How could any anthropologist with an iota of ambition possibly resist Zuni, an ancient, remote, impacted society, for centuries agrarian, with—I hope I get these numbers right—twelve matrilineal clans; thirteen medicine societies (sometimes called fraternities); the Koyemshi, or Mudheads (clown-priests); a society or group of highly trained masked dancers (male); a priesthood or theocracy of rain-bringers (hereditary); and a much put-upon secular governor (elected) who has the thankless task of dealing with whatever non-Zunis might appear: soldiers from the nearby army base (Fort Wingate), missionaries of various faiths, tourists (usually lost), traders, speculators, looters, journalists, and, of course, those bloodsucking leeches the anthropologists themselves, one or more of whom have maintained a presence in or near Zuni almost continuously for one hundred and twenty years?

Add to this brutally oversimplified description a few witches, the occasional scatological rite, and a language that seems to bear no close relation to any other American Indian language, not even those of the twenty or so Pueblo societies that are comparatively nearby, and you have a siren song that has called many and called them far.

In the early 1970s it even called me, mainly because I read Finding the Center, Dennis Tedlock’s fine translations of Zuni narrative poetry1—still the book that, in my opinion, takes one farther into the Zuni world than any other. Though I found Zuni easily enough, I could not figure out how to arrive there, in any way that seemed convincing, a feeling Eliza McFeely might sympathize with, since on the last page of her acute and engaging book she describes how she once drove right through Zuni, without actually realizing that she was there:

You pass clusters of undistinguished buildings, and then, suddenly, right along the highway, which is a narrow two-lane road, there is a collection of tourist shops advertising Native American crafts, a gas station or two, a convenience store. Then, as suddenly, you are in open desert again, with scattered dwellings, a view of the distant mountains, and ahead of you is Arizona.

Only when you retrace your steps, turning into the congested, narrow lanes to the south of the highway, do you discover the pueblo of your imagination. It is like an archaeological treasure buried beneath new buildings, hidden around corners of treacherously winding roads, quietly playing second fiddle to the beckoning marquee of the video store. Like their ancestors, who built that older town on the site of a still older one,…the Zunis have layered new forms onto old foundations, built the present upon the past.

This description of Zuni, which doesn’t differ in many particulars from the one Edmund Wilson wrote when he went there in 1947,2 puts a hopeful shine on a place that, to one less engrossed in the Zuni cosmos, might seem mainly bleak. I’m not sure that the great kachinas, who are supposed to order and balance the world, are happy to have the kivas of Zuni playing second fiddle to a video store.

Despite my admiration for Finding the Center, my problem may have been that I went to Zuni without having a pueblo in my imagination. I wasn’t fishing for secrets, either; I even thought of carrying a sign saying “I Am Not An Anthropologist!” to diffuse suspicion. So closemouthed are the Zuni that just persuading someone to let me put gas in my car seemed like a major communications breakthrough; and yet, somehow, anthropologists have crowbarred their way into this deeply reserved society, one whose people are trained from birth not to reveal the sacred secrets, and made it yield a vast bibliography, hundreds of books and articles, ranging from the lightest tourist froth to the most dauntingly technical ethnology. If I had to characterize the Zuni or their Pueblo neighbors in one word the word would be “silent,” and yet this silence has provoked a century-long chorus of anthropological voices: that’s the paradox that forms the background for Eliza McFeely’s short, smart book.

With fine insight and very welcome tact she describes how anthropology came to Zuni, her tact being the more welcome because it contrasts so sharply with the blazing rudeness of the first anthropologists to get there: Frank Cushing and Matilda Stevenson, two of the toughest customers ever to straddle a mule (though I suppose Mrs. Stevenson, a proper if by no means ordinary mid-Victorian, may have availed herself of a sidesaddle). They arrived in 1879. Zuni, to its frequent dismay, then became intellectual property which Frank and Matilda, who had come separately with her husband, fought over for twenty years. It may be that the only reason they got in at all was because the Zuni, for a few fatal seconds, couldn’t believe that any two people could be so rude; in the pause Frank and Matilda kicked in the door, something they were not loathe to do literally if they thought there was something inside that the young science of anthropology needed to know about.



