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The Zuni View of Nature

Tirloki Nath Pandey


I am a social anthropologist devoted to the study of the ‘tribal’ people of India and of the United States of America. Since I was introduced to the Tharus of the Himalayan terai exactly three decades ago, I have lived for five years among the Zuni, the Hopi, and the Navajo of the American Southwest. And during the past five years I have spent 15 months in India, visiting the ‘tribal’ communities in its northern, central, southern, and north-eastern regions. This has given me wonderful opportunities to learn first-hand about what the organizers of this symposium call "traditional visions of nature and culture". Relying on this field experience, I am going to reflect on the perspective of one such culture, the Zuni of New Mexico.

The Zuni occupy a unique place in the history of both America and American anthropology. The first mention of the tribe is found in the chronicles of the Narvavez expedition (1528-37). Eighty years before the landing of the pilgrims, the Spanish conquistadors were in the search of their fabled "Seven Cities of Cibola" Cabeza de Vaca and Estevan guided Fray Marcos de Niza north in search of these ‘cities’. Fray Marcos found Hawikuh, one of the Zuni villages, in May 1539, and took possession of the province in the name of the King of Spain.2 He reported a large population and vast wealth. As a result, an expedition organized and led by Francisco Coronado to investigate, conquer, and claim the new land arrived at Hawikuh on July 7, 1540. The people of Hawikuh were conquered after some resistance, but the area was found devoid of the anticipated wealth.3 Coronado found Zunis living in six flourishing terraced villages (Spaniards called them ‘Pueblos’) for protection. Sheep, cows, pigs, and horses were introduced by the Spaniards, changing the agrarian economy of the Zuni people. The Zuni also borrowed wheat from the Spanish visitors, the cultivation of which involved hand irrigation in favoured localities.

The Zuni remained under Spanish control until 1821 when Mexico became independent. Mexican rule lasted for twenty-seven years when in 1848, the Zuni region was ceded to the United States. I have described elsewhere the major consequences of Spanish, Mexican, and American domination of Zuni (see Pandey, 1977 and 1983 for details). Here I would like to repeat just two things: (1) The consolidation of the population living in six villages into one village, which the Spanish named Zuni, and (2) the Zunis becoming very secretive about their religious beliefs and practices in order to protect them since religion is constitutive of Zuni society and continues to be the principal marker of their personal and collective identity.

Since Jesse Green, in his recent book Cushing at Zuri (1990), has given an account of the beginning of American anthropology, I need not go into that here. Suffice to state that since that beginning a century ago in Cushing’s impressive studies of Zuni creation myths and folk-tales, about a thousand bibliographic references are available to document various aspects of Zuni culture and history. Since Zuni is one of the best known ‘traditional’ cultures in anthropology, and the organizers of this seminar hope to address "the traditional socio-centric and cosmo-centric vision", let me present my own reading of the Zuni viewpoint and sense of reality.


It has been emphasized by all observers that religion plays a central role in Zuni life. Ruth Benedict, whose Patterns of Culture is largely responsible for making Zuni so famous, says that "The Zuni are a ceremonious people, a people who value sobriety and inoffensiveness above all other virtues. Their interest is centred upon their rich and complex ceremonial life . . . and no field of activity competes with ritual for foremost place in their attention" (1934: 60). Ruth Bunzel, who worked in Zuni with Benedict, adds: "All of Zuni life is oriented about religious observance and ritual has become the formal expression of Zuni civilization" (1932: 509). The foundation of Zuni ceremonialism is the cult of the ancestors (alacinawe). Everybody participates in their worship, and they are involved in almost every ceremony. They guide, protect, and nourish human life. While priests and medicine men pray to special groups of ancestors, the ordinary Zuni prays to ancestors in general. In Zuni belief, ancestors are supposed to serve as mediators between the mortals and the gods. On this foundation a large number of esoteric cults have developed, each devoted to the worship of special supernaturals or groups of supernaturals, and each having a priesthood, a body of secret ritual, permanent possessions of fetishistic power, special places of worship, and a calendric cycle of ceremonies. Bunzel distinguishes six major types of cults: (1) the cult of the sun, (2) the cult of the rain-makers (Uwanami), (3) the cult of the Kachinas, (4) the cult of the priests of the Kachinas, (5) the cult of the War Gods, and (6) the cult of the Beast Gods. The functions, activities, and personnel of these groups overlap and interweave in a bewildering intricacy that baffles analysis (see Pandey, 1977).

