Zuni Indian Reservation
Zuni – a favorite Pueblo visit out of 19 New Mexico Pueblos. “Why?” you might ask. That’s why I wrote this…
Prior to planning this trip to the American Southwest, neither Tom nor I had heard of the Zuni. Most of us have heard of Apache, Navajo, Comanche Native American tribes, but not Zuni, especially if you are not from the American Southwest. I was curious, did a bit of research, and honestly, while I would have visited for the Zuni inlay jewelry, I would not have planned to stay. When we were welcomed as guests by the Inn at Halona and the Visitor Center, I made time in our travel schedule to spend on the Zuni Pueblo. We are so pleased that we did, because Zuni is a favorite Pueblo visit!
DISCLAIMER: Many thanks to the Zuni Visitors Center, Kenny Bowekaty, and the Halona Inn for hosting us. While we were hosted at no charge, we received no payment for this post, and this post is our honest opinion.
As we entered the Zuni Indian Reservation, we noticed the landscape changed. The green foliage is quite different from the desert landscapes north and west that we had seen in our previous 3 months exploring the American Southwest. From a predominance of sandstone and red cliffs, around Zuni we began to see green-covered mountainsides with a major sandstone and red rock mountain in the background. We were intrigued and were ready to see more.
We entered the Zuni Indian Reservation or as they call the land, their Providence, which is approximately 450,000 acres along the Zuni River, a tributary of the Little Colorado River. Our first stop – the Visitors Center on the edge of town.
Zuni Pueblo Visitor Center
The Zuni Pueblo Visitor Center stands at the western edge approaching the central part of the Zuni Pueblo. While small and basic, the Zuni Pueblo Visitor Center is chock full of information and history about the reservation and its people. Stop by and sign up for a tour, or better yet, call in advance to schedule a tour.
At the Zuni Pueblo Visitor Center, we were greeted by Tom Kennedy, the Executive Director. Here we began learning about Zuni history from the displays and from Tom. We learned some about Zuni Tribe Government, Zuni tribe religion, Zuni legends, contemporary Zuni Pueblo life, communication and behaviors we might experience – setting our expectations to make Zuni a favorite Pueblo visit. We found everyone in Zuni to be friendly, helpful, and ready to answer our questions or help plan our time in Zuni.
Before leaving the Visitors Center, make sure to ask about photography in the Pueblo, as it is strictly prohibited in many areas. In order to take Zuni Pueblo pictures anyplace in Zuni where it is allowed, a photo permit is required. Equipped with our photo permit and an understanding of sacred areas of the pueblo, we were ready to immerse ourselves in Zuni culture and history.
Tours Made Zuni a Favorite Pueblo Visit
A variety of cultural adventures are offered that make Zuni a favorite Pueblo visit. Kenny Bowekaty, the archaeologist who designs the tours and runs them with guides, took us on a ½-day, 4-6 hour, tour to give us the best understanding of Zuni tribe history, Zuni legends, and Zuni ceremonies.
We started off with background on Zuni tribe religion and how the Zuni came to the Southwest – a Zuni religious belief system – about creation and emergence. Then we were off to Hawikku.
Hawikku is ruins of an early Zuni city considered one of the ‘Seven Cities of Cibola.’ It was the first city Coronado encountered in 1540 in search of rumored gold in the American Southwest. Hawikku, the first city conquered by Coronado and his headquarters, is believed to have been occupied from 1200 until the Pueblo Revolt in 1680.
Hawikku is considered an important heritage site, and part of a National Historic District. The archaeological evidence found in Hawikku informs modern understanding of ancient peoples of the American Southwest – Mogollon and Anasazi cultures. It is believed that these two cultures combined created the Zuni practices of today.
Visiting Hawikku coupled with learning the history was enlightening. Either we don’t learn this history in school or it doesn’t stick. Walking on lands once inhabited by the first Americans centuries ago certainly makes the learning impactful.
The Village of the Great Kivas
The Village of the Great Kivas has been made accessible by the Pueblo of Zuni in collaboration with the New Mexico Youth Conservation Corps. The Village of the Great Kivas is 17 miles northeast of Zuni; it is believed to have been in use between 1100-1350 CE. The youth corps has made it possible to walk right up to some of the rooms, the petroglyphs and pictographs, by creating walkable paths. Kenny graciously explained the Kivas and the meaning of the petroglyphs. In the 3 months we had been visiting ancient ruins, it was the first time I understood the meaning of the ancient rock art.