The youth of this new “science” should be stressed, not that it excuses the frequently patronizing behavior of the first scientists to attempt it. In 1877 Lewis Henry Morgan, long a student of the Iroquois and of Native American kinship systems, published Ancient Society; or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, a book that excited Marx, Engels, and a number of other heavy thinkers. Morgan’s evolutionary premise for social development is right there in the title; it was merely necessary for anthropologists to get out into the field and sketch in lines of progress as native societies everywhere rose inexorably toward the fully civilized condition.

In 1879, scarcely two years after Morgan’s important book was published, John Wesley Powell—explorer, geologist, ethnologist, and bureaucrat—established the Bureau of American Ethnology. In the same year, aware that there was need for haste if valuable native vocabularies were to be saved, Powell dispatched his geologist colleague Colonel James Stevenson, Stevenson’s anthropologist wife, Matilda, and a twenty-two-year-old clerk hastily borrowed from Spencer Baird’s Smithsonian westward to the pueblos, whose mysterious antiquity he had noticed on his famous trips to the Grand Canyon. The borrowed clerk was Frank Hamilton Cushing, who in turn borrowed John Wesley Powell’s copy of Morgan’s Ancient Society. The gifted photographer John Hillers completed the company—it is thanks to Hillers’s camera that we can now have a visual sense of Zuni as it then was.

The Zunis, as I have said, had a secular governor, whose job it was to deal with outsiders. At the time of this little party’s arrival at Zuni the governor was a man named Palowahtiwa, also called Patricio Pino in some texts. When Colonel Stevenson negotiated lodgings with Palowahtiwa for a brief stay, neither man supposed that a four-and-a-half-year occupation was about to begin. Frank Cushing was then living in a tent outside the village, with John Hillers. Dissatisfied, fearing, perhaps, that Matilda Stevenson might scoop him, or, at the very least, loot before he could loot—the Stevensons, over their years of travel in the West, were said to have sent back as many as 33,000 artifacts—Cushing, one day, simply took his hammock and hung it in Palowahtiwa’s house. All concerned—Palowahtiwa, his grandmother, numerous Zunis, the Stevensons, etc.—were horrified, but Frank Cushing defied them all. He simply wouldn’t leave. The Stevensons couldn’t compel him and the Zunis couldn’t dislodge him. Though Cushing made trips here and there, usually to seek out sacred caves or other sites the Zunis particularly didn’t want him to see, his hammock stayed more or less put for four and a half years. He had left a fiancé in the East; in time he married her and brought her to Zuni, along with her sister. His wife, Emily Cushing, a forceful young woman, soon introduced to Zuni the quaint custom of knocking before entering, a formality the Zuni had previously seen no great need for.

From Frank Cushing’s chutzpah an anthropological method was born: many hundreds of field workers have since hung their hammocks in places where they were not wanted; but for Cushing the hammock was only the beginning. As soon as he gained a little foothold in the language he began to butt in constantly, plopping himself down at religious councils in the kivas and elsewhere. Again, the Zunis failed to dislodge him. Many would no doubt have preferred merely to knock him in the head, but Zuni experience of white power had been long and unpleasant—Coronado had trampled through Zuni in 1540, and there had been pe-riods of sharp conflict since. Fort Wingate was not far away—putting up with the young upstart was better than risking trouble with the soldiers, though the soldiers soon had their own problems with Cushing, particularly after the Zunis made him a member of the prestigious Priesthood of the Bow. He then began to style himself First Warchief of Zuni and was soon taking potshots at Navaho horses if he saw them grazing on Zuni land. One mule, borrowed, returned, not returned, lost, not lost, troubled relations with the military for a considerable time.

