Zuni Pueblo

    She-we-na: The Middle Place
  • Language: Zuni
  • Size: 418,000 acres
  • Population: About 6,500

About 35 miles south of Gallup, Zuni has always been considered one of the Rio Grande Pueblos because of the similarity in history, religion and societal processes. With the largest tribal population, the Zuni reservation covers almost 700 square miles (about the size of Rhode Island), making it in both ways the largest of the pueblos. More than 3/4 of the pueblo population is involved in the production of native arts. Most people live in Zuni village itself or in the nearby community of Blackrock.

With pit houses dating back to about 700 CE, Zuni may be the oldest pueblo in New Mexico, although they make no claims to that title. The present Zuni village has been occupied since about 1692. The Zuni speak a language unrelated to the languages of other Pueblos. Linguists have determined the Zuni language may have diverged and come into its own between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago. That means it was probably spoken over a much larger area back then than where Zuni is spoken now.

Zuni features a large mission church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, that was dedicated in 1629. The church underwent extensive restoration in the 1960's. The inside walls feature 24 murals of traditional kachina dancers placed above the Stations of the Cross. The pueblo is well known for the annual Shalako ceremony and dance that occurs every year in late November or early December. Ceremonies begin in the evening and the dancing goes on until noon the next day, no matter what the weather is doing.

The pueblo today consists of adobe house blocks, modern sandstone dwellings, plazas, hornos (traditional outdoor baking ovens), waffle gardens (named for their unique irrigation system) and livestock corrals. The pueblo is open daily from dawn to dusk for visitors but is closed for religious ceremonies. Official permission is required before photographs can be taken.

A drawing of Zuni Pueblo in 1850
Zuni Pueblo in 1850

Pueblo History

The first pueblo that Spaniard Fray Marco de Niza and his subordinate, Esteban the Moor encountered in 1539 was Hawikuh, the main Zuni village back then, located about ten miles southwest of the present village. It is said the attempts of Esteban the Moor to force himself on a married Zuni woman caused a Zuni warrior to kill him almost as soon as they arrived. Father Marco returned to Mexico City shortly after spouting tales of the riches and gold he'd found in Cibola. That led directly to Coronado and his army arriving at Hawikuh in 1540 and attacking the village. In 1632 (long before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Zuni revolted against the Spanish. The revolt was shortly put down but after the Pueblo Revolt, raids by marauding bands of Apache became such a problem that they welcomed the protection of Spanish troops in 1692. However, Zuni also took in refugees from other pueblos during that time. By 1700, most of those refugees had returned to their homes closer to the Rio Grande but during that time, the various tribes cross-pollinated many ideas and some of the native arts saw changes very quickly. In times of severe drought and during epidemics (brought on by European diseases), many people from Hopi also made the trek to Zuni and stayed for a few years before returning to the Hopi mesas. Those potters took many Zuni designs and pottery-making processes back to Hopi with them: it's during times at Zuni that the Hopi began to apply a white slip to their pottery. That and pot shards found at the destroyed village of Awatovi have led to today's Hopi white ware.

Owl by an unknown Zuni potter
Owl by an unknown Zuni potter
Geometric designs inside and out on a polychrome bowl
Polychrome chili bowl decorated with geometric designs inside and out
4 in H by 9 in Dia
A classic Zuni owl
Unsigned classic Zuni owl
4.75 in H by 5.25 in Dia
Tadpole and dragonfly design decorate a black and white prayer bowl
Black and white prayer bowl decorated with a tadpole and dragonfly design
5 in H by 6.25 in Dia

Pottery History

Zuni pottery tends to be colored with black, brown or red paint on a white or red slip. A few of the most common designs include deer with heartlines, rainbirds, flowers, feathers and fine-line cross-hatching. Like Acoma and Laguna potters, Zuni potters use crushed potshards to temper their clay.

Beginning in the 1700's Zuni potters began using mineral matte paint for their decorative designs. Scholars and collectors know this as "Ashiwi Polychrome." A rare style found today among the Zuni is a white on red pottery that is believed to be a traditional style from prehistoric times. That white on red was created using a reddish color slip and decorated with motifs in white paint. Some examples of this style can be found as late as 1900.

By the 1940's, little Zuni pottery was being produced. And that pottery was mostly made for ceremonial purposes. One woman, Catalina Zunie, kept the tradition alive at the high school until she passed the torch to a Hopi potter named Daisy Hooee in 1960. That seems to be where the real revival of Zuni pottery making began. Daisy was a daughter of Annie Healing Nampeyo and granddaughter of the famous Hopi potter Nampeyo of Hano. She received an arts scholarship in the 1920's and studied ceramics for 2 years at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. After she returned to the United States Daisy moved around for a few years before she met and married Sidney Hooee, a Zuni jewelry maker. They lived at Zuni Pueblo. Before she agreed to teach the class, Daisy made herself into a consummate Zuni potter. She began teaching pottery at Zuni High School in 1960 and retired in 1974. She did still keep teaching pottery making in her home, mostly to older women. She reintroduced the traditional methods she had learned from her mother and grandmother.

After Daisy came Jennie Laate, also teaching at Zuni High School. Many of today's most prominent Zuni potters trace their learning back to Jennie. Jennie taught from 1974 to 1990. In that time period, Josephine Nahohai, another Zuni potter, studied traditional Zuni designs from archaeological findings and museum pieces and brought those ancient designs back into Zuni pottery making. Noreen Simplicio continued the pottery classes at Zuni High School from 1990 to 1992, and for both years she had more than a hundred students in her classes. Because so many Zuni potters learned their art at school, use of the commercial pottery kiln has become commonplace. Noreen retired in 1992 and Gabriel Paloma took over teaching the Zuni High School classes.

Contemporary Zuni pottery includes a large variety of shapes and forms using traditional water and rain figures, like tadpoles and frogs. Ceramic figures of owls, ducks and fish are also popular.

Zuni artisans are also famous for their turquoise and silver jewelry. The materials they use to make their intricate inlaid jewelry include coral, jet, mother of pearl and shell. Some artisans also produce carved stone fetishes of animal figures and kachinas.

Black-on-white jar with a terrace-cut rim and a tadpole and dragonfly design
Terrace-cut rim on a black-on-white jar with a tadpole and dragonfly design
5.75 in H by 5.75 in Dia
4-panel geometric design on a polychrome jar
Polychrome jar decorated with a 4-panel geometric design
9.75 in H by 13.5 in Dia
A view of the Zuni landscape
Zuni landscape
Upper and lower images are in the public domain

Zuni Pueblo Potters