The two Great Kivas near Zuni Pueblo are believed to be associated with the Chaco culture, being outliers of the Chaco Canyon in Northeastern New Mexico. Chaco Canyon was a major cultural center of Puebloan peoples between 900 -1150 CE. We visited Zuni after touring Chaco Canyon, so we had the context to understand the cultural and architectural relationship of the Great Kivas to Chaco. While they are 3 hours apart by car, I recommend visiting and touring both for greater understanding of early American history.
This is not the history that we learned in school, and it shows real with proof from ancient artifacts. Now Tom and I have a much richer understanding of our nation’s history and people than we had before visiting Zuni and Chaco.
Zuni Pueblo Art Walk
The Zuni Pueblo Art Walk is a self-guided tour of 19 artists’ studios, some award-winning, through the Pueblo; although we met other visitors on the ArtWalk who hired a guide. Tom and I prefer interacting directly with the artists and finding our way around, which is often an adventure in itself.
The Zuni are respected as fine artists, stonecutters, jewelers, and crafts people. In the area of jewelry making, Zunis are known for their petti-point, needle-point jewelry, and inlays. Zuni tribe jewelry is considered as some of the finest and most intricate work.
The Zuni are also known for their finished stones that they supply to other Native American tribes. On the ArtWalk, the artists show their work, tell their personal stories, and in some cases create pieces and describe techniques while guests watch. We saw Zuni jewelry, beadwork, Zuni stone-setters and silversmiths, Zuni pottery, Zuni Shalako Kachinas, and Zuni fetishes by stone carvers.
Walking around the Pueblo in search of each artists’ workshop/gallery, which are generally located in artists’ homes, was a favorite experience in Zuni. It is an opportunity to visit the locals inside the Pueblo, and be invited into some of their homes, which also served as a studio/gallery. We had a glimpse of everyday life, of interior home furnishings, and family life. I was awed at the beauty inside many of the homes and pleased to see all the modern conveniences. From the outside, you have no idea that the homes are so nice.
Artists are connected by technology; they can make sure other artists will be available when guests arrive. An artist we visited suggested we go to another studio and come back to the nearby silversmith who was out at the time. Although I did not think it would be worthwhile to return since his the outdoor environment wasn’t appealing, we were happy we did. His workmanship was superior. A Zuni Lesson – Do not judge anything in Zuni based on how it looks from the outside!
While I was a bit nervous trying to find my way around the Pueblo on foot, Zuni ArtWalk artists’ studios/homes are marked by blue and yellow signposts, pieces of art in themselves – you can’t miss them. When ready to leave their studios, some artists are happy to walk with or drive guests to the next studio to ensure you find it, while sharing facts and history of their family in the Pueblo. This, too, made Zuni a favorite Pueblo visit.
Self-guided Zuni ArtWalk tour maps are available at the Visitors Center.
Visit the Local Galleries and Stores
There are a handful of galleries and artists’ stores on the main street in Halona showing works by Zuni artists who are not included on the ArtWalk. In addition to works from local Zuni artisans, some sell the raw and finished stones and jewelry-making supplies. It can feel a bit strange walking into these stores, since the first thing displayed is supplies; it requires venturing deeper into the establishment to find finished works. It’s interesting to check out the stones and supplies, but definitely go deeper into the stores to see the works by local artists. Speak to those manning the stores; the Zuni are friendly, which makes Zuni a favorite Pueblo visit.
In walking around town, people appear who sell their wares. Some art works are well executed and priced lower than similar items in stores. We were more comfortable buying from reputable sources, either in recommended stores or from individuals on the street who were known by the visitor center. If you want to buy from people on the street, you may want to ask about it at the visitor center.
