Treasures from the Basement: Zuni Pueblo

Though previous installments of this series have focused solely on the pottery of given cultural groups, both the subject of this article and our collection of their work necessitates a widening of scope. Zuni is a pueblo apart, despite the fact that it sits roughly halfway between the pueblos of the Gila River valley to the east and Hopi to the west. The language of Zuni is a linguistic isolate, meaning it has evolved separately from the Keresan and Tanoan languages to the east and the Uto-Aztecan languages to the west for over 7,000 years. It is hard to grasp the true significance of this fact, but suffice it to say it means the Zuni people have maintained a strong, unified cultural identity since sometime before 5,000 B.C.E. At the same time, Zuni has always been integrated with the larger pueblo world through trade and social connections, sharing distinctive artistic and religious motifs. 

Craft and Adornment
    Of all of its artistic exports, Zuni is best known for its jewelry. Examples of delicate Zuni stonework date back almost as far as occupation there, with turquoise, jet and argillite as constant staples. Plant fiber cord and shells traded from coastal cultures rounded out the materials with which Zuni lapidaries worked their magic. The intricate stone mosaics inlaid on shell bases provided a canon of design motifs that would echo throughout the southwest as much as any particular style of pottery. In the mid-19th century, Zuni was the first pueblo to begin using silver in their jewelry, quickly establishing the turquoise-on-silver style that would become iconic in the region. 

Craft and Spirituality
    The Zuni, like most Puebloan cultures, are intensely private regarding their religious traditions, and for good reason. In 1923, a filmmaker from the American Museum of Natural History filmed and released a performance of the Shalako Ceremonial. Not only was this ritual not intended to be viewed by the uninitiated, but the film added insult to injury by offering inaccurate and offensive interpretations of its meaning. This was only one of many slights, but the massive violation of trust rightly prompted almost all of the pueblos, though especially Zuni, to shut down any dialogue regarding the Kivas (Puebloan religious institutions) with the outside world. That said, the objects these traditions produce can be easily appreciated while respecting their makers’ privacy. Zuni has always been known for its particularly fine stonework hunting fetishes, intended to aid the hunter in their dangerous undertaking, and in more recent decades Kachina dolls depicting the costumes worn in ceremonial dances.

Down to Earth: Zuni Pottery
    This brings us to pottery at Zuni, which has been saddled with a decidedly unfair reputation of being “cruder” than that produced at other pueblos. While it is true that much of the pottery one sees from Zuni is somewhat rougher in execution, there is a simple reason for this: the vast majority of professional (read: full-time) artisans were and are lapidaries. Thus, pottery at Zuni is almost universally utilitarian and/or intended for display in the home. The pottery that is decorated is done so because it has personal meaning to its maker, who embellishes it with the symbols passed down to them through uncounted generations. This continuity of design allowed potters at Zuni to help Hopi artisans revive their own tradition after a long lapse, and preserve iconic motifs like the Heart Line (representing the breathe/spirit of an animal) that have since been adopted by modern potters at other pueblos. 

To comprehend 7,000 years of cultural continuity or identify the factors that contribute to such incredible longevity are nigh impossible, but it is clear the crafts these traditions produce represent the vibrant creativity of a people who are still very much alive and ready to experiment and innovate while they preserve their heritage. To view all of the Zuni-made objects in our collection please visit our online database and more information on the Zuni people can be found here