I believe that the Zuni rituals and ceremonies are not only an affirmation of their cultural values, but they are also means of shaping the processes of the natural world, particularly those having to do with rain and moisture.4 The Zunis deal directly with the complex of cosmic forces that determines the weather, regulates the health of humans and insures the fertility of the people. The Zuni are interested not so much in the isolated manifestations of natural processes as they are in basic harmony and congruence. By approaching the super-natural, conceived always as a collective, a multiple manifestation of the divine essence, by the collective force of the people in a series of great public and esoteric rituals, the Zuni bend the processes of nature into a shape suitable both to their survival and cosmic well-being. An intensity of thought locked in a rigidity of pattern is, for the Zuni, a major weapon in their struggle for existence in the harsh social and natural environment of the American Southwest.

During the course of my research for the Zuni land claim case, I learned that a Zuni does not see himself set apart from the world so much as he sees himself a part of it: he sees himself not against but in nature (Pandey, 1981). According to Bunzel:

The world, then, is as it is, and man’s place in it is what it is. Day follows night and the cycles of the years complete themselves. In the spring the corn is planted, and if all goes well the young stalks grow to maturity and fulfil themselves. They are cut down to serve man for food, but their seeds remain against another planting. So man, too, has his days and his destined place in life. His road may be long or short, but in time it is fulfilled and he passes on to fill another role in the cosmic scheme. He, too, leaves his seed behind him. Man dies but mankind remains. This is the way of life; the whole literature of prayer shows no questioning of these fundamental premises. This is not resignation, the subordination of desire to a stronger force, but the sense of man’s oneness with the universe. (Bunzel, 1932: 486)

Thus, it seems that the Zuni fuse man and nature into one more or less harmonious medium. It also shows that stability in human life is derived from the continuity of natural rhythms. Rhythm is implicit in nature, made explicit by the regular performance of rituals and the annual production of crops. It is symbolized by the Zuni calendar, determined and maintained by the Sun Priest and his associates, according to which agricultural and ceremonial activities are performed, year after year in unchanging sequence.

The ‘sameness’ of yearly activities contributes to a special sense of time. It is simply duration, continuation of past ways in an uninterrupted repeating cycle. The Zunis believe that everything should be as it was when their ancestors emerged into this world from the underworld, when they were given crops and a way of life, a culture. With faith in his own power, coupled with that of hundreds of others exactly like him, the Zuni dances his ritual dances, he fasts, he retreats, he chants, and through the sheer force of the persistent and unrelenting effort of his group he expects to restore the harmony to the world that makes his life livable.

It was the dominant role of religion in Zuni life that prompted anthropologists and casual visitors alike to cite Zuni as an example of a theocracy ruled by a council of priests. Thus, a German anthropologist, Richard Thurnwald, describes Zuni "as the extreme example of a sacred state, a theocracy ruled by priests who are heads of certain preferred or aristocratic families and who govern through civil authorities appointed by them". (Quoted in Pauker, 1966:196).

There are different types of priests in Zuni society (see Culin, 1907: 304). The Sun Priest, "who holds his power directly from the Sun Father, is the most revered and the most holy man in Zuni" (Bunzel, 1932: 512). Next to him are the priests of the four principal directions (the cardinal points), and they are regarded as his younger brothers and spokesmen. The Sun Priest is held responsible for the welfare of the pueblo, and he along with the other priests, performs proper rituals and ceremonies in order to maintain the socio-religious order. It seems that the priests are a distinct social group, and they function mainly in the area of sacred concerns. They are thought to be too sacred to be concerned with the secular problems of the pueblo. The sacred body appoints a different group of priests — the Bow Priests — who look after the secular problems and execute the decisions of the various priests. The Bow Priests are the earthly representatives of the mythical twin War Gods (the Ahayuta), and this obligates them to protect the pueblo from enemies, external and internal, and supernatural. In the past they led war parties in order to resist external aggression, and the enforcement of internal law and order was also in their hands. Thus, in such matters as settlement of disputes, raids, witchcraft accusations, and at certain ceremonies (communal hunts, scalp dances, etc.) absolute authority was accorded to the Bow Priests; otherwise they acted as an executive arm of the sacred body of priests and carried out their decisions.

On the recommendation of the Bow Priests, intelligent and enterprising members of the society were appointed as governor and other civil officers (see Pandey, in press). The governor is essentially a secular leader, and his primary function is to deal with outsiders as well as to attend to the general needs of his fellow tribesmen. Even in these activities he was assisted by the Bow Priests, and they were regarded as "brothers to one another", as Cushing observed (1882: 188).