Zuni Ceremonies generally have spiritual significance or can be related to the planting season and the crops. While Zuni ceremonies are often planned, it seems that some are decided upon at the last minute. We asked each day about any ceremonies that might be taking place while we were in the Pueblo. The answer was consistently ‘no.’ While on the ArtWalk, we heard that a ceremony related to planting was happening that day. Still, nobody we asked knew what time it started. We kept asking and checking at the sacred ‘Middle Place’ in the heart of the Pueblo to see if it started. It was the only way to make sure we didn’t miss it.
We finally came upon it after it had started. Visitors are allowed to quietly watch Zuni ceremonies from atop the roofs of the homes at the ‘Middle Place.’ No photos are allowed. Sorry, I wish I could show the colorful Zuni tribe clothing for Zuni tribe dances. Envision lots of colors, feathers, fringes, wraps, bead work, face paint, masks, decorated clothing and boots. Imagine dancing, chanting and drums. Or just conjure up an image of an Indian ceremony from an old TV western. It is amazing to see these traditions practiced in daily modern life, making Zuni a favorite Pueblo visit.
While some Zuni ceremonies are planned and there is plenty of advance notice, some seem to crop up like the one we attended. It was a highlight of our visit. Even if they say there is nothing planned – ask every Zuni because different clans have ceremonies that only that clan may know about.
About Zuni and its People
Zuni is one of 19 tribes in New Mexico; the Zuni believe that they are one of the oldest Native American Tribes. While the Zuni started as hunters all those years ago, they were always a peaceful people who became farmers of corn and wheat.
American archaeologists believe the Zuni lived well before 2500 BCE and are descendants of the Anasazi, the early Pueblo people. Yet, Zuni archaeologists assert that Zuni have been in the region for 100,000 years. Zuni archaeologists claim physical proof by evidence found in nearby ruins of a mastodon kill by their ancestors. The mandible of that mastodon resides in their Zuni Museum in Halona.
According to historians, the Zuni built and occupied Hawikku around 1200. Until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Zuni lived in six different villages. After the revolt, until 1692, they lived in a defensible position atop Dowa Yalanne, a steep mesa two miles southeast of present-day Zuni Pueblo. Dowa Yalanne is easily seen from the areas in the present day Pueblo. Once peace was established with the Spanish, the Zuni moved permanently to Halona.
Halona, the Zuni Pueblo today, is believed to be the oldest consistently occupied Native American Pueblo. The Pueblo has never been abandoned since it was settled because the Zuni believe that Mother Earth resides in the Middle Place in Halona. Halona is just 17 miles from Hawikku.
There are approximately 14,000 Zuni living on the reservation today. Currently, 10% are farmers, and 50% are artists. The balance work for the tribal government, local community store, and in schools.
Zuni are generally independent and avoid most outside influence. Unlike many other Native American tribes, the Zuni do not run any gaming operations. It’s one of the few reservations that has no casino. Their lives revolve around their beliefs, religion and family. Their society is matriarchal, so the men move to the familial area of their wife’s family. While living amongst the woman’s family, husband and wife often have their own home. As a religious and peaceful people with their own language, they have preserved their way of life in the pueblo.
Zuni Culture and Religion
The Zuni are very spiritual and steeped in their cultural traditions. Zuni rely on their oral history – mythology or cosmology. Their beliefs about emergence into this world and migration is their ‘cosmology.’ The myths are about how the solar system and planetary systems came about, it goes into the formation of planet earth, and evolution of life.
Zuni believe that they emerged from the earth as other tribes believe – they emerged onto earth in what they call the emergence at the Grand Canyon and made an exodus out of the Grand Canyon.
As do other Pueblo cultures, the Zuni believe in Kachinas, supernatural beings who represent and have charge over various aspects of the natural world. There are hundreds of different Kachinas, representing specific influences on life, from rain to fruit, animals, stars or portions of the solar system, and more.
Throughout our exploration of the many Native American reservations and pueblos, as well as the trading posts in Gallup, I continuously heard about the superior craftsmanship of works by the Zuni. Zuni are known for their fine inlay work and as stone finishers. Many of the tribes purchase their finished stones for jewelry from the Zuni. As well, I heard that purchasing works in Zuni meant more reasonable prices. I was happy that I waited to buy the inlay jewelry in Zuni. I also purchased a gift directly from a top jeweler in Zuni, and earrings and pendant for myself from a local store.
