One chilly gray day in April, we took a couple of visiting friends to the Pueblo of Zuni to see Our Lady of Guadalupe, the old Spanish mission. Zuni is one of nineteen pueblo tribes with reservations in New Mexico. The pueblo tribes have retained their culture and identity more than most other Native American groups. Pueblo Indians still dance the dances and wear the costumes and fast and pray communally much as their ancestors did many hundreds of years ago.
The Zuni Pueblo is located in Northwestern New Mexico, about 20 miles west of our home. Zuni is the name of both the reservation and the town, and it is the old pueblo part of the town where the ancient heart of the Tribe still beats strongly.
Zuni Sacred Mesa (Dowa Yalanne)
The mission we went to see was built in 1629 with the forced Indian labor the Spanish generally used to build all the pueblo missions. It had partially collapsed, been rebuilt, and continued to stand in a square in the middle of Zuni old town for over 270 years. It looks just like you’d expect an old mission to look–massive plastered walls topped with a bell tower, fronted by a gated courtyard filled with ancient graves, old wooden windows and doors framed with huge weathered beams. It saw blood when conscripted Zuni people built it, and again when at least one Spanish priest was killed in it during the Pueblo revolt of 1680. But the main reason we took our friends to visit the mission was the painting going on inside.
When we pulled up to the small wooden door on the side of the mission and parked, there were four or five other people, tourists from Florida, waiting to see the inside of the church, which was locked. One of the people waiting said a call had been made to the Catholic office a couple of blocks away, and someone was coming over with a key to let us in. We stood there beside our cars with the folks from Florida and smelled the fragrant pinion wood smoke, and watched the dogs and children who went on with their lives as if we weren’t there.
Old Zuni Mission
In a few minutes a little boy came up to us and said, “They are dancing!” This was a welcome and unexpected surprise—a dance had begun in the small plaza that adjoined the church’s plaza. Lucia and I had wanted to see a Zuni dance for two years. Although the Zunis dance often, there is no schedule. The religious leaders of the Tribe usually announce dances the morning of the dance. Today we were lucky, and a dance had begun.
We walked through the alley between the mission plaza and the dance plaza, and there they were. One of the kivas, a spiritual society, was performing a rain dance, thirty or so men clad in painted deerskin shoes and brightly colored outfits with pinion branches in their belts and blue and red and black masks covering their heads, chanting and shaking rattles and stepping together in circles and lines that wove sinuously back and forth and around the small space.
We had been told that as non-Zunis we were supposed to be watching from the roof of a building on the other side of the square, but it was difficult to get there during the dance, so we stood with three or four other tourists and watched, entranced. These men were members of a kiva that had existed for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. They hadn’t put on their costumes and danced to entertain tourists, but as a religious practice to bring blessings to their village. They were from one of six kivas that would dance for rain on various days, and dance for other reasons on other days. We felt honored and touched to be allowed to watch this ancient religious rite and listen to the chanting song as we leaned against the old adobe wall in the chilly gray afternoon light.
Eventually a woman came up to us and asked us to leave the alley so the dancers could move through to continue their dance in the plaza beside the mission. About the same time a woman came from the mission office to open the church, and we went inside the mission, where we could still hear the dancing and chanting as it continued outside.
The inside of the mission is basically one large high room filled with old wooden pews, and a loft at the back. Our eyes were immediately drawn to the paintings that covered both side walls of the church. There, life-size, were dozens of the kachinas of the Zuni kachina religion, and priests and dancers and others performing religious functions of tribe and kiva and clan.
Traditional Zuni life is a complex interweaving of clans, societies, and religion. The centerpieces of Zuni religion (and that of some other Pueblo Tribes) are the kachinas. Kachinas are spirits of things in the physical world. In terms of their power and influence they somewhat resemble Catholic saints. They are powerful manifestations that can bring good things for people: rain, healing, abundant crops, or protection.
On the left wall were the warm month activities, rain dancers and initiation rites and the alter of a medicine man, all under blue sky and rainbow and sacred serpent, birds and plants and sun gracing the procession of kachinas with the gifts of the earth. On the right was the winter when Shalako, the biggest annual celebration, happens (there will be a later posting here about out experiences with Shalako), and there were the Mudheads and the Longhorns and the Shalako Kachina himself, and the Shalako priest and the other kachinas of the cold months. Above them stretched a snowy sky and snow lay at their feet, all sparkling with glittered frost.
Alex Seowtewa, a Zuni man, has been painting these kachina scenes since 1970, when he convinced a priest that despite his slight artistic training, he could capture the images on the walls of the church. He wanted to depict the traditional Zuni religion in this Catholic place, and preserve images of Zuni culture that may be otherwise lost. Zuni priest functions are sometimes lost when a priest dies before he can teach his chants and songs to another.
With two of his sons, Alex paints high on a scaffolding against the wall or up in the loft where they are working on a large panel depicting the church as it was many years ago, including a Zuni Christ figure above pouring corn pollen blessings upon the church and the town below. When Alex or one of his sons is here and visitors enter, they will stop their painting to explain what they are doing and why, what the figures mean, some of the history of the Zuni tribe, and its religious beliefs and its painful encounters with the Spanish.
These are wonderful, openhearted men engaged in a life-long creative passion. In addition to recording aspects of their culture and beliefs, their work is a correction, a purging—in the middle 1800’s, at the order of the priests, the walls of the church had carried paintings of disciplinarian kachinas, probably placed there as warnings to the tribe of punishments that would be meted out to them if they failed to attend services. But the Seowtewa paintings are in danger. The plaster upon which they rest is separating from the walls, and despite a number of proposals over the years, no organization has yet come forth to implement a solutiom.
We stood in the back of the church and listened to the faint droning voice of the church representative at the front, as it intertwined with the muffled chants and rattles of the dancers outside. I thought about how we white folks from Kansas City and Florida were experiencing glimpses of this ancient indigenous culture as if it were exotic and unusual, when in fact we were the exotics in this place.
We walked outside, where the rain dancers continued to move to rhythms rooted in time and earth. Finally they began to move from the plaza toward a nearby house for food and rest, weaving through a cluster of automobiles in which Zuni people sat watching behind rain-streaked windows,
As I write this, I am struck by the the gaps we saw that day: between we white observers and the Zunis, and between the modern and ancient worlds inhabited by the Zuni observers in their cars as they watched the dance.
Lucia and I recently heard an interview with Richard Blanco, the young gay Cuban American poet who had been chosen to read a poem at the second inaguaration of President Obama. When asked by the interviewer the theme of his poem he said it’s about the question, “How do we belong together?” Whether standing in the Zuni rain or feeling the tumult of the world, that seems like a right question to ask.
Beside Sacred Mesa Road