Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/September 1874/Zuni Indians of New Mexico



ANOTHER interesting branch of the aborigines of North America is that of the Zuni, a thriving tribe, inhabiting a remote section of the Western United States. This people belongs to the Pueblos, a semi-civilized remnant of the Aztec Empire. Their home is in an uninviting portion of the desert district of New Mexico, about 200 miles southeast of the Moquis settlements.

Leaving Fort Wingate, our route lay southwest across a luxuriant, well-timbered spur of the Zuni Mountain, and thence along the Rio Zuni, which was dry, excepting in spots. Passing Ojo de Pescado, a summer retreat of the Zuni, after a weary march through scorching sands, we came, on July 22d, to the suburbs of Zuni town, the outline of whose houses could be traced at a distance of more than a mile; even the characteristic ladder, extending far above the roof, being distinctly visible. As we approached, single dwellings here and there came into view, situated amid corn and water-melon fields. On coming nearer, an old church stood prominently forth, its two well-preserved bells hanging in an opening in the wall over the entrance.

Unlike the Moquis, whose settlements are on lofty rocks, the Zuni town is located on a slight rise above the level of the surrounding plain. Its area is about half a square mile, with streets running here and there at right angles. Much rubbish and débris are encountered in entering the town. The houses are of adobe terraced, well built, and principally of two—though some are of three, and not a few of even four—stories. As a means of entrance, ladders are used; although in a few cases there are ground-doors (see engraving), still the usual method of ingress is by ladder to the second story, thence inside by steps up and down. Some of the dwellings have isinglass windows, while the doors generally are hung on hinges. Each floor is divided into several apartments.

On arriving at the town, our guide, Swzano, a Zuni, insisted on our first visit being made to himself. Climbing to the second story of his house by ladder, we scrambled in after a fashion, and were corned by himself and wife, who at once seated us comfortably on sheep-skin rugs spread on the bare earthen floor; bread and water were forthwith handed us, these constituting the simple but recognized symbol of great hospitality among this people.

After a pleasant hour in the company of our guide and his wife, we sallied forth to see the town. Coming to one of the larger houses, we gained ready admission, and were hospitably received. Our presence, however, was the occasion of much comment among the women, of whom we found six in one room. Their peculiar chattering, accompanied by hearty laughter and strange gesticulation, though unintelligible to us, was construed into joking at our expense. The men were in the field at work, while the children were enjoying a bath in the

Fig. 1.

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Pueblo of Zuni.

muddy waters of the Rio Zuni. The women were engaged in grinding corn and wheat, an operation effected by means of several pairs of large, flat stones, some of coarse and others of fine material. Between the first set of stones the grain is merely mashed, each successive pair rendering the particles smaller and smaller, the last turning out fine flour. Two other women, in another room, were engaged in baking bread, which is made into thin cakes, or wafers, similar to the marros of the Jews, only the latter are the harder. On inspecting the house, we found each apartment whitewashed, both walls and ceiling, well ventilated, and in every respect neat and clean; exceeding good order seemed to prevail in the domestic appointments throughout the establishment. The furniture consisted of but few articles, these being principally sheep-skins, Navajo blankets, and water-vessels, the latter used also for cooking-purposes. These vessels are of their own manufacture, of burnt earth, and, in many instances, highly embellished with fanciful designs of neat pattern, the figures being either brown or black, on a ground-work of white. No beds are seen in the house, blankets alone serving as such; the occasional bird-skin, hanging by a string in some corner, serves as a charm. Live eagles and sparrow-hawks, tamed by these people, are seen about almost every house,

Fig. 2.

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Catholic Church at Zuni.

great veneration being had for these members of the feathered tribe, which are considered the sacred birds of Montezuma. Each dwelling is provided with a loom, which forms a conspicuous part of the furniture. It consists of two sticks, between which the threads, of the width of the blanket to be made, are spread, the whole arrangement being fastened to the floor and ceiling by raw-hide strings. The operator squats on the ground, using for a shuttle a stick to which the wool for the cross-threads is fastened. The operation of weaving is skillfully performed, although a long time is required in the manufacture of one of their blankets.

The domestic animals of the Zuni are goats, fowl of all kinds, a few head of cattle and donkeys—every family owning several of the latter, which, while serving for transporting wood great distances, as well as for riding, are used chiefly in cultivating the fields. One specimen among the goats had four horns, as shown in the engraving, and was said to belong to the species formerly common among the Navajos, called cimeron. The sheep are raised for their wool.

Fig. 3.

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Head of Four-horned Sheep.

