The Zuni Pueblo has garnered a special place in American Indian history, in part because European explorers first encountered the Native Americans of the Southwest there. The original pueblo residents were prehistoric people that hunted big game, cultivated crops and made pottery on tribal land in the northwest corner of New Mexico.
Zuni Pueblo history began with small groups of hunter-gatherers living in individual quarters. As the settlement grew, the Zunis developed a more advanced method of constructing multi-story houses that could support large extended families and communities. Buildings constructed in the 12th to 14th centuries boasted up to 1,400 rooms; most were later abandoned in favor of smaller structures.
Friar Marcos de Niza was the first European to encounter the Zuni, nearly a century before the famous Plymouth Rock landing occurred. After his traveling companion – an outspoken and demanding Moor named Esteban – was killed by the Zuni, de Niza fled home with tales of the Seven Cities of Cibola. Francisco Vasquez Coronado then led a military expedition to find treasure rumored to be housed in a Zuni settlement. A volatile period in American Indian history followed, with the Zuni alternately battling and making peace with Spanish conquistadors.
Pottery, lapidary work and other native crafts were an integral aspect of Zuni Pueblo history. Constructed using a coil technique and covered with colored slip designs, pots once used as food and storage containers have evolved into collectible artwork. Institutions such as Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Northern Arizona house early Zuni vessels. According to the official website of the Zuni tribe, 65% of the tribe’s earnings in the 1940s came from the sale of jewelry and other handicrafts.
The Zuni people’s talent at jewelry making has been well-documented, beginning with ancient fetishes and beads carved from native stone, bone or shells. They later utilized tin and copper to surround precious stones. Scholars of American Indian history note that the evolution of modern Zuni jewelry began when a traveling Navajo silversmith taught the Zuni craftsman Lanyade his trade in the 1870s. Tribal craftsmen soon began producing elegant silver jewelry set with turquoise, described in Native American legend as the “sky stone.” Modern Zuni jewelry showcases a mastery of inlay techniques in which colorful stones are cut, polished, and pieced together to form shapes such as animal fetishes or kachinas (spirit beings).
Throughout Native American Indian history, the Zuni Pueblo has been home to some of the most resourceful and artistically advanced populations in the Southwest. Today, there are approximately 10,000-12,000 Zuni living on the 418,000+ acre New Mexico reservation and alternate tribal lands in Catron County and Arizona.