“With the ways of the white man entering in to our lives, perhaps it will not be long before our people become a wandering tribe, aimlessly wandering the path of self-deterioration and destruction.”
Anyone who has ever visited the southwestern enclaves of the Zuni and related tribal peoples knows that life for those groups from earliest times would have been a constant struggle for survival, with rain scarce, crops sparse, and the movement of game animals unpredictable. Added to that, as is made abundantly clear in this remarkable collection of vignettes and fables told by Zuni storytellers, was the daily threat of warfare, reprisals, raids, and theft by neighboring tribes--and the trickery and hostility of white invaders. The comment quoted above highlights the fact that, in modern times, native peoples have become increasingly dependent on the largesse of “the white man” that has brought, some would say, blessings of food sufficiency, housing, and employment, while others decry the loss of age-old legends and lifestyles.
Back in print after 30+ years thanks to the University of New Mexico Press, The Zunis: Self-Portrayals originally sprang from the efforts of a research team backed by the Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Program, seeking to collect and sustain Native American oral history before it died out, as seemed likely at that time. The project team made recordings of Zuni elders recounting legends, tales, religious parables, and historical events, which were translated by Zuni artist Alvina Quam.
Like many folk tales, the stories here often appear to an outsider to have double or triple meanings or interpretations, whose significance is linked to imponderable cultural modalities and archetypes. One example is “Two Girls and a Dancer.” In it, two girls observe the Kachina spirits dancing and want to stay with their people because they are attracted to two of the dancers, but they are ordered to go back home because they have a long time to live and are obliged now to tell their people of the ancient power of the Kachinas. “So it was at that time the Kachinas of today were created from the detailed descriptions of the two girls.” From this followed the rituals that made the Kachinas powerful: “The spirits come out against our enemies…and prepare us with…strength and tolerance.” So that which may seem today, on a superficial level, like a primitive art form (Kachina masks and dolls) or a demonstration (dancing) produced only for visitors, is actually deeply immersed in tribal spiritual history.
Some offerings are short and expository, such as the story of “The Woodcutter” who went alone into the snow to cut and bring home wood: “This was one of the ways the people made their living, and the way they kept their fires going.”
Combining traditional tales of warfare, hunting, dancing, and simple crafts like shoemaking with animal characters and shape changers, and snippets of relatively modern history, and including vintage photos of some of the storytellers in traditional garb, The Zunis: Self-Portrayals is a precious archive. Bringing it forward to a new generation is a gift, not only for the Zunis themselves but for those outside the tribe who seek to understand and celebrate America’s indigenous heritage.