Outside the town there is a large farm, of which a sketch is presented. It is cultivated in common by the Zuni, although divided into patches, or small gardens, one of which belongs to each family. No rains occurring for long periods, irrigation is resorted to, the water being supplied by the Rio Zuni, in the vicinity of the town; this water is salty. For drinking-purposes, wells are sunk at different points, good water being everywhere abundant at a moderate depth. The staple products are wheat and corn; vegetables are raised in abundance, chiefly onions, chile (Spanish pepper), and caraway. From close conversation with the people, however, one would suppose their partiality for the first-mentioned vegetable predominated. Melons and pumpkins are also considerably cultivated.

Sauntering about the village, several underground courts were encountered, as well as subterranean passages from one square to another, and to the old Catholic church. This church is of adobe, and at least 200 years old; it is 120 feet long, 40 feet wide, and, within, 130 feet in height. The altar is covered with a profusion of carving, which still shows in traces gilding and colors; it has a painted altar-piece of rude construction, representing the ascension of the Virgin Mary; here and there are carved statues of saints, while on the walls are two illegible inscriptions in Latin. In this church, we were told, a zealous priest celebrated the rites of the Romish Church for a brief period; but no Gloria or Te Deum has been heard within its wall for upward of a hundred years.

The Zuni authorities are a governor and high priest; the latter is called the cacique, who, besides being the oracle of the tribe, is their temporal as well as spiritual ruler. No outward personification of their Divine Being is made use of; but, entering their estufas (temples) with a bueno corazon (good heart), they simply pray for some blessing, looking to no visible object as a medium of intercession between themselves and their God. Although for a time they outwardly observed the religious teachings of their conquerors, inwardly they maintained the belief of their race in the infallibility of their traditions, and soon repudiated the creed pressed upon them, returning to the worship of the source of light—the sun—as their only true God. But not only here were the Jesuits expelled; they were also driven out from the pueblos of Jemez, Acoma, and Saguna, as the ruins of the churches testify. However, at a few points the Jesuits still hold sway, as, for instance, with the Isletta Pueblos on the Rio Grande, while with the Mexicans of New Mexico the Jesuits are everywhere in full power. In times of great drought, and during festivals, the cacique orders the celebration of the cachina, a sacred dance. Fortunately, it being a holiday with them at the time of our visit, the rare opportunity was afforded us of witnessing this unique, interesting, and most beautiful though heathenish custom, of which a sketch was made on the spot. Some twenty-seven persons were engaged in the ceremony. When first seen, the participants were standing in a row, their faces toward the sun; they were gayly dressed, as will be evident from the description of the three styles of costume worn on the occasion, and represented in the engraving.

No. I. represents a dancer—costume, light-blue mask, horse-hair beard, necklace of black wool and beads, wreath of hemlock as a waistband; short white skirt, with fancy border, held at the waist by a green and black sash, to which was attached a bunch of long, white strings, hanging to the ground along the left leg; a land-turtle's shell, pendent from the left garter below the knee, contained pebbles which served a purpose similar to the castanet of the Spanish dancer; hemlock around the ankles, yellow eagle-feathers in the hair, and a fox-skin suspended from the waistband, complete the make-up.

No. II. represents the captain, who was attired thus: Yellow eagle-plumes in the hair; blue tunic, white under-garment, with fancy sidepiece inserted, and blue stockings; in one hand a staff was carried, the other holding a vessel containing flour.

No. III. represents a female dancer (character taken by male); costume, a white serape, with black border interwoven with fancy colors, and a blue gown; otherwise, the attire was that of No. I.

The male dancers stand in a row, the female (males assuming the character) facing them and chanting a low, solemn strain, keeping time with the right foot. In the intervals between the songs, the leader scatters flour to the four winds to appease the anger of their Divine Being, and induce him to send water from heaven. December is the period of their greatest festivity and rejoicing. During this month their God sends his two sons, one to visit the living, the other the dead, of this "his chosen people." Their estufas are also used as halls for public meetings.

Fig. 4.

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Cachina Dancers.

The executive authority of the Zuni is vested in an officer styled governor one—Pedro Pino—who, however, is but the mouth-piece of the spiritual ruler, the cacique; the orders of the latter are the laws governing the tribe, their execution simply resting with the governor. In conversation, Pedro Pino informed us that he was the ruler of the country between the Neutrias and Colorado Chiquito, some sixty miles, and Agua Fria and the Moquis settlements, about one hundred miles apart. In appearance, he is perhaps sixty years old, of commanding presence and affable manners; his hair is snow-white. He told us he had been governor of the Zuni people for many years, and that the tribe had always been friendly to the whites (Americans), from many of whom he had testimonials to the latter effect. Ordering his son, Patrizio, to bring him certain papers, he produced letters from officers of our army and private citizens, which referred to the governor in the highest terms, and also spoke of the uniform kindness in their treatment of his people.