While the Sun Priest and the Rain Priests are primarily concerned with securing rain, and the Bow Priests with providing protection, the Kachina Priests bestow fecundity. The Kachina Priests are the priestly hierarchy that rules the mythic Kachina village, Kolhuwala:wa, at the junction of the Little Colorado and Zuni Rivers, which Mrs. Matilda Coxe Stevenson visited and reported on (Stevenson 1904: 21, Ferguson and Hart 1985: 125). They are impersonated by men chosen by the priests, generally in terms of clan and kiva affiliation. They visit Zuni on Shalako, at New Year, and on other special occasions. The masks of the impersonators of the Kachina Priests are tribal property though kept in specific households and handed down from one generation to another. The Koyemshi, or sacred clowns, also belong to this group. According to the origin myth, they are the fruit of an incestuous union between brother and sister, and they are present in all masked dances and play an important part in public rituals, as Levi-Strauss (1963) pointed out in his analysis of Zuni myths and rituals.

Besides the Bow Priesthood mentioned earlier, there are also other religious organizations related to crises of war, sickness, and aggression. There are a dozen such organizations described in the literature on Zuni. There used to be a warrior society, Koshikwe, or Cactus People, which became extinct with the death of its last member in 1966. Its members were highly regarded as healers of wounds, and a man who killed but failed to scalp an enemy was expected to join the Cactus Society. Scalpers joined the Bow Priesthood.

There is a hunters’ society (Saniakyakwe, nicknamed Suskikwe, or Coyote Society) which spiritually fosters the hunting interests of the tribe and supervises the rabbit hunts. This society used to hold four such hunts each summer, and this was a conspicuous feature of the Kachina worship in Zuni. There were ten other medicine societies of which only eight are active today.

All the thirteen societies are organized almost on the same pattern, with membership by initiation, secret meetings, and sacred rites. Only men can join the Bow Priesthood, and Cactus and Hunters’ societies. All the other societies are open to men and women alike. The usual way of joining a society (except those open to men only) is by vow upon being cured of illness, but membership by trespass also takes place. Each society practices general medicine but also specialises in certain diseases or afflictions. While members of the Bow Priesthood worship the War Gods, the cult of the Beast Gods is in the hands of the remaining twelve societies. The most powerful of these gods is Bear (Anshe) who is impersonated in the curing societies. All medical practice, except for midwifery, is in the hands of these societies.

Let me recapitulate the main points I have made about Zuni tradition and values. The fundamental idea underlying Zuni cosmology, their assumptions about the universe, their obligations as Zuni, and what they perceive as threats to their personal and collective lives, is that everything is predestined. What was determined by the twin War Gods in the beginning at the time of emergence from the underworld is still the basis of their social order. In Zuni ritual poetry, in songs, in the worship of the Kachinas, in advice given by ceremonial fathers to their ‘sons’ at initiations, the same images are evoked and the same words and phrases are repeated. Thus, the repetition of endless orderly rituals, multiplied by the concentrated participation of the Zuni people, combines with religious and cosmic penetration to work together to instill harmony, balance, and peace in Zuni life.


So far I have been concerned with presenting a picture of Zuni society and culture derived from survey of anthropological and historical sources as well as from my own fieldwork. In doing that my emphasis has been on what Kroeber (1952) called ‘value culture’, and Dumont (1970) calls ‘thought of order’, or ideology. I would like to give a few more details on the Zuni sense of reality, popularly called ‘world-view’ by anthropologists.

Dennis Tedlock, in his paper, "Zuni Religion and World View", says that:

There are six points of orientation in the Zuni world, each with its own colour and its own hierarchical position: the yellow north, the blue west, the red south, the white east, the multi-coloured zenith, and the black nadir. Toward the nadir are a black mountain and the four underworlds: on the fourth storey down is the Sulphur Room, totally dark, where the ponderosa pine, tree of the north, first grew; on the third is the Soot or Moss Room, with the Douglas fir of the west; on the second is the Gray or Mud Room, with the aspen of the south; and on the storey just beneath our own world is the Wing (sunray) Room, with the cotton wood of the east . . . Toward the zenith, beyond the inverted stone bowl of the sky, are a multi-coloured mountain and the four upper worlds, the first the home of crows, the second of Cooper’s hawks, the third of nighthawks, and the fourth of eagles . . . In all, then, there are nine storeys, with the familiar world in the middle.

