Zuni Festival returns to Museum of Northern Arizona

The Nawetsa dance group from Zuni Pueblo performs at the Zuni Festival of Arts and Culture at the Museum of Northern Arizona (Photo courtesy of MNA).

The Nawetsa dance group from Zuni Pueblo performs at the Zuni Festival of Arts and Culture at the Museum of Northern Arizona (Photo courtesy of MNA).

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - A broad, scenic valley with red mesas and an expansive blue sky is home to the A:shiwi, or Zuni people. This ancient and proud people live at Zuni Pueblo where their ancestors have lived for thousands of years. Zuni Pueblo is about 200 miles east of Flagstaff and about 150 miles west of Albuquerque at an historic crossroads of travel and trade.

On Saturday and Sunday, May 24 and 25, the 18th Annual Zuni Festival of Arts and Culture at the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) in Flagstaff will explore A:shiwi philosophy, emergence and migration beliefs, worldviews, values, and current day issues on the Zuni Indian Reservation.

Humanities Insights Programming, fine arts, music and dances will serve as windows into the ancient and vibrant Zuni culture. Zuni Pueblo is the largest of 19 pueblos in New Mexico, with about 11,000 members spread over 600 square miles. They are often considered the most traditional of all of the Southwestern pueblo people, having managed to preserve their core beliefs and identity while integrating useful parts of the modern world. The fact that the A:shiwi language bears no similarity to any other known language is indicative of their isolation.

Eighty percent of Zuni families are involved in making fine arts - home-based work that makes it possible for Zunis to remain in their community. Each piece of inlay silver jewelry, stone fetish carving, and pottery represents generations of tradition paired with the artist's individual unique style.

MNA and the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center (AAMHC) at Zuni Pueblo are collaborating to bring back the annual Zuni Festival, last held in 2003.

After a four-year hiatus, this festival returns with new vitality and excitement. Since then, MNA has worked to develop a deeper relationship with the Zuni Tribe. This festival is, in the words of AAMHC Director Jim Enote, "...more than an event about Zuni, it is a very public gesture, acknowledging Zuni presence and influence on the Colorado Plateau."

MNA Director Robert Breunig added, "The Zuni culture is an integral part of the Colorado Plateau with close cultural connections to the land and ancestral villages in southeastern Arizona and western New Mexico. The spiritual and ancestral landscape of the Zuni includes the San Francisco Peaks (Sunha:kwin K'yaba:chu Yalanne) in the west, Steamboat Wash in the north, Mount Taylor in the east, the Salt and Gila River basins to the south, and of course, the Grand Canyon, the Zuni place of origin. By creating a collaborative relationship with the Zuni Tribe, MNA is able to ensure that the dialogue and cultural exchange about the Zuni people and their lifeways comes directly from the source."

The Zuni People

The A:shiwi believe they emerged from Mother Earth within the Grand Canyon and migrated across the Colorado Plateau to Halona: Idiwana'a or the Middle Place of the World, home of the Zuni for at least the last 1,300 years.

AAMHC Technician Curtis Quam will present "Zuni Emergence and Migration History," beginning in the Grand Canyon, then European contact at the ancestral Zuni village of Hawikku, post contact history, arrival of the Americans, and finally the influence of ethnographers, anthropologists, and archaeologists on the A:shiwi way of life. Accompanying images for Quam's talk are from the AAMHC exhibit Hawikku: Echoes from Our Past.

Heritage Insights Programming

AAMHC Director Jim Enote will give two presentations. His talk "The A:shiwi Map Art Project" will describe how art is used to evoke reactions and memories about cultural places. Enote says, "Indigenous people have always had maps. We've had maps created as songs, prayers, migration stories, shell arrangements, drawings on hides, drawings on wood and stone." The map art project uses Indigenous artistic sensibilities and Indigenous names of places to connect with cultural values and ways of seeing the world.