Cushing, once settled in Palowahtiwa’s house, soon adopted a faux Zuni costume. The admiring and aspiring young Dutch anthropologist Herman Ten Kate, meeting Cushing at Zuni after the latter had been there some years, described Cushing’s outfit as “half Indian, half fantasy”; there are those who would argue that “half Indian, half fantasy” might do as a description of Cushing’s anthropology as well. Eliza McFeely notes that Cushing had absolute confidence in his ethnological intuition where Zuni history, prehistory, and ceremonial were concerned. If he couldn’t establish something archaeologically, or by recourse to informants, he was not loathe to allow his own imagination to plaster in the gaps; after all, who except Matilda Stevenson would be likely to dispute him? That lady had scribbled her opinion of him on the back of a picture of Cushing in native garb:


Frank Hamilton Cushing in his fantastic dress worn while among the Zuni Indians. The man was the biggest fool and charlatan I ever knew. He even put his hair up in curl papers every night. How could a man walk weighted down with such toggery?

What Cushing was doing in donning such toggery was the same thing that his near contemporaries Buffalo Bill and Theodore Roosevelt were doing at almost the same time: using costume, showmanship, and the popular press to enhance their professional activities. “My Adventures in Zuni,” Cushing’s series of popular articles, appeared in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine in 1882 and 1883; his more technical anthropology dribbled out at a slow trickle, and his summa, Zuni Breadstuff, did not appear in book form until twenty years after his death.

Without Frank Cushing’s showmanship and flair for publicity—which should not obscure the fact that life at Zuni in the 1880s involved some real hardship—it is doubtful that Zuni could ever have been squeezed into the already overstuffed shopping bag of the American imagination; and, even so, as Eliza McFeely acknowledges, it’s been an in-and-out sort of thing, the Zuni of today being less famous than the Zuni of one hundred years ago. But there has been a parade of sorts: the anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons (usually newsworthy because of her money and her feminism) went there, Ruth Benedict went there (at the same time as the less heralded Ruth Bunzel), Edmund Wilson went there, Aldous Huxley had a Zuni-like place in Brave New World, ditto Robert Heinlein in Stranger In A Strange Land, and America, like a sleepy dog, opens one eye and tries to focus on Zuni for a few minutes before resuming its slumbers. Frank Cushing in his fantasy outfit, trumpeting to the world that he was First Warchief of Zuni, at least got some attention, both for Zuni and for anthropology itself.

How Cushing came to be made a Bow Priest is a story with a few odd twists. In the early 1970s the anthropologist Triloki Nath Pandey, of St. John’s College, Cambridge, produced a fascinating article on Zuni responses to the various anthropologists who had trooped through. In the article Pandey reveals that Cushing was not the first white man to be offered membership in this priesthood: the first was a prominent southwesterner named Albert Banta, who declined the honor. What that suggests is that the Zuni were really looking for a lobbyist, and they got an exceptionally good one in Frank Cushing. Probably one of the reasons he was recalled to Washing-ton was that he successfully defended the Zunis’ right to a particular spring against the efforts of a powerful senator, whose son wanted to start a ranch where the spring was.

Awkwardly for Frank Cushing, candidates for the Bow Priesthood were required to present a scalp, presumably one taken in a warrior-like engagement. Cushing secured two scalps from collections in the East but was bluntly told that that wouldn’t cut it. Then some Apaches pulled off a raid, after which Cushing showed up with a somewhat fresher hank of hair. It’s hard to imagine an Apache dimwitted enough to let Frank Cushing kill him, even if Cushing would have gone that far, which I don’t believe. His letters and field reports, well edited by Jesse Green as Cushing at Zuni,3 reveal him to be a boastful, cunning superior in a Curzon-like way, and highly political, but they hardly suggest a killer of men. Possibly he dug up a Navaho and took his scalp.