"The Americans," continued the governor, "treat us well, but the Mexicans very badly; the latter have always maltreated us, and we want them neither to go through our country nor to reside among us. The heavens punish us by long drought for allowing them to remain on the Colorado Chiquito. My cacique, who prays for rain, and who is the spiritual and temporal ruler of this people, watches the sun daily, and is much distressed because no rain falls. He (the cacique) attributes the drought to the presence of the Mexican on our soil."

Pedro Pino bade us tell the Great Father that he wanted a "perpetual title to the Zuni country, which," he said, "had been handed down to us by our forefathers, through all time." Further, he remarked: "We are peaceable, and do not make war; if we have a title to our lands from the Great Father, we can show the document, and even the Mexican will respect it." The cacique, who was present, nodded assent, but did not join in the conversation.

The governor very cheerfully and politely accompanied us through the village. As the cachina dancers came in sight, and we halted to witness the ceremony, an elderly man approached and remonstrated with the governor for allowing us to look upon this form of worship. In reply to the remonstrance, Pedro Pino informed the intruder that he would allow us, "but," said he, "no Mexican shall ever look upon the performance of this holy and sacred rite. The Americans," he continued, "have ever been our friends, and are good and excellent people. I have been in Washington, and have seen such men as Monroe and Calhoun, and have been in the halls of Congress. These men" (pointing to us) "come from Washington, and I know they are good men." To the last remark we bowed assent.

On returning with the governor, we were most cordially welcomed to his house, and, entering, were very agreeably and hospitably entertained. A pipe "all round," and Pedro Pino entered into conversation. He spoke of a single Mexican at Ojo de Benado, and another at the Colorado Chiquito, who were a sore grievance to his people. He said: "The cacique of my nation is very sorry on this account, and the rain will not fall while these wicked men inhabit our territory. I will deem it a special favor if you will intercede with the Great Father for a title for us to our country: this will satisfy us. You men are good, have seen the sacred dance of the cachina, and we shall have rain." It may be a fact of importance to the superstitious to know that it did rain that evening, and most heavily, the storm lasting several hours!

The traditions of the Zuni are few and simple. They say their people came from the northwest on their march southward; that all Pueblo Indians belong to a common race, and are all members of the large families called Aztecs, or Montezumas; that some of their forefathers remained behind in the great migration of the nation, while the large body pursued a southerly course, ultimately forming the mighty empire of Mexico, as found by Cortez after its conquest; that, long before the white man came, their people inhabited the mesa south of their town. They have traditions, also, of a flood; of the founding of their present pueblo;[1] of their war with the Spaniards, and their subjugation, by the latter, for a time; of the arrival of the first American in New Mexico, and of the Mexican and Navajo War. But their knowledge of these events is merely outline, they being unable to give any details.

The Zuni language is much like that of other Pueblo Indians, but the words are, apparently, rather indefinite, requiring much facial contortion and bodily gesticulation to make their sentences perfectly intelligible. They have no schools. Their hieroglyphical writings may be seen in many places, while all along the Cañons de Choca and de Chelle are traces of the ancient march of this people. At Mesa Pintada (Painted Rock), about 100 miles to the northward, we copied one of their hieroglyphical inscriptions, as seen in the engraving. This writing being in the Navajo region, is believed by some to be the

Fig. 5.

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Zuni Vegetable-gardens.

work of that tribe; but this could hardly be, since the Navajoes are a nomadic people, and, besides, are not known to possess hieroglyphical writings. The Mesa Pintada is a vertical wall of sandstone, about 150 feet high. The inscription, as here given, was copied on the spot, and is a faithful representation. Commencing at a, the writing runs, with the mesa, westward; the space from a to e is 16 feet; the figures are reduced to one-fifth their original size.

There are many ruins of stone-houses in the vicinity of Zuni, at Agua Fria, El Moro, Ojo de Benado, and Old Zuni, which were undoubtedly towns inhabited at the time of the Spanish conquest, constituting, with Zuni, Neutrias, and Ojo de Pescado, the Seven Cities of Cibola, mentioned frequently by Castañede in the description of his travels in 1540. The opinion of the chief officer of this expedition, Lieutenant Wheeler, is in accordance with the views of General Simpson, Lieutenant Whipple, Mr. Gallatin, and other ethnologists. Moreover, the governor of the Zuni informed us that all the ruins in question were once thriving towns of his people. In connection herewith it may be mentioned, that near Zuni is a rock with an old Spanish inscription, which our party photographed.

