The Zuni – A Mysterious People

Zuni Pueblo, NM-Edward S. Curtis, 1903

Zuni Pueblo, NM, Edward S. Curtis, 1903. Click for prints, downloads and products.

The Zuni people, like other Pueblo Indians, are believed to be the descendents of the Ancient Puebloans who lived in the desert Southwest of New MexicoArizona, Southern Colorado and Utah for a thousand years. Today the Zuni Pueblo, some 35 miles south of Gallup, New Mexico has a population of about 6,000. Archeological evidence shows they have lived in this location for about 1,300 years.

Their tribal name is A’shiwi (Shi’wi), meaning “the flesh.” The name “Zuni” was a Spanish adaptation of a word of unknown meaning. The Zuni speak their own unique language which is unrelated to the languages of the other Pueblo peoples and continue to practice their traditional shamanistic religion with its regular ceremonies, dances, and mythology.

In the year 1540 the first Spanish explorers encountered the Zuni Indians living in six or seven large pueblos along the banks of the Zuni River, of which, all are in ruins today.

These villages were located next to fertile ground where the Zuni could take advantage of abundant water resources. The Zuni had a successful and well-established agricultural economy.

The arrival of the Spaniards explorers disrupted the Zuni’s trading patterns, land use, and settlement system, as well as introducing new diseases which took a devastating toll among their population. However, the Spaniards also introduced domestic livestock and new crops, including wheat and peaches.

During the seventeenth century there was a decline in the Zuni population and subsequently, in the number of occupied villages.  The attrition was the result political pressure from the Spaniards, and raiding from the Navajo and Apache. Violence soon became a regular part of the otherwise peaceful Zuni as they defended their land and resources from encroachment from other groups and resisted Spanish attempts to suppress their culture and religion.

The Zunis joined with other pueblos in August of 1680 in the historic Pueblo Revolt which succeeded in driving the Spaniards out of New Mexico.

Afterwards, the Zuni fled to the top of the Dowa Yalanne mesa and prepared for defense. Between 1680 and 1692 the Zuni built and maintained a large settlement that incorporated many pueblo rooms on the mesa top, an area of less than 617 acres. Since it did not contain enough land to support the entire Zuni population, the Zuni continued to farm and graze livestock in the valleys below.

Dowa Yalanne was pivotal in the development Zuni settlement patterns as it was the first village in which the whole Zuni population gathered into a single settlement. Although it is unlikely that the other villages were totally abandoned, apparently every Zuni family maintained a residence atop the Dowa Yalanne that could be used for refuge when the Spaniards returned. The mesa top was also a position defensible against the hostile attacks of the Apache.

In 1692, Diego de Varga, the Spanish general in charge of the “reconquest,” entered the village peacefully, made amends, and convinced the Zuni to relinquish the occupation of Dowa Yalanne. Rather than return to their former scattered pueblos, the entire tribe settled at at Halonawa on the north bank of the Zuni River. Following this event, Halonawa became known as the Zuni Pueblo.

Zuni Pueblo 1873

Zuni Pueblo 1873. Click for prints, downloads and products.

Continued Navajo and Apache raiding led to the establishment of sheep camps which were utilized as refuge sites. Situated along ridges and on the benches throughout the Zuni River Valley, these safe areas were difficult to access, having many hidden corrals and small rooms. Other refuge sites were established at the base of mesas for agricultural purposes.

In 1848 the Americans asserted their authority over the Mexican Southwest, and in 1877 federal officials created the Zuni Reservation. The Southern Pacific Railroad reached nearbyGallup, New Mexico, in 1881, signaling a new era of non-Indian expansion and settlement.

Missionaries accompanied the newcomers including Mormons who settled east of the village in the Zuni mountains in 1876, and Presbyterians a year later. Traders also arrived, encouraging the Zunis to raise sheep and cattle for shipment east and a new cash based economy began.

The Zuni are distinct in that they have managed to remain quite unaffected by outer influences. They still claim the same land they always lived on, an area about the size of Rhode Island. They also mainly reside in one city — Zuni, New Mexico.

Although there are Zuni Indians who live outside of the city and the general area, they are few and far between. The tribe has managed to remain intact due to the fact that they did not get involved in problems, conflicts, or wars that didn’t concern their own people. Remaining autonomous, they were relatively unaffected by the changes around them.

Zuni life, much like it was in the past, is still deeply religious and very different from that of other tribes. The Zuni gods are believed to reside in the lakes of Arizona and New Mexico. The chiefs and the shamans carry out ceremonies during religious festivals. Song and dance accompanies masked performances by the chiefs while the shamans pray to the gods for favors ranging from fertile soil to abundant amounts of rain. The shamans play an important role in the community as they are looked upon for guidance as well as knowledge and healing.

The Zuni people are, in a way, a mysterious tribe. The Zuni Reservation is isolated from the outside world which allows the people to go about their existence relatively unencumbered by modern western civilization. They still live a peaceful, deeply religious existence. The reliance on corn as a mainstay of their economy has been replaced, however, by the tourist trade in pottery and jewelry.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March, 2017.


Also See:

Indian Proverbs & Wisdom

Legends, Myths & Tales of Native Americans

Myths & Legends of the Zuni

Native American People

Native American Tribes


Zuni Slideshow:



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