The Mysterious Zunis
When I began doing research to find out the name of the Zuni governor whose photo I’ve been carting around the country with me for decades, I not only discovered his name (Bick Juna)
but I uncovered a whole lot more about his people. Bick Juna was a governor of this ancient tribe at the turn of the 20th century, so by any estimation, they’d been in the American southwest for quite some time. But it might surprise you to know the Zuni Indians have been ingrained in the tapestry of the American Southwest for more than 3,000 years. The influx of Europeans in the late 1800s may have made them alter their way of life, but the Zunis weren’t going anywhere. 3,000 years is a legacy that couldn’t be overturned by others who wanted to share their land. Their homeland on the Zuni River, which is a tributary of the Little Colorado River, is called Shiwinnaqin.
Today, they live on a 450,000 acre reservation in northwestern New Mexico. It is home to about 12,000 members of the Zuni tribe. Some of the oldest settlements of the Zuni are enclosed in this sheltered area, and are a major draw for tourism, although in most instances you can only look, but not enter. The dwellings used to be open to tourists to wander through, but all the foot traffic took its toll and the tribe had to eventually call a halt to it, or risk losing this part of their history altogether. Now all you can do is look and take pictures, similar to the one Edward Curtis took in the early 1900s. Houses with multiple stories carved into the sides of mountains sheltered the early inhabitants and are called pueblos. The site of these unique structures and the ingenuity of the early Zunis to build them are worth a side trip if you’re ever in this part of the country.
In the 14th century, and for the next two hundred years, the Zuni population grew, and a dozen pueblos housed them. These pueblos ranged in size from 180 to 1,400 rooms. These early pueblos were later abandoned, and nine new pueblos were erected over the next two hundred years, resulting in six different Zuni villages.
Prehistoric Zunis hunted large game, which was in abundance in this part of the country in the early days. They later turned to hunting small game and farming as a way of life. They had to defend their homes and lifestyle, first from the Spanish, who tried to force Christianity upon them. The Spanish introduced devastating diseases that decimated the tribe, but they also taught them about livestock and brought new crops into their lives. The Spanish were driven out of the Zuni lands during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The Apache and Navajo raided the Zunis with regularity and the formerly peaceful nation was forced to continually defend their land. Later, the US Government signed a treaty for the creation of a Zuni reservation in 1877. The Southern Pacific railroad finally reached Gallup, NM in 1881, thereby making it easier for easterners to expand into the southwestern portion of the country.
The tribe relinquished farming for the most part, in favor of herding sheep and cattle. They are known for their beautiful woven baskets, silver jewelry, pottery and fetishes and today rely on tourism for their way of life.
The Zuni speak their own language, which has been in existence for over 7,000 years and bears no relationship to any other language. They still hold regular ceremonies and dances to celebrate their traditional religion. The Zunis believe their gods reside in the lakes of Arizona and New Mexico and the tribal shamans hold regular rituals to pray for fertile crops and an adequate supply of rain.
The Zunis still have a tribal council who handle their affairs, from arrest warrants to hunting applications. They remain very much a closed society, and don’t involve themselves in any outside conflicts. My guess is some of Mr. Juna’s descendants still live on the reservation, but since they keep to themselves, I highly doubt any of them will read this blog.