Zuni and the American Imagination
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.