FRESH SNOW DOTS THE Dowa Yalanne mesa in late March, and the A:shiwi people who live at its base have been dancing every evening for nearly two weeks to ensure a prosperous hunting season. But inside the Zuni Visitor Center, on NM 53, the mood is more solemn than celebratory.
“Prehistorically, it was a taboo to have a group dance for more than four days,” says Kenny Bowekaty, a Stanford-educated Zuni archaeologist who leads a dazzling lineup of tours out of the center. When the Zuni gods gave religion to the A:shiwi people, he explains, it was with the mutual understanding that every ceremony requires sacrifice. “When people start to pass on while dances are going on, elders say, ‘Well, it’s been going on too long,’ ” Bowekaty cautions. He estimates that five pueblo members have died over the past 14 days. That’s part of life in Zuni Pueblo. “You have to give back to this religion what you get out of it.”
Equal parts mystery, magic, and simple causality, his summary introduces the strong cultural ties that still bind Zuni Pueblo. The Zuni origin story erupts from Ribbon Falls, in the Grand Canyon, a place they call Chimik’yana’kya dey’a, where the A:shiwi first emerged from darkness into light. A map at the visitor center charts their subsequent nomadic search for Halona:wa Idiwan’a, or what is known as the utopian “Middle Place.” This exploratory journey took the Zuni throughout the Southwest and into Mexico for thousands of years until, finally, the Water Spider stretched his body and limbs to find the center of the Earth—a place where the Zuni way of life could not be swayed.
Now, after more than a millennium of farming on the Colorado Plateau, the Indigenous population in the area’s 400 square miles numbers around 12,500, and Zuni is the largest of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos.
Old-school sheepherding may have somewhat yielded to more modern cattle ranching, but most of the local economy is still rooted in traditional arts and crafts: inlaid silver jewelry, carved animal fetishes, painted pottery, and handwoven textiles. Here, where art and culture are both currency and king, Bowekaty has devised a slew of new Zuni Cultural Adventures tours to educate visitors about his rich heritage.
Less than a decade ago, a trip to Zuni generally meant one walking tour of the Middle Village, at the center of the pueblo. There, a guide might use the giant 1970s-era Alex Seowtewa murals that line the walls of Our Lady of Guadalupe mission church, built in 1629, to explain the cyclical dances, recognizable gods, and other characters that mark the Zuni seasons of life. Visitors might also get to walk up to the modern-day great kiva at the village’s center, where dances and ceremonies still take place. If you planned well in advance, you might get to visit a couple archaeological sites or see an artist demonstration. But you wouldn’t necessarily be guaranteed a Zuni guide, much less one armed with centuries of ancestral knowledge.
Starting in 2017, Bowekaty began envisioning a much broader Zuni tourism experience, one rooted in his 30-plus years of archaeological research across the Southwest. Now, Zuni guides Shaun Latone and Anthony Otto Lucio—both of whom have worked with Bowekaty on archaeological digs—are helping him realize his dream of “a grab bag of tours.” Bowekaty has another goal enmeshed in the new tourism initiatives: He’s working on a proposal to present to the Zuni Tribal Council aimed at re-excavating two sites, Hawikku and the Village of the Great Kivas. Indigenous-directed dig projects can go a long way toward addressing trauma that is still felt from Anglo-led excavations and anthropological studies, which began in the late 19th century and led to the theft of sacred objects and unwelcome publication of Zuni spiritual practices.
These days, visitors can choose from three cultural tours: the Middle Village jaunt, an architecture-focused walk-and-talk covering Zuni buildings through the ages, and an educational journey into the pueblo’s historical, cultural, and religious worldview. They can arrange to dip into immersive arts experiences such as studio arts and crafts, cooking, music, and dance demonstrations. And if they want to benefit from an Indigenous archaeologist’s deep technical and cultural wisdom, they can hop on one of five Archaeological Adventure Tours, including a daylong visit to all six ancestral villages.
AFTER TOURING THE Middle Village on our first day at Zuni, we ride a bumpy 12 miles southeast to the ancestral village of Hawikku the next morning. We pass the deep impressions of a car’s tires, apparently stuck in the mud brought by the previous day’s moisture, next to a burned-out campfire. At Hawikku, a band of coyotes wail in the distance, near a ridge where Bowekaty says his grandparents raised sheep when he was a boy.
On a half-hour walk, Bowekaty and fellow guide Shaun Latone act as interpreters of the grassy depressions left by 15th-century rooms at Hawikku, one of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold and the first pueblo to be visited by Spanish explorers. As Bowekaty waves his arms, acting out the 1540 battle his ancestors fought that ended in Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s conquest of Hawikku, Latone silently picks up a surprisingly sharp arrowhead.
A few steps away, a flat rock displays potsherds dating as far back as AD 1300. It’s a typically Zuni moment, where any given object, noise, or landscape becomes the jumping-off point for a millennium’s worth of oral histories.
Over at the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, housed in a former trading post, a permanent exhibition invites visitors to leaf through the treaties and laws that helped to establish the tribe’s sovereignty in the 20th century. “A:shiwi is what we call ourselves in our language,” explains Curtis Quam, the museum’s cultural educator. “A:wan is more or less ‘belonging to,’ so by our Zuni students being here to learn about their belonging, they can take an ownership of this place.”