His second presentation will be a panel discussion and open conversation with the audience that focuses on "The Challenges of Bilingual Education." Zuni schools have state-supported bilingual programming which could use retrospective evaluation, but the most critical issue is how to continue bilingual learning outside of the school and inside the home.

Dan Simplicio, a Zuni tribal member, educator, and jeweler will present "Zuni Traditions of Art and Community" and will examine the Native art industry and how it has influenced Zuni economy and the shift from the traditional family to the nuclear family.

The Nawetsa Family Dancers bring the pageantry of traditional Zuni social dancing. Colorful headdresses, beaded and fringed arm bands, and traditional woven outfits add to their magical performance of dances symbolizing the dreams, visions, and beliefs of the A:shiwi.

The Olla Pottery Maidens, decorated with turquoise jewelry and traditional woven outfits, dance while carefully balancing water pots on their heads. The pots are indented on the bottom for this purpose and in the past, these same pots were used for carrying food and water.

The Zuni Pueblo Band, scheduled to play both festival days, is one of the few remaining Native American community bands in the U.S. today. They proudly wear the traditional Pueblo style of dress, with a red woven sash belt around the waist along with a handmade concho belt and exquisite Zuni jewelry. The men wear bowguards and a traditional white headscarf across their foreheads and the women tie their hair in the back with a small red sash. All band members wear red leather moccasins.

Membership in the band is open to all Zunis, regardless of age or experience. In recent years, the band has had members from eight to 80 years old and it is no surprise to see three or four generations of families participating in the band at any given time. Since their formation, the Zuni Pueblo Band has played marches by John Phillip Sousa, K. L. King, Roland Seitz, and other well-known composers for parades and concerts.

Zuni artists and demonstrators

Zuni artists are known for some of the most sought after Native works of art. Through their distinctive sense of color and patterns, intricately crafted designs, and traditional symbols, they represent an ancient people. The following award-winning and emerging artists will present their work at this year's festival: Colin Coonsis - inlay jewelry, Kenneth Epaloose - pottery, Rolanda Haloo - jewelry, Silvester Hustitio - painting, Otto Lucio - jewelry, Claudia Peina - fetish carving, Lynn Quam - fetish carving, Octavius and Irma Seowtewa - needlepoint jewelry, Margia Simplicio - beadwork, and Noreen Simplicio - pottery.

In addition, demonstrators will create artwork and talk with visitors about materials and designs they use. Raylan and Patty Edaakie make silver jewelry with multiple stone inlays of lapis, sugilite, coral, and turquoise. Lorandina Sheche creates traditional animal fetish carvings from stone and Todd Westika makes contemporary fetish carvings which are naturalistic and lifelike.

About the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center

Established by a small group of Zuni tribal members in 1992, the AAMHC is a private, not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to serving the Zuni community with programs and exhibits that reflect on their past and are relevant to their present and future. The AAMHC emphasizes A:shiwi ways of knowing, while also exploring modern and mainstream concepts of knowledge.

The Pathways to Zuni Wisdom program is gaining national attention as an example of how youth can learn traditional life skills and apply them to modern circumstances. The old films, photo archives, and collection of digitized oral history interviews are popular with many Zunis. Art is a fundamental part of the culture. Whether through collections of contemporary Zuni art, its Zuni prehistoric art collection, or Zuni school art exhibitions, the AAMHC provides a venue and forum for local artists to study and reflect on the possibilities of art in their community.

About the Museum of Northern Arizona

Now celebrating its 80th year, the Museum of Northern Arizona has a long and illustrious history and evokes the very spirit of the Colorado Plateau. MNA's four Heritage Programs festivals highlight the region's cultures and encourage communication and the exchange of ideas between visitors, educators, and artists.

The Zuni Festival's Heritage Insights programming was made possible through a grant from the Arizona Humanities Council.

Additional sponsors include the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, Arizona ArtShare, Flagtaff Cultural Partners, and the city of Flagstaff. 

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