Nomad's Trip to the Zuni Pueblo

A Nomad's Trip to the Zuni Pueblo

Charting a Course to the Zuni Middle Place
Lily Flower in front of Zuni welcome sign
Dances with wolves (or perhaps bears)
Now that Lily Flower is working on a top-secret mission deep inside the underground bunker in rural New Mexico, we’re taking advantage of the opportunity to explore our new surroundings. We began this odyssey by visiting the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, where we were treated to a live traditional dance performance featuring members of the Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna tribes. Unlike certain pow-wows we’ve attended, where the dancers sported dime-store costumes and moved as gracefully as extras on a set of the Walking Dead, this group was smoothly in sync and the outfits were as authentic as possible (given that certain materials like fur, leather, and bones aren’t always readily available). As two of the dancers were wearing impressive headpieces, we were curious which animal they represented (a bear, a wolf?). However, the answer we got was quite literal - it was simply beaver fur. After the show, we spoke with the leader of the troupe, who informed us that the group is always open to new members (including non-Indians) and meet once weekly on the Acoma reservation to rehearse. So if you like to dance and learn about other cultures (or just enjoy dressing up and wearing colorful make-up), check it out!
Lily Flower Asesina with young Pueblo dancer Pueblo dancers Young Pueblo dancer
Pueblo dancers Lily Flower Asesina and Guerro Weissbrot with Pueblo dancers
Road Trip to the Zuni Reservation
As the experience brought back fond memories from her childhood, where she performed the traditional rain dance with a fer de lance wrapped around her waist while juggling poison-dart tipped spears, Lily Flower was eager to try a more ambitious dance ceremony. I saw that there was a Valentine’s Day Arts & Crafts celebration on the Zuni reservation with social dancing on the 13th and 14th, so we packed the car in all haste and charted a course for the great unknown.
As we sped westward on I-40, the road steadily ascended and the high desert landscape was subsumed by tufts of grasses and stunted dwarf pinon trees. As you cross into the Laguna and Acoma reservations, you feel like you’re truly at the top of the world. The wind was howling, but not as loudly as our stomachs, so we stopped and got some fry bread at a makeshift stand next to the Laguna Indian Arts Center. If you’re not familiar with fry bread, it’s as much of a staple in Pueblo Indian food as tortillas are in Mexican cuisine. When baked in the traditional kiva oven, with natural honey and powdered sugar or red chile, there’s nothing that beats it! After dessert, we saw the signs for the “world famous” Laguna Burger and felt compelled to pay the place a visit and see for ourselves what makes it so special. The green chili burger and pork barbecue didn’t disappoint. Although there are only 3 locations stretched out between the Route 66 Casino and the west side of Albuquerque, we fully expect to see a Laguna Burger coming soon to a neighborhood near you!
Lily Flower Asesina near Zuni pueblo Lily Flower Asesina outside the original Laguna Burger
We approached Grants and, as the snow-covered peak of Mt. Taylor zoomed into clear focus, we turned off onto a tumbleweed-strewn two-lane highway that winds a lonely path toward the Zuni pueblo. Passing the black volcanic rocks of El Malpais, you feel like you’re traveling over the surface of the moon. As we passed Bandera Ice Cave (closed until March), the landscape abruptly shifted form, and we were surrounded by a forest of towering cedar and pine trees. As we drew ever closer to the Zuni reservation and farther from civilization, our modern infrastructure began to falter (e.g. no GPS or wi-fi signal) and the law of natural selection took over. A flock of crows was feeding on the bloated, upturned carcass of an elk while a pair of coyotes chased one another across the road in front of us, disappearing into a field as they turned and looked back at us in curiosity. Just as I was expecting to see an angry skinwalker burst out of the woods and lope on all fours alongside our vehicle, the welcome sign for the Zuni reservation appeared!
We Arrive in the "Middle Place"
Pulling into the visitor center, we discovered to our disappointment that the tribe’s website hadn’t been updated in years. Nobody knew anything about a Valentine’s Day Arts & Crafts market nor any social dances. We were just a couple of lulukwe fools who had journeyed all the way to the Zuni reservation for no reason. But, as we were determined to make lemonade out of lemons, we asked Mario Hooee, the Executive Director of the Zuni Visitors Center, if he would be so kind to answer a few questions about the tribe’s history and culture and he was happy to accommodate us.
Lily Flower Asesina inside Zuni Visitor Center Lily Flower Asesina with Zuni Visitor Center Director Mario Hooee
Mario shared a wealth of information with us about the history of the Zuni people or A:shiwi as they refer to themselves. According to the myths, their ancestors (the Ancestral Puebloans or Anasazi as they’re more commonly known) originally came from the Grand Canyon and were told to seek Halona:Idiwan’a, the “Middle Place”. Their journey took them to Chaco Canyon as far back as the 12th century BC before they eventually settled on the present Zuni lands. Unlike many other tribes, in spite of the Spanish missions, the Zunis never converted to Catholicism and have largely kept their cultural traditions and language intact over the years. Young men still join one of the six kivas, or religious societies, during early adolescence and perform the same time-honored, sacred ceremonies that their grandfathers once performed. When tribal elders noticed that television and the Internet were encouraging the younger generation to forsake their ancestral language, they started teaching the children Zuni in the schools. As a result, today, around 80% of the population can speak this mysterious language, which has no known relation among other Native American languages, fluently!
Naturally, we discussed the number-one cottage industry on the Zuni reservation, art- and jewelry-making, which employs a staggering 70% of the local population. Yet, in spite of the triple-digit price tags the pieces often fetch, driving around the backstreets of the middle village, we were saddened by the abject living conditions. The village is largely a collection of double-wide trailers in various states of disrepair with packs of stray dogs patrolling the streets. Despite the redolent air of poverty, it was clear that residents share a close-knit sense of community. As we passed by, we saw dozens of women socializing around clay kiva ovens baking the staple fry bread and groups of children laughing and playing in the street without a care in the world.
The iniquities of the Native American jewelry business
You can do your part by bypassing these Indian trading companies and retailers selling cheaper fake or inauthentic items and buying the jewelry instead at a tribal co-op or visitor center. We were proud to support local Zuni artists during our visit and Lily Flower left the visitor center bedecked with a breathtaking inlaid turquoise ring and matching bracelet.
You can check out the entire interview in our podcast below:

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