Cushing has sometimes been criticized for having guessed too much, and for playing fast and loose with artifacts; the notion that tribal objects should be studied in their social context was still far in the future. On the other hand he has respectable advocates, Edmund Wilson for one. Wilson thought Cushing’s collection of Zuni folk tales able to stand comparison with Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories. More of a puzzler, to me at least, is Wilson’s contention that Cushing’s writing rather resembles that of C.M. Doughty, of Arabia Deserta fame. Maybe Wilson was thinking of the quasi-biblical dialogue both men were prone to. Here’s Cushing, from the Zuni Folk Tales:

But the old Deer-mother said to him: “Hush, my child! Thou art but a mortal, and though thou might’st live on the roots of the trees and the bushes and plants that mature in autumn, yet surely in the winter time thou could’st not live, for my supply of milk will be withholden, and the fruits and the nuts will all be gone….”

And Doughty, from somewhere near the House of Fools:

“Out!” cried the savage wretch, in that leaping up and laying hold upon my mantle…. “Dost thou not know me yet?…Ya rubbâ, O fellowship, ye are witnesses of this man’s misdoing….”

Claude Lévi-Strauss said Cushing deserved to sit at the right hand of Lewis Henry Morgan, another puzzler. Could Lévi-Strauss have seen in some of Cushing’s reports the beginnings of a structural approach to social classification? Or did the man who wrote, in the first paragraph of his most popular book, Tristes Tropiques, “Anthropology is a profession in which adventure plays no part,…” actually admire Cushing for having hung that hammock? After all, the French master hung quite a few himself, before scraping off what he calls the “fungus” of adventure.

It is worth repeating that Frank Cushing didn’t hang his hammock in just any old house. He hung it in the house of the governor. Practically everything Cushing did irritated Matilda Stevenson, but this move must have particularly infuriated her, since it preempted her own access to the powerful Pino family.

When Cushing finally left Zuni, Matilda Stevenson came back and secured an important informant of her own, We’wha, the tallest person in Zuni. We’wha accompanied the Stevensons to Washington, where, as the “Zuni Princess,” she met President Cleveland, gave weaving demonstrations, and was the hit of the social season in 1885. We’wha was in fact a male transvestite, a berdache, having chosen at puberty to wear women’s clothes and do women’s work, a quite acceptable choice in Zuni society. We’wha paid close attention to the ways of the capital and was able to report when he got home that most of the white women were frauds: he had been in the ladies’ rooms with them and seen them remove their false teeth and take “rats” out of their hair.

But the friendship with Matilda Stevenson seems to have been genuine. When Mrs. Stevenson was at last confronted with the fact that her old friend was, biologically at least, a male, she responded touchingly:

As the writer could never think of her faithful and devoted friend in any other light, she will continue to use the feminine gender when referring to We’wha….

Eliza McFeely follows Mrs. Stevenson’s practice in regard to gender; Will Roscoe, whose excellent biography of We’wha, The Zuni Man-Woman, appeared in 1991, uses “he.”

In 1904 Matilda Stevenson published her long report, The Zuni Indians: Their Mythology, Esoteric Fraternities and Ceremonies. As Eliza McFeely notes, it was a kind of encyclopedia of all things Zuni; her rival Frank Cushing never saw it. Four years earlier he had choked on a bone and was dead at the dinner table, aged forty-three. Mrs. Stevenson would have been delighted—could she have known about an incident reported by Triloki Nath Pandey:

You see, the Zuni are a funny people. They always complain that whatever anthropologists have written about them is a pack of lies. But I can tell you that many times old Zuni priests have come to this place [the trading store] and have waited for hours before everyone had left. Then, they would come to me and say, “Can I see Stevenson’s book? We want to have a dance and I want to see how the dancers look in her pictures.”4


The third person mentioned by Eliza McFeely as having helped to establish Zuni in the American imagination is the curator Stewart Culin, of what is now the Brooklyn Museum. Culin had a genius for mounting exhibitions, Indian exhibitions particularly; one reason he is in this book is that Eliza McFeely, as she freely admits, can’t resist Indian exhibits. Culin bought aggressively at a time when there was plenty to choose from. He went into the field occasionally but preferred to buy from traders—between Culin, Cushing, and the Stevensons it’s a wonder there’s a pot left west of the Rio Grande. Culin’s exhibitions to an extent memorialized Frank Cushing’s career. He even wore Cushing’s faux Zuni outfit to a dinner in his honor at the Salmagundi Club.

