The Fetish of Zuni

There is something different about the people of the Zuni Pueblo in northwest New Mexico.  I can feel it, but not yet define it, as I enter this American Indian Reservation, located immediately over the border from Arizona on State Road 53.  Physically, it reminds me of others to the north and west: Run down houses and trailer homes are scattered in haphazard fashion.  Old tires rest obscenely on roofs, holding something in place – the roof maybe?  Late model autos, many with cracked windows and missing bumpers, dart in and out of dirt driveways.  Zuni schoolchildren walk along beat up, dusty sidewalks.

”]Zuniland is the largest of the New Mexico Pueblos with close to 10,000 residents, most of whom are involved in the arts. Carving, painting, doll making, and zuni fetishes, the animal carvings known throughout the US and world, come instantly to my mind.  But there is more to the Zuni, a rich complexity, which feels just out of reach to pale face people like myself.

I arrive at the pueblo’s visitor’s center, a nondescript structure in a line of run down buildings.  Several Indians wave and smile from behind makeshift vendor stands on the opposite side of the parking lot.  I wave back, but walk in the front door of the building.  The man behind the counter is a friendly, talkative, uh, white man.

“Welcome,” he says.  “Where are you from?”

“New York,” I reply. “I wonder if you can suggest things to do on the reservation?”

“Sure.  The tribe encourages people to sign up for a tour.  They offer two options: one is of the old mission, the other adds a walking tour of the village.  They both leave at three.”

“May I take pictures?”

“Yes, but only at certain locations and only with a photo permit, which is $10.  If you want that I’ll run through the rules for you.”

After filling out the photo permit and paying $20 for it and the tour, I ask about religious ceremonies.

“Not much happening until Sha’lak’o on December 6.  If you’re in the area you should come by. It’s really amazing.

“What is it?”

“Sha’lak’o is when the men who are given spiritual authority over the tribe dance the kachinas.”

“Kachina, like the doll?”

“Yeah, kachina are dolls, but in the Zuni religion they represent something from the spiritual world.  Men get dressed in colorful costumes and masks to dance the kachinas during certain times of the year.  The dances are beautiful and must be executed perfectly. Otherwise, there may be no harvest that year.  Sha’lak’o is the winter solstice ceremony, which is one of the most important.”

The man behind the counter and I continue our conversation for some time.  I ask about Zuni masks.  “That’s an interesting question,” he says.  “You would never see a Zuni mask for sale. It represents the kachina and that would not work for the tribe.”  About alcohol: “This is a dry reservation, but the leaders grapple with that.  There are three roads into town, and there are package stores to the West and North.  Only the East doesn’t have one. That’s because the bordering town is mostly Mormon.”

Zuni Mission Detail

At 3 pm a beautiful young Zuni woman with a wide nose and long, straight black hair named Roberta invites me on the tour.  Her speech is particular, in that she pronounces everything properly, as if speaking textbook English.

“Would you like to ride with me or drive yourself?” she asks.  “You are the only person for the three o’clock tour.”  Her affect betrays no emotion, but also resembles that of a Tassajara monk.  I admire it.

“I’ll go with you.”

As we climb into a beat-up green van she asks, “Where are you from?”

“New York,” I reply. “Ever been?”

“I have never been anywhere outside of the pueblo except Albuquerque one time for an afternoon.”

Her response surprises me.

“But my father used to travel for the tribe all the time, and he has been to the Brooklyn Museum to see some art work we gave.”

“Does he still travel?”

“No.” She replies.  “He has religious obligations to the tribe now and cannot travel anywhere.”

On the way to the mission, no more than a five-minute drive, Roberta waves at people on the side of the road.  Neither she nor I use the van’s seat belts, which look like they have permanently buried themselves in the torn cloth seats.  When the slightly rusted van arrives outside the Spanish mission, originally built in 1650, Roberta says, “You can go take photography and I will wait here.”  There is a cold wind whipping through the dusty desert streets.  I exit the van to “take photography” of the exterior.  I notice several children watching me intently from an adjacent alleyway.

Zuni Pueblo with Corn Mesa

Roberta unlocks a chain securing the thick, old, wooden mission door.  As we enter, I ask about the significance of the building, “Does this still function as a church for the tribe?”  “It’s just a building now, not a church,” she says.  “We have murals in here, but nothing else happens.”  I get the sense that this is simply a way for the Zuni to make some extra cash.

Inside the main door, we are greeted by a large black and white sign: “Photography Forbidden by the tribe.  All paintings are Copy Righted.”  The murals, which are the main purpose of the tour, are amazing.  High up, near the stucco ceiling, are painted figures, spiritual beings, in colorful traditional dress and masks, dancing.  The four seasons are represented through a changing desert landscape.

“You have the four seasons here from the Spring and Summer on one side to the Fall and Winter on the other,” Roberta says then walks to the front of the church to sit down.  “If you have any questions, I will answer them now.”

“Is there religious significance to the figures?” I ask pointing at the mural.

“Women are not allowed to know about the religion of our people, so of course I do not know.”

Another surprising response, and I wonder to myself why the tribe would provide a female tour guide when women cannot answer questions about religion, especially because we are viewing religious artifacts.

Roberta and I chat in the old church.  It is a fascinating conversation from my perspective, and I try to engage her in my experience – my life – but get the feeling she is not interested.  At some point in the conversation – she is telling me about Zuni marriage practices – it hits me.  Here is a people who are protecting their culture and religion from outsiders.  They are not interested in knowing another way to live; they are trying to live like their ancestors.  It is almost the opposite of what I seek to do on this road trip.

Awonawilona - Zuni Sun God

“I will drive you on the walking tour if you would like,” Roberta says.  “Great!” I say.  We climb back into the green beast and drive through the village which surounds the mission.  “You can take photography if you like,” she says.

Before leaving, I buy Zuni Fetishes.  There are two stores on the main road that are Zuni owned. The other six are owned by whites or Arabs according to the man at the visitor’s center.  When I stop at Turquoise Village, I am barraged by Indians outside selling fetishes from their pockets.   A woman and man approach.  “Please sir, we are trying to get some food, will you buy these?” they plead, showing me an eagle and several wolves.  I buy the eagle then two more fetishes from the store.  When I exit, a deluge of people shove handfuls of fetishes in my direction, all smiling and inquiring, “Where are you from?”  It’s overwhelming. I climb back into my Jeep and head east on the main road.

Somewhere before Albuquerque, I settle on what’s different about the Zuni people from other reservations I have visited.  For lack of a better word: pride.  You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their speech.  While I may be surprised by some of the ways in which they live, they appear perfectly content with who they are in this world.  Although I don’t think the Zuni are pleased with history, I don’t feel like I am visiting a defeated people.


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