Artifacts documenting Zuni Indian art dates back to about 700 A.D. The Zuni, once they adapted a settled, less nomadic existence, fabricated weaved baskets and pottery. They also made fetishes carvings and necklaces for rituals and trade. In addition, its peoples constructed edifications in villages, including city centers with plazas. These structures, in the Zuni River Valley, became common during the “Pueblo period.” The Zuni, as skilled crafts people, developed their jewelling and pottery skills, and eventually traded with the Spaniards and other new inhabitants of the region.
Today the Zuni deal in jewelry, pottery, baskets, and carvings, as tourists visit the Zuni, their ancient villages, and wares. Sales of pottery and traditional arts provide a major source of income for many Zuni people today.
Frank Hamilton Cushing wrote an entire book entitled, Zuni Fetishes. These idyllic figures appeared around 650 A.D., and they consider some of the older pieces to be the most sacred, powerful, and valuable of all. Many tribes carved them, but those of the Zuni were especially valued and traded to other tribes at a relatively high cost.
The A:shiwi view the animals as mediators between the higher powers and themselves, and they consider them important connections to these spirits. Each animal, to the Zuni, represents distinct characteristics. For example, the beaver, a progressive builder, promotes the unity of the family. Other Zuni fetish pieces include the coyote, the buffalo, the owl, the raven, the turtle, the mountain lion, and the snake.N28
Traditionally, the Zuni women who made pottery would give thanks to Awidelin Tsitda, the Earth Mother. They made the pottery for food and water storage and decorated it with symbols from their clans. They used coiled rolls of clay to make their pottery and, later, smoothed the finish with clay slip, a fine, watery clay mix. They dyed them with natural dyes painted on with yucca brushes and fired it in kilns, using animal dung as fuel. Ruth Bunzel, in The Pueblo Potter, commented that the Zuni fired their pottery in silence or using only low voices to communicate to maintain the voice of the clay’s being and, hence, the purpose of its end product.N29
Zuni baskets, like those of other tribes of the region, may include geometric features and bright colors. In addition, animal spirits, so important to the Zuni, also adorn their baskets.
Zuni art has a special importance. Experts know little about the Zuni origins, and the linguistic difference between this tribe and others of the regions has been one of many factors that make them unique among the Native Americans. We are fortunate that their artisans today share the ancient Zuni knowledge with us.N30
Carving and Silversmithing
The Zuni silversmith, Lanyade, learned the trade from the Navajo smith, Atsidi Chon, and the rest of the Zuni smiths learned from him. Since the 1870s they have crafted fine jewelry, and only a decade later they began setting turquoise in silver. Today it remains an important livelihood for the tribe, and many jewelers now incorporate stone inlay into their artwork. Needle point and petit point techniques set oval-shaped stones with pointed ends into the silver, giving Zuni pieces a distinct look from those of many other tribes. Stones of turquoise, onyx, and coral are common themes, and they produce rings, earrings, cuffs, bracelets, and necklaces from silver.N31
Contributing Author – Jeffery Bacon