Toward the north, west, south and east are the Oceans, which together bound the earth with a circular coastline . . . In the oceans are four mountains, each with the colour of its direction . . . The oceans are connected by underground passages with all the seas, springs, ponds and caves of the earth to form single water system; the Zunis compare this system with the hidden roots and runners that connect willow shoots into a single plant . . . At the water outlets and on mountain-tops are the Lelassina’we ‘sacred old places’, or shrines, of the world. (1979: 499)

In Zuni belief, the people who inhabit the world are of two kinds: ‘raw people’ and ‘cooked people’ or ‘daylight people’. The earth, awitelin citta ‘Earth Mother’ the sun, Yatokka tachu, ‘Sun Father’; his wife, the Moon Mother; and his sister ‘Old Lady Salt’ who lives in a lake to the south of Zuni are among the prominent raw beings. The cooked or daylight people — the humans — depend on cooked food, while the raw people eat food that is either raw or has been sacrificed to them by daylight people (See Bunzel, 1932: 498). Raw people can change their forms; they are ‘people’ in the sense that one of their potential forms is anthropomorphic, and in the sense that they and daylight people — the humans — should behave as kinsmen toward one another.

This view of nature and man’s orientation to it as a kinsman was not only recorded in Zuni myths and folk-tales, but it was expressed by one person after another during my fieldwork at Zuni. The Zuni recognise that there is a symbiotic relationship between man and nature and they believe that in utilizing the natural resources — animals, land, plants and water — to sustain human life, reverence and respect should be expressed for the spiritual powers inherent in them. In their belief, the use of land for subsistence such as hunting, gathering, agriculture, and raising cattle and sheep is directly connected to the Zuni religious system.

During my research for the Zuni land-claim case, I discovered that the Zuni view their land as a ‘church’. One of the Zuni leaders told the historian Richard Hart, "The whole land is our church, and you should visualise it that way. The shrines and religious spots are like altars in your churches. So all of the land is sacred to us."6

This view of land is elegantly presented by a Zuni scholar, who narrated episodes from Zuni history in a recent PBS film, "Surviving Columbus" shown on the television on October 12, 1992, the controversial Columbus quincentenary. Edmund Ladd reports that:

The Zuni view their universe as a single complete whole. All parts are equally important. Metaphorically this include ‘The four oceans, the moss covered mountains, the lakes that surround the land . . .’ the total landscape is their religious universe. To put it another way: ‘The world is their church.’ The entire world is sacred, but certain portions, certain places are especially sacred. This concept and the relationship of the people to their environment permeate the religious life and use of the land. It is important to maintain an equilibrium with nature in all its part. (1980:6)

Thus, a Zuni believe that he exists in a special relationship with the land. He is dependent on it and it is dependent on him.


Clearly, this view of nature and man’s orientation to it as a kinsman is so powerful that it is easy to understand why it would be so appealing to Euro-American ecologists and ‘New Age’ groups. An American ecologist, J. Donald Hughes, asks:

Shall we continue to move toward ever more destructive use of natural resources, thus making necessary a harsh reckoning with nature and unwelcome constraints on our ways of life? Or shall we direct change as much as possible in the direction of harmony between human beings and the natural environment; toward a state in which we can both use and save, in which we will act with forbearance and nature will provide a sustained yield of renewable and recyclable resources? If we choose the second alternative, we can gain much by studying our American Indian heritage and seeking modern applications of the wisdom we find there. (1983: 139)

This wisdom, considered by Durkheim and Mauss, in their book Primitive classification "a first philosophy of nature" (1963: 81), entails an integral view of man, nature, and Universe, governed by Awonawillona, the Zuni keeper of our roads of life. This sense of reality, this vision of life has guided the Zuni people for a very long time, but these days the elders worry that some of their young people are drifting away from this by the glitter of modern consumer culture. Elsewhere I have described some of the social strain and disorder which have afflicted Zuni as a result (see Pandey, 1987). But I believe that as long as the old rituals and ceremonies are held in the kivas and plaza of Zuni, the currents of secularization and modernity will stir only the surface of the Zuni world. No matter how strong, those currents have not touched the depths of the Zuni self, still constructed around ideas of permanence and perpetration. We can learn from this basic sense of reality.

Table : Zuni Correspondence*

Region Clans Colour Regions of Prey animal Seasons Elements

North Crane, or pelican grouse or sagecock yellow wooe, or evergreen oak (clan almost extinct) Yellow force and destruction war mountain lion winter wind, breeze or air
West bear, coyote spring-herb blue  peace ('war cure') bear spring and its damp breezes water
South tobacco, maize badger red heat, agriculture, medicine badger summer fire
East deer, antelope turkey white sun, magic and religion white wolf end of the year earth, seeds frosts which bring the seeds to maturity
Zenith sun (extinct) eagle, sky 'streaked with colour like the play of light among, the clouds diverse combinations of these functions eagle
Nadir frog or toad rattlesnake water black prey mole
Centre macaw, the clan of the perfect centre 'all colours simultaneously'


1. I have benefited in clarifying some of the points made here from consulting Stewart Culin’s unpublished field notes and papers in the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York. A National Endowment for the Humanities travel to collections grant and financial support from the research committee of the Division of Social Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz made this archival research possible. Grateful acknowledgement is made to them for their generous support.

