On July 23rd, 2016, I drove past a sign with a Zuni Sunface and the words, “Welcome to Zuniland.” Since that day, something new and wonderful has been unfolding almost every day. I have been privileged to be missioned to serve here in Zuni among the Zuni people. Our Zuni people call this place, “Halona Idiwan’a” – “our Middle Place.”
From almost anywhere in the village we can look up and see Dowa Yallane, the Zuni people’s sacred mountain. I look up every day to see her many faces with the changing light and shadows at different seasons and times of day. This morning after a fresh snowfall and temperatures sitting at 5°F, she was shrouded in cloud, but still, I looked. It’s one of my daily joys! In my first week here, I was taught the correct way to pronounce the name of this sacred place. Dowa Yallane is the mountain where one can climb up to a particular formation for both the summer and winter solstices and see a shaft of sunlight illuminate the two spiral petroglyphs carved into the cliff behind them. This is also the mountain where tradition teaches that the people fled and hid on top until the would-be conquerors finally left. The Zuni people proudly tell me that they were never conquered.
Zuni sits in the high desert (elevation 6,293 feet), and is one of nineteen pueblos in New Mexico. Sadly, it is also the poorest of the Pueblos with 60% unemployment. We are a “dry reservation,” meaning no alcohol can be sold anywhere on our reservation, yet alcoholism and all the brokenness associated with it are rampant, and I would say, our most serious problem. Though sheepherding and farming are still part of Zuni life, most who are employed work as jewelry or pottery makers – some fetish carvings, too. Zunis are wonderful artists, with much work done in silver and turquoise, often featuring the Zuni Sun Face. Their work is beautiful, delicate and often tells a story, or part of the story of their people, their history.
I find the Zuni people very warm and welcoming, quick to laugh, and quick to smile. I felt welcomed from my first minutes in Zuni –I was welcomed during Sunday Mass the morning after I arrived, and then we all went over to the school cafeteria for coffee and “whatever” (people bring different things every Sunday – the important thing is the meeting together and sharing the “whatever”).
I also discovered within my first month that the Zunis have a great sense of humor. Saturday night after the parade for the annual Zuni Parade and Fair (Our Eighth Graders danced!), we were invited to a birthday celebration for two Zunis – one of whom Fr. Pat and I had just hired to teach at St. Anthony’s. The other birthday celebrant was a Zuni woman, Terry, married to a white man, Mike. Throughout the evening, they teased Mike mercilessly and everybody spent the evening laughing. At one point, as I tore off a section from a loaf of Zuni bread (baked in the outdoor clay ovens over a wood fire), Mike asked me why I tore it and didn’t cut it with a knife. I had noticed others tearing, so I had done the same – turns out, it’s the Zuni way. I just smiled, shrugged and took a bite of really delicious bread. As I tasted the bread, Mike’s wife, Terry, called over, “Sister, you’re right. We just can’t get Mike to quit using a knife to cut it, even after all these years.” Mike just smiled with a real twinkle in his eye – I think he thrives on the teasing! I saw the whole crowd the next morning after Sunday Mass and we immediately began laughing again. I remarked on all the laughter shared at the party, and Terry nodded, saying, “Yes, we Zunis laugh a lot and really enjoy teasing one another.”
Zuni Pueblo is a fairly small reservation. I have frequently been told that everybody knows everybody and oftentimes are related, either through family, clan, or Kiva. When we had Mudhead Day, Corde told me she is related to the Mudhead Clan – her family are also part of the family that makes the life-size Kachina headdresses and costumes – Mudhead Day, though, means several men dress as Mudheads and dance and go to certain houses to distribute gifts.