In addition to jewelry craftsmen, over three hundred Zuni carvers make stone fetishes, small animal carvings used in traditional ceremonies. The different animal figurines represent ancestral or spiritual attributes. Pottery is also a craft that the women re-introduced in the last century.
We enjoyed exploring Zuni arts and crafts.
Where to stay
The Inn At Halona
The Inn at Halona is the only place to stay on the Zuni Pueblo. It is quite unusual to be allowed to stay amidst the tribal people on a Native American Reservation. We were so pleased to be guests of the Inn.
Roger Thomas, who owns and runs the Inn, visits with guests, is very friendly, and happily helps guests with any information needed to explore Zuni and the surrounding area. His wife’s family has had a presence on the Zuni reservation since 1897. After getting married, he and his wife started the Inn in 1998.
The Inn is a Bed and Breakfast (BnB) with 8 rooms and sleeps up to 20 people. It’s decorated with Native American and Zuni arts and crafts, with the work of some famous Zuni craftspeople. We found it to be colorful, quaint, inviting, and comfortable. There are several rooms in the main house and additional rooms in the adjacent structure. Several indoor and outdoor common areas are available to guests, from an outdoor garden setting, to indoor kitchen area and living room. Tea, coffee, and snacks are available for guests in common areas serving each building.
A full breakfast is cooked to order by an indigenous staff member. There is coffee, fruit, eggs, breads, jams, meats, and more. We enjoyed daily breakfast while chatting with other guests.
In addition to the guest rooms, there are other larger conference or dining rooms filled with family local Zuni art collections. The large dining area and library is filled with an enormous Kachina collection. There are so many artifacts to take in; in some ways, it is like visiting a Native American museum. We enjoyed the lovely surroundings in our room, common areas, and courtyard at the Inn. It is very reasonably priced and quite a pleasant place to stay. The Zuni staff are lovely and helpful. We highly recommend The Inn at Halona for a stay in Zuni.
If the Inn is booked, the closest place to stay are small motels and hotels in Gallup, approximately 1 hour north. Approximately 1.5 hours away in Grants there is another BnB which is listed on the Zuni Visitor Center website. If traveling by RV, there is an RV Park 40 minutes away at El Morro.
Where to Eat
There are 2 restaurants in Zuni for lunch and dinner. Village Bistro in the middle of Zuni has very good food. The owner recently moved back to Zuni after spending her life working in a major city. The staff is very accommodating and will adjust menu items for specific requests. We had a very good dinner here. Chu Chu’s Restaurant serves pizza, salads, sandwiches and more. People seem to like it. Since we had our RV, we ate our own food a couple of nights, so we missed Chu Chu’s.
Otherwise, pick up food at the Halona Plaza next to the Inn or the new shopping complex.
Just before the weekends or before ceremonies and festivals, locals bake breads and other goodies for the upcoming events. We were treated to bread fresh out of the oven by Roxanne, one of the artists on the Zuni ArtWalk. Her family’s bread was sourdough, and it was yummy! If are lucky enough to be around when locals are baking in their outdoor clay ovens, I highly recommend buying their fresh baked goods.
I recommend eating at Village Bistro, arranging dinner with the Halona Inn, or buying food at the new shopping complex supermarket in Zuni, or travel outside of the Zuni for meals.
We thoroughly enjoyed our 3 days in Zuni; we enjoyed visiting with the Zuni people and found them very friendly. With the varied experiences on tours to ancient ruins, viewing a Zuni tribe ceremony, the Zuni ArtWalk, and spending time talking with locals, this fascinating experience in Zuni is forever burned into my memory.
There’s lots more history to learn in Zuni. Many different tours are available, from visits to other archaeological sites to experiencing ancient and traditional Zuni cooking, music, dance, textiles, or Zuni arts demonstrations. If taking a tour with Kenny, ask him about the emergence and the cosmology of the Zuni.
Please respect the Zuni way of life and do not take photos unless you have asked, have a permit, and are told specifically that is okay to photograph. Leave your camera at your accommodations during religious ceremonies.
Learning the Native American history that was not taught in school made our visit to Zuni a favorite Pueblo visit. If you want to take several tours and spend time in the Zuni Pueblo, I recommend 3-4 days.