The idea of becoming their own cultural ambassadors has prospered among the Zuni people over the last quarter-century, says Quam, who notes that while he did not take Zuni language classes in school, his children do.
“We know who we are,” he adds. “We’ve been researched to death. And if you come about it the right way, we can share an experience or share a meal to give that idea to tourists.”
At the Village Bistro, nestled into her grandparents’ former home just off NM 53, owner Celia Tsabetsaye shares both food and experiences. “I love meeting people from all over the world,” says Tsabetsaye, who retired from a Washington, D.C., career at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and made her way back to Zuni to open her cozy eatery in 2017.
She patiently explains the process of prepping and baking traditional Zuni sourdough bread in an horno while I sample the spread of savory red and green chile stews and blue corn tamales she’s laid out for me. “It’s important that people know who we are as Zuni people, and why and what we’ve been doing here for so long.”
An evolution in the sales model of Zuni arts and crafts has also allowed for more local economic sovereignty. Across the highway, at the Ancestral Rich Treasures of Zuni (ARTZ) Cooperative, Chris Gchachu presides over a display case that includes his hand-cut gemstone-and-silver jewelry and carved stone fetishes.
“We wanted a gallery space that would put everybody on an even playing field,” says Kandis Quam, another artist with the cooperative. “Since the 1970s, outsiders have been dictating our arts market. We wanted to bring the job market back to us.”
Opened in 2019, the ARTZ Cooperative is the only organization in the state owned and managed by Zuni artists, she says. Participants rely on placement in the Zuni Pueblo gallery as a steady source of income, with a small percentage of sales going to the cooperative for overhead costs.
“The cool, unintended part of the co-op is that we started sharing techniques, and stories of how to make things,” she adds. In the process, it seems, making art not only for the sake of economic sustenance but for creative pleasure thrives at Zuni.
ART FOR ART'S SAKE also appears on a Bowekaty-led tour of the Village of the Great Kivas, which was first excavated in 1930 by archaeologist Frank Roberts. The Chacoan outlier (circa 1150–1300) is known for its two giant kivas, as well as a mesa housing numerous petroglyphs and pictographs of centipedes, spiral paths, and Kokopelli figures that chart early Zuni culture.
Ingenious trails carved into the mesa and surrounding cliffs by the Zuni Youth Corps Association wind around the remains of great houses that bear a strong resemblance to those reconstructed at Chaco Canyon. No wonder, I learn from the guide. These people left Chaco and came here, trying to get closer to what they’d heard was the Middle Place.
“Soon we’re going to get to what I call the grand finale,” says Bowekaty, near the end of the slightly strenuous hike. I envision a rewarding vista of the Nutria Valley’s mesas and mountains. But when we round the bend, I see that the view I’d imagined lies next to a natural amphitheater with pictographs. It even has rock benches for visitors to sit and absorb the breathtaking sight.
Stretched across a mesa wall, red, brown, black, and white pigments depict central figures in the Zuni creation story. Trickster mudheads, towering Shalako spirits, and the daughters of the first Zuni cacique crowd the wall, placed there, Bowekaty explains, by local construction crews beginning in the 1930s. Unable to resist the lure of an organic canvas that already held so much of their history, Zuni workers made a habit of climbing up to
the mesas during different seasons to work on each figure.
“This is a lot of lunch breaks adding up,” the guide laughs, before speculating that the process of laying out and painting this cosmology may have taken a few decades. I sit back and listen as Bowekaty explains the identity and importance of each figure. I’ve never seen anything like it. The gang’s all here, adorning this ancient rock with a vivid, moving, living people’s history. They stare back across the years, telling their own story on their own terms.
Visit Zuni Pueblo
Go. Plan your trip at zunitourism.com, which lists available tours and demos as well as contact info for scheduling. Hour-long tours range from $20 to $35 a person, with reduced rates for larger groups and higher rates for longer tours. Begin your visit at Zuni Visitor Center, which features a permanent exhibition on the pueblo’s history, and continue learning at A:shiwi A:wan Heritage Center.
See. Kenny Bowekaty calls the one-hour interpretive walking tour of Halona:Idiwan’a (The Middle Village) “the bread and butter of Zuni tourism.” An all-day tour of the Cities of Cibola gives a glimpse of six ancestral villages. Schedule an artist, cooking, music, or dance demo with local luminaries.
Eat. Try traditional Zuni and New Mexican foods at Village Bistro. Don’t miss what some have called the best fried chicken in the state at Halona Plaza Kitchen, served with Zuni oven bread. Pick up sandwiches, Starbucks, and Zuni staples at the Major Market, or check out the deli and stock up on fresh foods and baked goods at Halona Marketplace.
Shop. The main highway into Zuni, NM 53, snakes through five trading posts in the business district, including the Ancestral Rich Treasures of Zuni (ARTZ) Cooperative.
Stay. Near the heart of Zuni Pueblo, the newly renovated Inn at Halona offers bed-and-breakfast-style hospitality. Farther east on NM 53, check into Cimarron Rose Bed & Breakfast or El Morro RV Park & Cabins.
Do. Pay attention to posted signs about photography/video rules, as well as those marking areas of the pueblo that are restricted to visitors without a guide.