Since my arrival, we have celebrated several rain dances, Mudhead Day, Grandmothers’ (Hotda:kwe A:wan Dewa) Day, Harvest Dance (Day), and in just a few days, Shalako. Dates for many of these events are determined according to the full moon – and the dates are set by the Kiva (religious) leaders. I’ll share something about a couple of them: The Harvest Dance, was an all-day affair toward the end of October to give thanks for the harvest, with dancers of all ages. They danced throughout the day to honor the earth and gather the community to celebrate the harvest. I went over just before it began, thinking it would take a couple of hours. The weather went from very cold and blustery to blisteringly hot, and the couple of hours turned into six. I found a place in the bleachers (there were about five rows, if you got there early enough…Many brought their own chairs.), and then the dance began! What an incredible sight! There were two dance groups of a hundred or more members, and, of course, singers for each group. Each group would assemble in a nearby kiva, and then enter in two lines. Both groups performed the same four dances, each at least 30 minutes long – so, yes, we saw each dance twice. There were no breaks. Several of our students, as young as pre-school (3-4), and some of our parents were in the dances. Two things have stuck with me: I sat next to a “grandmother”. It turned out that she had been one of the dancers up until a few years ago. I saw how intent she was, so I quietly said, “You were once one of those dancers, yes?” She nodded and said, “Oh, I was,” to which I responded, “You must miss it…” “I really do”, she said, “but I can no longer dance for so long.” None-the-less, her feet never stopped moving! Before the dances began, the host announced that if anyone wanted to join the dance, to feel free. What took place during the dances really delighted me: As the day progressed, some of the elders, “Grandmothers”, left their places and joined the dance – they had no costumes and nothing in their hands, but they danced. This was wonderful to see, but even better was this: Each time an elder joined the dance, I saw a young person turn and give one of her hand-held bundles (either flowers or feathers or both) to the Grandmother, so that she had something to hold as she danced. It was a gentle gesture, but packed with meaning, and I was touched. Even though there were no breaks, making for a very long day, it was a beautiful, wonderful day!
At Shalako in December (4th – 11th this year), the recipients of the Mudheads’ gifts earlir this year will be reciprocating the gift-giving – I don’t know and/or understand all the ins and outs, but this week I am learning a lot more about Shalako, the most sacred Zuni religious event of the year, a celebration with much fasting and prayer. The Zuni figures of Long Horn, Fire Bringer, and the gods will come down from Dowa Yallane. Firebringer, a boy who has to run miles during the ceremony, comes first, followed by Long Horn and then the Shalako. The Shalako announce the arrival of the gods. At each place the Shalako stop, there are prayers to be said and blessings to be given, and when leaving, they leave prayer sticks. One prayer said during the ceremonies is five hours long and said from memory! This is all I have learned at this point. I hope to have a much better understanding after next week-end! The Shalako have to be housed and fed for the duration of the Shalako Celebration – this means families are chosen and have to build or refurbish a home for the Shalako. Afterwards, the houses are given to someone in each family – usually the ones who need it most. Still, as I know from one of our teachers whose family was one of those chosen for this year’s Shalako, even though it’s an honor, it’s still a huge financial burden … Preparation for Shalako has been going on for weeks, and this week is filled with intense preparation, with a ton of cooking by the women – the smell of woodfires is everywhere.
It seems like there is a major religious or cultural ceremony or celebration each month, and dancing is always central to it. The men do most of the dancing, and only men can be the singers (chanting and playing drums). When the women are part of a dance, their costumes are beautiful, but not too fancy – the fancy costumes are worn by the men, e.g. only men can be the eagles in the Dancing Eagle Dance, or the deer in the Dance of the Deer, or the White Buffalo in the White Buffalo Dance. The women wear beautiful shawls, special skirts, white leather leg-wrappings, and carry feathers or flowers in their hands.
Throughout our pueblo, Zuni is the primary language. It amazes me how they can flip in and out of Zuni to English – even in the middle of a sentence! (I definitely have to learn Zuni!) The Zuni religion is also an integral part of the Zuni culture. Just as we have regular feasts throughout our liturgical year, so do the Zunis. My first week here, dancers and singers gathered at the center of the village and began the rain dances. Yes, it rained, and, yes, we needed it! These dances took place at regular intervals. Naturally, there is no photography allowed during any religious or cultural events here in Zuni, but at least we are allowed to see them. Their religion is very sacred to them, as well as very secretive, and I try to respect that. Our Zuni language and culture teacher, Corde, answers my many questions, but out of respect, I try not to ask questions about their religion. However, I do ask about Zuni practices and ceremonies, as well as taboos, such as never looking up at the stars! I was incredulous, so asked her why not?!? I said, “You do know what my last name is?!?” She laughed and then explained that the Zuni people believe their ancestors go up into the sky and become stars, and that looking up was forbidden – it is a place for visions – to look at them would endanger their places in the sky… Truthfully, I must confess, I still look – the stars in the high desert can be incredibly brilliant – I just can’t resist it.
Zuni Catholics practice both Zuni rituals and Catholic rituals – people will have a funeral Mass in St. Anthony’s, then go to their Kiva for the Zuni rituals. When it comes to Zuni culture and religion, there are many taboos, so we non-Zunis have to move cautiously, and I continue to learn as much as I can. My first Sunday, I learned about a daily custom: When beginning to eat a meal, Zunis first break off a small piece of the food and set it aside for the ancestors. Another practice with regard to ancestors is to “feed them” on their birthday and on the anniversary of their death. A special meal is prepared, then burned in one of the outdoor clay ovens. Now, if one of our Zuni teachers or parents mentions that it is the anniversary of a relation, I know to ask, “Will you be feeding them?” After they answer, I simply nod and touch their arm or shoulder. It is enough.
