At the beginning of May, the Zuni Pueblo welcomes everyone to the Zuni MainStreet Festival. This was the fifth year of the Zuni MainStreet Festival, but the first in which Michael and I were able to organize our calendars to attend. The theme for this year’s festival was “Revitalize Zuni Pueblo’s Future” and spoke volumes about the efforts these wonderful people are doing to provide a safe, vibrant community for both artists and other residents.
The Zuni people (A:shiwi) have lived in this pueblo continuously for over a thousand years, making it a rival with the Taos Pueblo for the longest continuously occupied dwellings in North America. Originally several separated pueblos, the Zuni peoples concentrated their dwellings in Zuni following the invasion of Spanish conquistadores in the 1500’s. The Zuni people today are very traditional, preserving and living the cultural heritage of their ancestors. Unlike the other Puebloan peoples in New Mexico, and the tribes in surrounding States, the Zuni derive their language from a unique source, often thought to resemble some of the earlier Aztec languages. Michael and I have tried to pick up a few words of Zuni (Shiwi’ma) language here and there, particularly my favorite word Elah’kwa (thank you).
When you make the trek to Zuni (about 140 miles west of Albuquerque, and due south of Gallup), you will discover a different world. Along State Highway 53, there are many typical retail stores for Zuni merchandise, some convenience stores, the Zuni Visitor Center, and the Zuni Governmental offices. We had been to Zuni several times in the past, so we were familiar with the highway layout. The Visitor Center has a nice display of Zuni art, as well as a free map of the Pueblo and arranged tours of the Pueblo. As with ALL pueblos, these are residential neighborhoods and sometimes sacred religious areas, so guided tours are essential. DO NOT start driving through the pueblo without an arranged guide.
Being from Texas, we are used to warm, friendly neighbors. The Zuni peoples take this warmth to a new level, however, and we always remark to each other about how kind, gentle, and truly enjoyable it is to get to know people from Zuni. They tend to be patient with us “outsiders” and explain their culture as best they can without violating any religious boundaries.
We left the DFW Metroplex on Thursday, eagerly anticipating our first MainStreet Festival. The Zuni festival organizers had asked me to be a judge in their art competition in prior years, and I was so excited to accept that honor this year. Little did I know how that simple acceptance would boost my already-high love of Zuni art to a whole new level. We arrived in Zuni at midday Friday, and were immediately warmly greeted and taken to the Village Bistro for a luncheon with the other judges. They included Roger Thomas, owner of the outstanding Inn at Halona in Zuni, Carlton Jamon, a renowned and retired Zuni artist, and Harry Theobald, gallery owner extraordinaire. After lunch, we met at the Zuni Governmental offices to judge our first contest, a recycled art project.
The Zuni peoples, as do most Native American peoples, place a lot of emphasis on co-existence with Mother Earth and preserving the beauty of nature. So this contest was organized for artists to go to the Zuni recycling center, extract at least five pieces of random recycling, and create art using those components. The creativity and artistic flair was very evident, and make judging difficult.
Next, we headed over to the Zuni Visitor Center, where artists had been submitting their works for several days. The categories were pottery, stone carvings, jewelry, paintings, wood sculpture, and weavings. Each judge looked at all the pieces, and selected a choice for first and second place among each category. We then met as a group and discussed each category, arriving at consensus as to the winners. Following that, we selected a “Best of Show” effort from among all the entries. Winners were notified and ribbons (and cash prizes) awarded by the art competition supervisor, our friend Jeff Shetima. The MainStreet Festival treated us to dinner at Chu Chu’s, a nice pizzeria with live music from time to time.
On Saturday morning, we headed to the MainStreet Festival, located directly across the highway from the Zuni Visitor Center. We were greeted by a warm, sunny morning, with a lovely breeze cooling everyone. Artists had set up their displays under tents, and the large central tent had ample room for performances. When we arrived, they were doing a Zumba dance, and people were smiling and moving to the music and energy. This was followed by ceremonial, traditional dances, which I always love to watch. These dances are open to all, and we noticed quite a number of visitors to the Zuni Pueblo interspersed with the Zuni residents. The artists, of course, were happy to display and sell their art, and food and drink vendors made it easy to spend many hours visiting and admiring (and, of course, buying). We saw one of our favorite carvers, Todd Westika, and were able to re-stock on some buffalo carvings, which seem to fly out of our gallery. The hardest part was staying within budget, as my natural preference would be to buy it all.
The Zuni Governor, Val Panteah, and his Tribal Council were on hand to open the festivities, and we had a chance later to chat with Val’s lovely wife. Everyone was greeted with a warm Keshi (welcome). We also had a chance to chat with one of our favorite people, Keshi – The Zuni Collection owner, Bronwyn Fox. Elah-kwa to Bronwyn for the beautiful Zuni Knifewing pins – the knifewing is the symbol of the protectors of Zuni, and that has a special meaning in our hearts.
The Keshi Foundation, started by Bronwyn and her mother, Robin Dunlap, is working hard to support Zuni artists, and they are organizing the Second Zuni Show which will take place in Santa Fe at the Scottish Rite Temple on August 19-20, the same weekend as Indian Market. Last year, over 100 Zuni artists gathered for the inaugural event, a smashing success by any measure. Plan ahead – if you are going to Indian Market, stop by the Scottish Rite Temple just north of the Plaza and immerse yourself in Zuni artistry.
After a while, we went back over to the Zuni Visitor Center, where I was able to purchase the Best of Show art, a lovely painting by Narren Bowannie. It came with both Best of Show and First Place ribbons, and we were very excited to get this painting framed and prominently displayed in our Gallery.
After a hearty lunch at the Village Bistro – just had to go back, both for the great food and the sparkling hospitality. Later that afternoon, tiring of our long weekend journey, we headed for a quiet hotel room and soft bed, before making our way back to Texas. We are already planning on returning next year.
Should you be reasonably close (within a few thousand miles or so), we highly recommend stopping in May at the Zuni MainStreet Festival. Family friendly, rides for the kids, dance performances, and a Pueblo Pow-Wow in the afternoon are just some of the familiar and even unfamiliar experiences you will have. If you want a room at the historic Inn at Halona (they only have eight very nicely decorated and unique rooms), either book early or plan on staying in Gallup (45 minutes) or Albuquerque (2 hours) or at a casino hotel on I-40. You will fall in love with the people of Zuni, and (fair warning) will likely want to learn more about these warm and hospitable people, their proud traditions, and their diversity of incredible art.