Fig. 6.

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Group of Zunis.

The Zuni number about 2,000 souls. In summer, parts of the tribe resort to the smaller settlements—one at Neutrias, the other at Ojo de Pescado (respectively about twenty miles from Zuni town)—to cultivate their farms in those sections. Their fields do not compare unfavorably with those of the Mexicans.

In appearance, the Zuni are a mixture of Mongolian and Caucasian. The complexion is olive, rather than dark-brown; hair straight and jet black; eyes black; cheek-bones very high and prominent; their height and general physique correspond to the average among the whites. Their dress is simple, that of the men being merely cotton drawers and shirt, with blue woolen stockings of their own manufacture; a turban of wool or cotton completes the male attire. The females wear a gown of wool, held at the waist by a sash of the same material; the arms and shoulders are left bare; their stockings same as those worn by the men; for shoes, both males and females wear moccasins of buckskin. When in the street, the women cover the head and shoulders with a white cloth.

Among the Zuni, as well as other Pueblo Indians, are many albinos, and, as interesting to those inclined to the Darwinian theory, it may be stated that the production of this "improved stock" is not due to any mixture of white blood. The skin, and sometimes the hair, of these singular specimens of humanity, is perfectly white, while their eyes are of a reddish hue. The mother of an albino being asked why, she being brown her child was white made no reply; her fierce look, however, expressed more, perhaps, than her language would have revealed.

Fig. 7.

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Hieroglyphics at Mesa Pintada.

Several tribes of Pueblo Indians have been contaminated by contact with the Spaniards, but the Zuni are still pure, and free from taint through Spanish influence. They are simple, though ceremonious in manners—the latter trait undoubtedly acquired from occasional association with their Latin conquerors. They are extremely hospitable, and, after short acquaintance, are apt to prepossess the stranger and to command his respect. The females are chaste, reserved, extremely modest and rather shy, avoiding, when possible, the gaze of the stranger. Many of them are quite pretty, of fine figure and regular features. Their want of personal cleanliness, however, was apparent, and is certainly singular, in view of the neatness which pervades their dwellings.

One cannot but admire their regard for truth, their industry, unobtrusive disposition, hospitality and respect for strangers. Their hatred of the Mexican is intensely bitter, and is not concealed. On every favorable occasion they give vent to expressions indicative of outraged feelings by reason of the persecutions that have been inflicted upon them by their enemies; and these, together with the feeling manner in which they are made known, warrant the belief that the injuries they have suffered have been numerous and severe. Their love for and kindness toward the people of the States (or "Americans," as they call them) are in striking contrast with the hatred and revenge they bear the Mexican. Yet the benefits they have received from our Government have been neither many nor great.

Although perhaps these Indians, like all Pueblos, do not impress the stranger very favorably on first sight, on closer acquaintance one is forced to yield to the conviction that they are among Nature's noblemen—that they are the descendants of a race long freeholders of the soil of the North American Continent, and are every way worthy of confidence and respect. They are by no means to be compared to the nomadic tribes of red-skins, everywhere infesting the prairie, plain, and mountain of the far West, for murder and plunder. Like other Pueblo tribes, these people show marked and distinctive peculiarities, not that they differ essentially in type from the other branches of the great aboriginal families, but as regards their originality in costume, and their strong conservatism. Industrious and self-sustaining, they are temperate and quiet; though receiving but little aid from the General Government, they are well to do, and particularly in the line of farming.

As evening drew near, we prepared to bid adieu to Zuni town and its inhabitants. On leaving, the governor, with his cacique and the prominent men of his tribe, followed us to the outskirts of the village, when, with uplifted hands, he gave us his benediction, imploring the God of the Zuni to give us safe return to our camp, and, at the close of the field season, to our homes and kindred in the distant East.

A pleasant day with this isolated band of self-supporting, half-civilized people, was profitably spent, many facts being gained regarding themselves, their ancestors, their peculiar manners and customs, as well as respecting their language. These data, when properly discussed and elaborated, will constitute additional information of interest to the general reader, as well as of value to the student of ethnology and philology, and may, moreover, throw new light on the history of the North American aborigines, of whom but a handful remain to tell the story of their former greatness, or the extent of their ancient civilization.

  1. Used for "town" as well as "people."