The Old Mission, as it is called, is located in the heart of the village. It was founded in the early 1600’s by the Franciscans. Now closed to the public, it stands empty and sad, in danger of collapsing in on itself, because of damage inside the deep adobe walls. No one is allowed to go inside the church now – too dangerous. The good news is that they are trying to find a way to save the Old Mission, as well as some incredible murals on the walls inside. St. Anthony’s Church compound, where I live and our St. Anthony Indian School is located in the heart of the village, and very near the Old Mission. We have the school buildings, the church, the rectory, a convent where the JMJ sisters from India live, and the “teacherage” where any teachers from out of the reservation area and myself live.
St. Anthony Indian School was founded in 1923, and the founding Franciscans pledged that anyone from Zuni who wished to attend would be welcome – ability to pay has never been an issue, and our current pastor, Fr. Patrick McGuire, a Scottish SMA, assures me that that policy remains. He is totally committed and dedicated to the Zuni people and truly cares about the school, too. One of our tasks, and a central part of our school philosophy is to be a Catholic school, yet teach about and help to instill respect and appreciation for the Zuni culture. Creating a school climate where Catholic and Zuni traditions and values are both honored and taught is a challenge. We have daily Catholic religion classes and weekly Mass, but also teach Zuni language and culture. Needless to say, for me, learning the Zuni language is a challenge, too. However, we will be singing four traditional Christmas carols in Zuni, and I will be learning them, along with everyone else! We live in hope!
As part of our school’s striving to nurture a love and respect for our students’ native culture, we hold a Native American Day celebration here at school. This year it was at the beginning of November. For a couple of weeks, three hours a night, a group of parents and teachers worked to make the headdresses and pieces of the costumes. Since I knew next to nothing about the headdresses, I could only assist in drawing. For example, I drew the rainbows for the rainbow headdresses and miniature handheld rainbow ornaments for the Rainbow Dance. You cannot imagine how the painting transformed those pieces of wood! Besides the colored bands, there were intricate designs in black and white along the edges and in between the colored bands. No question, it was a lot of hard work to finish everything, but so worth it when you saw the students performing in their elegant costumes and headdresses… Each class, Pre-K (3-4 year-olds) to Eighth Grade (14 year-olds) does a particular dance. For example, Pre-school did the Eagle Dance and Fifth Grade (10 year-olds) did the Deer Dance – I wish you could see the intense concentration on the faces of the 3 and 4 year-old boys as they held out their feathered arms, moving like gliding eagles as they danced, and the seriousness of the little girls as they walked along in their leggings, skirts, shawls, with feather bundles in their hands, or the fifth grade boys in the Deer Dance, as they moved, seemingly on four legs (using sticks for front legs) and turning their heads, crowned with antler headdresses, from side to side… I was totally impressed and so overjoyed to be a part of something so wonderful! If I were Zuni, that day sure would have made me proud of my traditions and heritage!
In addition to Zuni Language and Culture Classes, St. Anthony’s provides two meals a day for our students and staff – breakfast and lunch plus a fruit or vegetable afternoon snack. Much of what we provide is funded which helps us meet expenses. The two women who prepare the meals do a marvelous job – the meals are always delicious and very nutritious. I know, because I eat lunch there daily and it’s often as good as a dinner and everything is homemade, including the bread. Fr. Pat remarked one day that for some of our students those two meals are their main food for the day, and worries about what some do or do not get when school is not in session… We also provide free bus service to pick up and drop off students. I quickly learned that there are many “pieces” to our school program, and continue to learn every day.
After a week in Zuni, I met Ken Seatewa after Mass, and after he hugged me, he asked me how it was going. I responded “Great”, adding, “I’m loving it, Ken!” He smiled from ear to ear and gave me a second hug! I can’t tell you how many times a Zuni person will ask me how I like Zuni! Not so long ago, one of our Zuni teachers said, “So, Sr. Marsha, now that you’ve been here a while, how are you liking it, or not?” When I responded that I really am loving it, his face just lit up. With some I get a hug, with others, the big smile, but I am often asked, and can honestly say, I AM loving it. With all their hardships, the Zuni are wonderful people, never complain, and always share what they have. Please continue to pray for me and for these most wonderful people with whom I live and work, and am so privileged to serve.