2. See Adolph Bandelier 1892 for details.

3. See George Winship 1896 for details on Coronado’s expedition and its findings.

4. There seems to be a similarity between my view of the role of rituals and ceremonies in Zuni life and what Jeanine Miller (1984) and Raimundo Panikkar (1977) have said about Vedic rta.

5. I believe that is precisely what the Zuni do when they perform their buffalo dance, corn dance, basket dance, butterfly dance or when they go on pilgrimage to various springs, to the Salt Lake, to Kolhuwala: Wa, to mountain peaks and caves in the south-west. Hunting ritual also took them to various places in the south-west.

6. See unpublished letter of E. Richard Hart to Stephen G. Boyden, February 11, 1980. On file in the Zuni Tribal Building, Zuni, New Mexico.


Bandelier, Adolph F., 1892. ‘An Outline of the Documentary History of the Zuni Tribe’, A Journal of American Ethnology and Archaeology, No. 3, pp. 1-115.

Benedict, Ruth, 1934. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Bunzel, Ruth V., 1932. Introduction to Zuni Ceremonialism. Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology, No. 47, Washington D.C., pp. 467-544.

Culin, Stewart, 1907. ‘Zuni Notes’, Vol. 2. The Brooklyn Museum Archives. Unpublished Expedition Report for 1907.

Cushing, Frank Hamilton, 1882. ‘The Zuni Social, Mythic, and Religious Systems’, In Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 21 pp. 186-92.

Dumont, Louis, 1970. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson.

Durkheim, E. and Mauss, M., 1963. Primitive Classification. Translated and Edited by Rodney Needham, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ferguson, T.J. and Hart, E. Richard, 1985. A Zuni Atlas. Norman: University of Oklohoma Press.

Goody, Jack, 1977. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Green Jesse, (Ed.), 1990. Cushing at Zuni: The Correspondence and Journals of F.H. Cushing, 1879-1884, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Hughes, J. Donald, 1983. American Indian Ecology. El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press.

Kroeber, A.L., 1952. The Nature of Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Ladd, Edmund J., 1980. ‘Pueblo Uses of High Altitude Areas: Emphasis on the A. Shiwi-Zuni’. Paper presented at the School of American Research Symposium on High Altitude Archaeology, October.

Levi-Strauss, C., 1963. Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

Miller, Jeanine, 1984. The Vision of Cosmic Order in the Vedas. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Pandey, Triloki Nath, 1977. ‘Some reflections on Zuni Religion’, In The Religious Character of Native American Humanities, ed. by Samgill, Tempe: Avirona State University, pp. 184-207.

———, 1977. ‘Images of Power in a Southwestern Pueblo’. In The Anthropology of Power, ed. by Ramond D. Fogelson and Richard N. Adams. New York: Academic Press, pp. 195-215.

———, 1981. ‘Some reflections on Aboriginal Land Use of the Zuni Indian Tribe’. In U.S. Court of claims proceedings. Zuni Indian Tribe of New Mexico Vs. United States. Docket 161-79 Washington D.C., pp. 1-55.

———, 1983. ‘Zuni Oral Tradition and History’. In Zuni History, Institute of the American Southwest. Sun Valley, pp. 9-11.

———, 1987. ‘The Impact of Literacy on Traditional Cultures’, In Proceedings of the 15th International Symposium on Life Science and Progress of Society, Korean Academy of Sciences, Seoul, Republic of Korea, pp. 1-12.

———, (In press) ‘Patterns of leadership in the Western Pueblo Society’, In Essays in Memory of Fred Eggan, ed. by Raymod DeMallie and Alfonso Ortiz, Norman: University of Oklohoma Press.

Panikar, Raimundo, 1977. The Vedic Experience: Mantramanjari. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pauker, Guy J., 1966. ‘Political Structure’, In People of Rimrock, ed. by Evon Z. Vogt and Ethel M. Albert. Harvard University Press pp. 191-226.

Stevenson, Matilda C., 1904. ‘The Zuni Indians: Their Mythology, Esoteric Fraternities and Ceremonies’. In Twenty-third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1901-1902. Washingon: Government Printing Office.

Tedlock, Dennis, 1979. ‘Zuni religion and world view’, In Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 9, The Southwest, ed. by Alfonso Ortiz. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Winship, George P., 1896. ‘The Coronado Expedition, 1540-1542’, In Bureau of American Ethnology, 14th Report, 1892-1893, 1:329-613. Washington: Government Printing Office.


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