NOTE: This article was origionally published in the April 2015 issue of Vrai Magazine as a two-part series.
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On a breezy late-June morning, Tom Kennedy, the Director of the Zuni Tourism Program at the remote western New Mexico Native American pueblo stands atop the remains of the ancient Zuni town of Hawikku, about twelve miles southwest of the main Zuni village of Halona. The wind is gritty and the sky tinted orange from the dust; a Lesser earless lizard races across his feet.
“That is where Estéban spent his last night,” Tom says. Below, where the remains of the old town melt into a wide and grassy plain is a pile of rocks. The plain stretches on to a series of mesas to the south and west.
Estéban was an African explorer serving as guide to Fray Marco de Niza who arrived at Hawikku first, ahead of de Niza. The Zunis, rightfully distrustful and not very appreciative of his demands for women, held Estéban overnight in a small room just outside the main entrance to the town. Then they killed him.
De Niza turned tail and ran back to Mexico where he or someone from his group filled the head of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado with stories of the rich Zuni towns. Thinking they could be the Seven Cities of Cibola – the lost cities made of gold – he traveled north in 1540 with what can only be described as a circus-like medieval hoard of raiders accompanied by Mexica allies from central Mexico, horses, cannons and a few priests.
“This is the spot where Coronado nearly lost his life when the Spanish attacked Hawikku,” explains Kennedy. As the story goes, the Zuni defenders lured the conquistador into a trap and very nearly killed him by toppling over a tall ladder.
The Zuni of course are more welcoming to visitors today than they were in Coronado’s days. Then again, visitors these days aren’t lobbing cannon balls and are a bit less offensive than were the Medieval Europeans.
“The type of visitors that come to Zuni are the ones willing to crawl under the surface,” says Roger Thomas, owner of the Inn at Halona, a bed and breakfast located in the middle of Halona. “You have to want to come here. Our visitors tend to be better educated and more culturally aware. Their reward is often a very profound experience.”
How does a culture, many millennia in the making, balance modern tourism with the passion to preserve their heritage, religion and lifestyle? It is a common mistake to envision “culture” as a static thing rather than a process. Culture is in constant evolution. To take one culture from one time period, box it up and label it is to degrade the real human beings at the core of the process of culture.
Kennedy points to tiny bits of turquoise on a rock. Someone had recently, come to pay respect at Hawikku. They had made a turquoise-laced cornmeal offering at that rock. The cornmeal had of course blown to the valley. The turquoise remained. The significance is clear. Hawikku remains sacred.
When it comes to tourism, what are the boundaries of sacred?
Zuni and the American Imagination
When Coronado arrived to Shiwinnaqin, the Zuni homeland, on that hot day in early July he found a powerful and wide-spread culture based in six distinct towns but spread throughout the region. The A:shiwi have lived here for something like 4,000 years. Their language is an ‘isolate’ meaning that it is not related to any known language.
With a population of more than 10,000, modern Zuni is the largest of New Mexico’s 19 Indian pueblos. Today Halona Idiwan’a or the Middle Place is the only town on the Zuni reservation. A concoction of old adobes, hand-hewn red sandstone buildings, gas stations, double-wide trailers and stick-frame houses, the Middle Place is where you will find the Inn at Holona, the Halona Store, the cultural museum, the Visitor’s Center and Chu Chu’s Pizza. If snow-cones are your thing you will find one on every corner.
In the late 1800’s American anthropology saw itself as a science with a mission to salvage and preserve the remaining pieces of Native America about to be run over and crushed under the juggernaut of Anglo-Saxon culture. Along the way, the salvage mission turned into a pseudo-science of romantic storytelling about who the Zuni supposedly were.
As author Eliza McFeely wrote in her 2001 book Zuni and the American Imagination, “Zuni exerted its own quiet influence at the edges of American consciousness.” Zuni helped shape what Americans thought of Native Americans and what Americans thought of themselves. Zuni helped answer the questions of where the United States fit in the supposedly ordered evolution of all nations.
Zuni offered an answer by contrast. Zunis were less important for who they really were and more important for who Americans wanted them to be. For the early visitor Zuni equaled the romance of adventure through contact with another culture. “Still the center of their own complex story, the Zunis were peripheral characters in the story of others,” wrote McFeely.
But Zuni didn’t get run over.
Everywhere you go at Zuni you feel this tension between the open, friendly and welcoming nature of the people and the culture and desire to protect what the Zuni consider sacred and private. Naturally, this tension plays out among individuals who seem to each hold a different opinion on the subject. Couple this with that very recent history of exploitation by visitors and you may feel yourself strolling along a rather blurry line.
Two of the locations that best highlight this tension are the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center and the Spanish Mission Church.
“We’ve been studied to death. We don’t need that….we know who we are,” announces a sign at the Center. The exterior of the museum is a little run down. The inside isn’t. The clean, well-lit building tells the story of the Zuni people through their own eyes. At times, it even feels like it might be a museum more for the Zuni people than for visitors. Every sign is both in the Zuni language and in English.
The art and displays tell an unambiguous story where the Zuni are still the center of their own story. In some displays the Zuni are victims. “Selecting a Church Site” an etching by artist Floyd R. Soloman shows Spanish soldiers fixing canon on a kiva. Another shows Spanish friars physically abusing Zuni women. Still other displays highlight the power of the Zuni cosmology, art and resistance to the box early American anthropology attempted to build around the tribe.
