is an activity something like Boy Scouts, but for farm kids. It was tied into the high school. As an experiment, I was given two gunny sacks full of potato seeds, and I harvested a fine crop that fall. I think I was the first person to grow potatoes in Zuni. I planted other crops, too, and won prizes with them. The work interfered with any plans I had for loafing that summer.

We only had one team of horses and my uncle needed them, so I used to run the three miles out to the field where they were kept to bring them back for him. From then on, I competed in track during the school year at any distance of a quarter-mile or over. I also played on the baseball team, and played basketball and touch football.

Acoma-Zuni Trail Across El Malpais“Acoma-Zuni Trail Across El Malpais,” David Grant Noble (Photographer)

I ran back and forth from Zuni to the sheep camp in the summertime, ten miles one way. I even competed in a stick race once, a race where you kick a stick for twenty-five miles. It had a religious significance, but people bet on the outcome, too. I barely found time for girls. I sometimes hear young people say there's nothing to do, and I don't understand it. There was never enough time to do everything I wanted to do when I was young.

When I wasn't in school or playing sports or with girls, I worked. I wanted some nice clothes to impress the girls, so I asked the agent at Black Rock for summer work when I reached seventeen. They put me to work tearing down buildings that the Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted to replace. I ran back and forth from Zuni, about an hour each way, for a dollar-and-a-half a day. I'd give half of it to my mother and spend the rest on candy and clothes, mostly clothes. When I went back to school for my junior year, I thought I was about the grandest thing that walked. Everyone told me how good I looked and how proud they were of me. I agreed with them. I've never had such a high opinion of myself since.

The next summer, I went back to work building fences for the BIA. We cut trees, trimmed them down to fence posts, dug post holes, and strung wire. I made two dollars and sixty cents a day that summer. When I got back to school for senior year, I joined the Federal National Youth Administration program and made six dollars and fifty cents a day, which gave me spending money. I felt rich.

What did a big shot like me do after I graduated? Only four of us made it, two girls and two boys, though we'd started junior year with twelve students. Our folks all were on us all the time to get an education, but not many of us stuck to it. I found out why.

My father said, “You have to go herd sheep again,” and hauled me out to sheep camp with my high school diploma in my hand. I guessed my profession was going to be herding sheep. I'd been doing it since I was a kid. The diploma didn't make it any easier.