Frank Cushing died, Matilda Stevenson published her big book, Stewart Culin mounted his striking exhibitions; and, soon enough, before the twentieth century was even a decade old, a new generation of anthropologists was underfoot at Zuni. If one allows for a bit of elasticity in the definition of a generation these would include Franz Boas (there for a few days), A.L. Kroeber, Leslie Spier, Elsie Clews Parsons, Ruth Bunzel, Ruth Benedict, and a host of others. Anthropological emphasis had shifted decisively away from Morgan, and his conviction of progress, toward a cultural relativism that saw native cultures as individual, discrete, many-patterned; and anthropology, whether discipline, profession, or science, now firmly separated itself from belles-lettres. The number of books that could be read for pleasure by nonspecialists were few, and these few, such as Margaret Mead’s famous Coming of Age in Samoa, were usually attacked as bad anthropology.

Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture,

a relativist treatment of three cultures, attracted considerable attention when it appeared in 1934. Zuni was one of the cultures; Benedict had been there a decade earlier, for a time sharing a room with Ruth Bunzel, who worked out a Zuni grammar and also classified the kachinas. Benedict took an old Nietzschean label—Apollonian—and slapped it on Zuni; it suggests that Zuni society is moderate, cautious, consensus-seeking, structured so as to discourage any Dionysian impulse toward excessive individualism: more or less the qualities one might expect a none too populous people, living in an arid place, with little arable land and less water, to encourage. It is also congruent with the Zuni’s belief that they live in the Middle Place, a place they have ascended to from depth and darkness, guided by the twins, the Ahayuuta, brothers formed of foam and by the sun.

Still, it’s possible to suspect that these Apollonian characteristics provide less than a full picture of Zuni. Apollonianism doesn’t save the occasional witch or sorcerer, or prevent century-long feuds. Try to explain to their neighbors the Navaho that the Zuni are moderates and you’ll probably get a big laugh. The characterization may reflect a time when the Zunis were more cohesive than any people can be once the video store sets up next door to the church.

The more famous an anthropologist becomes, the greater the likelihood that he or she will be accused of completely mischaracterizing the people they became famous for characterizing in the first place. This has just happened to Napoleon Chagnon, who, Patrick Tierney tells us in Darkness in Eldorado, first called the Yanomamo “the fierce people.” Eliza McFeely suggests that anthropology has the capacity to work like a mirror, “…reflecting back the cultural certainties and uncertainties of the anthropologists themselves.” So must we now consider the Yanomamo gentle and Napoleon Chagnon fierce? And what aspect of ourselves do we see when we consider, as she has, our century-long stare at Zuni? American relentlessness grinding through Zuni resistance?

Edmund Wilson, at Zuni in 1947, was so impressed by the great Sha’lako dancers, with their ten-foot-high masks and their extraordinary abilities as dancers, that he compared them to the Ballets Russes. Though Wilson behaved pretty well while at Zuni, leaving places when he was told to leave—something neither Frank Cushing nor Matilda Stevenson could be bothered to do with any frequency—he still had some trouble as he made his way back to his lodgings, after the dance. Zuni had no streetlights or, in the strict sense, even any streets. While floundering around in the darkness Wilson fell into a pit and, later, was bitten by “hyena-like” dogs. Probably a witch put that pit in Edmund Wilson’s way, to remind him that he wasn’t necessarily welcome in the Middle Place.

The dogs, I imagine, were acting on their own.

This Issue

August 9, 2001