Located in western New Mexico, Zuni Pueblo is the largest of the nineteen New Mexican Pueblos, with more than 600 square miles and a population of over 11,000. It is one of the most traditional of the New Mexico Pueblos, with a unique language, culture and history that resulted in part from their geographic isolation. The main industry is the production of arts with perhaps 80% of Zuni families working at inlay silver jewelry, stone fetishes, hand-coiled pottery and other art forms. Zunis develop their skills in tight family settings. The spirit comes from within as Zunis are driven to the arts by culture, religion and their colorful surroundings. It is indeed an “artist colony”.
Silversmithing was introduced to the Zunis in the 1870’s by Navajo Indians and before that by Spanish explorers and missionaries. The use of stones and shells is particularly significant in Zuni designs while the silver is secondary, being the means by which the stones and shells are held in place and for decorative accents. Zuni jewelers are world renowned for their channel inlay patterns, fetish necklaces, cluster, needlepoint and petit point designs. The jewelry is meticulously crafted and the choice of colors in uniting stones and shells is remarkable. They use a variety of stones such as Turquoise, Jet, Lapis Lazuli, Malachite and Pipestone. Additionally, they use exotic shells such as Coral, Mother of Pearl, Pink and Black Lipped Clam Shell, Green Snail Shell, Melon Shell and Abalone brought in by traders. Coral is particularly favored because the color red is important in Zuni religion and directional symbolism.
Zuni is a sovereign, self-governed nation with their own constitutional government, courts, police force, school system and economic base. Their year is marked by a cycle of traditional ceremonial activities; the most sacred and perhaps the most recognized is the annual Sha’lak’o event. Most of Zuni’s residents live in the main village of Zuni and the nearby Zuni community of Blackrock.
The Zuni Creation Story details how at the beginning of time ancestors emerged into the Fourth (modern) World from a location in the Grand Canyon and eventually found their way to Halonna:wa — the Middle Place (present day Zuni Pueblo). Archaeologists have discovered evidence that the ancestors of the Zuni have roamed this area for over ten thousand years. Documented history began in 1540 when the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Vasquez Coronado and his soldiers invaded the ancestral village of Hawikku in search of the fabled “Seven Cities of Gold (Cibola)”. This violent beginning marked the first contact between Native Peoples in the Southwest that occurred over eighty years before the Pilgrims arrived on the Atlantic Coast. The Zunis relative isolation has always meant that dealings with the outside word remained sporadic and thus minimized influence on its culture.
Pueblos in New Mexico, including Zuni, planned and carried out a revolt against Spanish domination in 1680. As a result of this Pueblo Revolt, all six occupied villages in the Zuni valley sought refuge on the sacred Dowa Yallane mountain. After making peace with the Spanish in 1692, the Zuni people came down to consolidate into a single Pueblo at Halona Idiwan’a, which became known as “Zuni”. By 1848, the United States Government had assumed control over all of the Southwest territory including Zuni lands. However, continual appropriation of Zuni lands by the U. S. Government as well as unscrupulous land grabbers shrank Zuni’s aboriginal territories to a reservation a small fraction of the original size. A successful litigation by the Tribe against the U.S. Government in 1990 resulted in partial restitution for lands lost as well as damaged under governmental administration and protection. In recent years, Zuni was successful in blocking a major coal-mining project that would have seriously damaged the sacred Zuni Salt Lake, the home of Salt Mother.
(from “Spirit of Zuni” 2005)