More complex still, the Spanish Mission Church located less than a mile from the museum is a flashpoint in the community. Inside, the church is cool and damp. Light trails through the high windows. Deer and elk hides hang from the ceiling. Mounted on the closed-off front doors are two buffalo heads. Navajo blankets drape the confessionals. The church smells old, dusty and like adobe.
“I never left Zuni because I didn’t want to be away from my family. Family is very important in my culture,” Sherry Niiha explains. Niiha works as a guide with the Visitor’s center. “Some people, even in my family, think the church should be torn down,” Niiha says. “Because of what the Catholics did to our people.”
Religious evangelists from the Spanish on down weren’t exactly kind in imposing their various versions of God on a people that already had a powerful and well-developed religious practice. The Spanish were the worst by far and having a large church representing that abuse sit right smack in the middle of the village is an affront to many Zuni. And then there are the murals.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s a local Zuni artist covered the interior walls of the mission church with murals that are without hyperbole some of the most gorgeous works of art in North America. Both walls of the nave are painted with striking life-sized kachinas – the spirits of what exists in the real world. They represent an element or a place, an idea or a process of nature. The mission church kachinas are painted on a sparse, treeless landscape arched with a double rainbow and puffy, silvery, rain-bearing clouds.
The problem is not the beauty. It is the detail. The murals are so magnificently specific that many in the community feel that the nearly 50-year old works are sacrilege and should not be seen by outsiders. And yet both the mission church and the murals are one of the bigger draws for visitor’s to Zuni. Defenders of the murals say that the art is a way of re-possessing the church. A way of taking that space and that history back from the invaders who forever impacted Zuni history.
Art, Preservation and Economic Development
Tyson Nequatewa and Alfred Poncho sit outside the Visitor’s Center. Nequatewa is a soft-spoken man with glasses and many little tattoos up and down his arms and on his small hands. Alfred is his opposite, massive and bear-like with huge dark hands. Both artists set up their work on tables under a shaded overhang built by the tourism office.
The “Zuni Community Economic Assessment” from the University of New Mexico reports that nearly 70% of the Zuni workforce is employed in the arts and by far the majority of the sales they make are to people who visit the community. Zuni is already heavily dependent on the outside world.
And there is no better place for the “Geotourist” – those with an elevated interest in preserving the character of the places they visit. Zuni is increasingly moving to grow new markets for tourists who seek memories of cultural experiences. It also opens the possibility to develop a tourism that can serve as a dialog to help strengthen traditional cultural activities.
“We need to intersect with both culture and the religious community to make sure that tourism is done with respect and that all the vital religious needs are taken into account,” says Tom Kennedy.
Poncho and Nequatewa both say that they do quite well selling to visitors. Poncho’s small, detailed fetishes are hard to comprehend given the size of his hands. Nequatewa’s carved Hopi-style kachina dolls are made of cottonwood tree roots which he stains with a thinned acrylic. The effect was stunning. The two talk about art prizes, cash rewards at competitions, being on the road to trade fairs and how to package orders so they wouldn’t break in the mail. There is also a feeling among the artists that the market is over-saturated and that the trading posts hold an unfair domination over art production on the reservation.
“Zuni artwork is unique in the sense that it is culturally rooted. Most if not all the designs used in Zuni art is from our Zuni cultural background,” says Carlton James of the Zuni Cultural Arts Council. The council, established in 1992, works with Zuni artists on the business end of things. “We want to help Zuni artists get the full financial benefit from the art they produce.”
According to Carlton, the visitors purchasing Zuni art need to be responsible. “Consumers need to ask who the maker is, what materials are used and how the price was determined – and of course ask for proof. Ultimately the consumer has to be confident and comfortable with the business they are dealing with. If planned and implemented properly tourism can benefit the Zuni community without sacrificing the integrity of our culture.”
Andres “Chu Chu” Quam, the owner of Chu Chu’s Pizza, likewise wants to see a thriving Zuni tourism.
“We built this place for the Zuni people,” he says pointing at the restaurant. “We wanted to show them it could be done.” His building serves two basic purposes. One, as a meeting place for both locals and visitors but also as an example of what he’d like to see other members of the tribe doing. “We need more business people like me, mentoring the youth in business. How to bring in the visitors and take care of ourselves at the same time.”
The building, although modern-looking, is built in the old style with adobes and the advice of tribal elders. Chu Chu even constructed a specific room for the bow priest, a man whose prayers can help shape natural processes.
We only do traditional food for visitors,” he laughs. “Zuni people eat mutton stew and corn mush at home. They come here for a pizza break!”
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One afternoon I drive a little west of the Zuni Senior’s Center and pull off on a road that points into the desert. I park, put on my running shoes and jog towards Dowa Yalanne, the massive sacred mesa where the Zuni took refuge from the Spanish in the ancient buildings above.
In every direction the land is red. A deep, iron red that gives way to multi-colored layer cake sandstone mesas topped with a thin frosting of trees.
Back in a stand of juniper trees I find myself in a herd of sheep. Some with newborns tagging along. They all smell greasy and are covered in the red dust. Three sheep dogs saunter over, sniff my legs and trot away.
The herder strolls out from the trees and waves. He carries a plastic milk crate. We talk about the sheep and he tells me of a spring at the base of the mesa where I might find a drink. Then he says “Have a good run. I’m going to sit down in the shade and look what they’re all doing on Facebook.”
Then he pulls out his smart phone.