Zuni Tribe: Facts, History & Culture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the history and culture of the Zuni people, a Native American culture in the Southwest, and test your understanding about Pueblo cultures, Zuni traditions, and the history of Native American peoples.

The Zuni People

The Zuni people are a federally-recognized Native American nation, meaning the U.S. government recognizes their rights to own land, create treaties, and hold special rights. The Zuni are one of several nations that compromise the Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest. The 'Pueblo' is a wide term for the various cultural and language groups that developed agriculture and lived in sedentary, or non-mobile, homes. The term Pueblo actually comes from the Spanish word for village, from when the Spanish explorers stumbled across these Native American towns.

1903 photo of a Zuni Girl

Zuni History

The first archaeological evidence of Zuni culture appears with the development of agriculture in modern-day New Mexico around the 10th century. Agriculture is a cornerstone of Zuni development who, along with other Pueblo peoples, used farming to create stable, non-mobile cultures. According to one Zuni creation myth, agriculture was given to humanity by the sons of the sun who lead the people from the darkness underneath the Earth to the surface. Archaeological evidence suggests they were related to other ancestral Pueblo cultures who had existed in the region for almost 2,000 years.

Zuni Women from 1926

By the 1300s, there were a dozen major Zuni towns, or pueblos. However, most of these were abandoned by the 1400s due to drought and other factors, and new ones were founded. In 1539, a Moorish slave named Estevanico was the first European to encounter the Zuni while part of a Spanish exploration party lead by Fray Marcos de Niza. He was killed. The Spanish returned and eventually established missions and military outposts in Zuni territory. The Zuni tried to force the Spanish out in 1632, but it failed. However, in 1680, the Pueblo Revolt of several Pueblo nations successfully defeated the Spanish. The Spanish returned in 1692 and reclaimed the territory without violence, mostly because the Pueblo alliances had broken apart, but the Zuni remained fairly independent. In 1877, around 30 years after the region became part of the United States, the Zuni were formally recognized by the U.S. government and their pueblo re-organized into a federal reservation. As of the year 2000, 10,228 Zuni live in the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico.

Zuni Culture

Zuni is its own language and is unique because it is not related to any other Native American language. Linguists believe that the Zuni language emerged around 7,000 years ago and has been maintained with little change. By contrast, modern English only developed around 5,000 years ago from Middle English.

Zuni kachina doll
Zuni kachina

Besides language, the Zuni also have a unique religion amongst Pueblo people, which they still maintain today through dances and ceremonies. A majority of modern Zuni do also practice Roman Catholicism, but blend traditional ceremonies with the Catholic calendar. Traditional Zuni religion has three main deities: the Earth Mother, Sun Father, and Moonlight-Giving Mother. Besides these, there are several spirits called kachinas, which are recognized by many Pueblo peoples. A kachina could represent a physical thing (like stars, corn, or mountains), an event (such as a thunderstorm), an idea or concept (time), and many other aspects of life. Kachinas are not worshiped but are highly respected in the belief that they can intervene on a person's behalf for protection, luck, healing, rain, etc.

Zuni pottery
Zuni pottery

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