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Zuni murals connect two cultures

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Zuni, N.M.

On the Zuni reservation in western New Mexico, one ancient religion has provided a medium to preserve the fast-fading traditions of another. Zuni tribal paintings that once graced the walls of an old Catholic mission have been painstakingly repainted over the past 30 years.

But the project is now threatened by a lack of funding.

Our Lady of Guadalupe was built in 1629 in the center of Zuni by Spanish missionaries who wanted the Indians to set aside their native religions and convert to Catholicism.

Today, the church’s interior walls bear traditional paintings of kachinas -- sacred figures central to Zuni cultural and spiritual life. Hovering above the pews and stations of the cross are elaborate murals of colorful, masked, costumed figures representing tasks such as hunting and harvesting and taboos against sins such as incest and laziness.

Some of the paintings represent works that once existed on the walls and some are paintings of figures now in danger of being lost to the tribe because of the deaths of elders.

The Seowtewa family, who are Zunis and practicing Catholics, are responsible for linking the two cultures in an edifice that once represented to Native Americans the threat of foreign people and ways.

The church “has been there for many hundreds of years -- it’s been a part of the historical, cultural landscape,” said Tom R. Kennedy, executive director of Zuni’s A:Shiwi A:Wan Museum and Heritage Center. “People would say, ‘It’s here. It’s part of our heritage now,’ much like the Spanish surnames, the English language, the Western clothes.”

Zuni holy man Alex Seowtewa has been working on the murals since 1970 and has since been joined by sons Ken and Edwin. There’s an urgency to their 29-year project. Key elements of Zuni tradition are vanishing, taken to the grave by elders who do not pass on the knowledge. The Seowtewas want to preserve the most important kachinas by painting them in detail, down to the last feather.

“It’s a phenomenal project,” Kennedy said. “It’s sort of taken on a life of its own.”

However, the artists may have to postpone their work, and some paintings may even be destroyed if funds don’t come through. The museum maintains a small amount of money for painting supplies and heating the church, but the artists are no longer getting paid since grant funding for their work came to an end last year, Kennedy said.

“We do not have any fundings to continue this work of Eucharist, but we are still working on it,” Ken Seowtewa said.

“They are continuing because it’s a personal dedication to the project,” Kennedy said.

Plaster and adobe

Also, plaster on the church’s interior walls is separating from the adobe walls. If it slides to the ground, it will take with it paintings of events like the winter solstice festival of Sha’La/Ko,’ the most important holiday of the year.

Conservators from the Getty Institute recently surveyed the church and concluded it would cost about $60,000 to immediately stabilize plaster on two walls and another $50,000 to stabilize the building, according to Kennedy. Kennedy and the Seowtewas distributed letters in January seeking benefactors for the work.

“The Getty plan would include training the sons to become conservators,” Kennedy said. “Getty is committed to giving local people skills to care for their own artwork.”

Community support is also critical for the project. While some Zunis see the murals as a form of cultural preservation, others are uncomfortable with such a public display of their icons and say a Catholic church is an inappropriate place for kachina paintings.

“I take a look at that work and I admire the artwork, but my personal feeling is I really have a problem with it,” said Arlen Quetawki, a Sha’La/Ko’ holy man.

Quetawki, a former Zuni councilman, is especially worried about the fact that the paintings have made the kachinas more accessible to the public. The Zuni tribe bans non-Indians from its religious activities and doesn’t allow photographs to be taken in town.

“These depictions are sensitive,” Kennedy explained. “They’re not for anyone to see.”

The Seowtewas generally prohibit photos of the kachinas because they don’t want anyone to capitalize on the ritual images but have granted permission to a few professionals. Photos of the kachinas have appeared in Native Peoples magazine, and details of some photos from that article may also be seen on the World Wide Web at http://hanksville.phast.umass.edu/stories/ZuniLife.html. Permission was also granted to allow a photograph to be published with this article.

“We say no picture-taking in the church, but how come those portraits are made?” said Quetawki. “You don’t know what’s out there. Someone may take that and duplicate that to their own advantage. There should be a better control.

“A lot of people have commented to the council, ‘You do what you do in order to safeguard [the traditions],’ ” Quetawki said. However, “others say, ‘This is our religion. It’s for our Zuni people only, for nobody else.’ ”

The Zuni tribal council plans to survey the tribe about the possibility of administering the church as a formal, cultural historic site, Kennedy said.

“It’s basically been a work site,” Kennedy said. “These guys leave the door open, and people come in and see them and see the paintings and ask questions.”

Catholics in Zuni would like services to be held again in the mission. The church, which is owned by the tribe and leased to the Catholic church, was desanctified a few years ago because “all the scaffolding and painting materials were potentially a hazard to people,” Kennedy said.

The church draws visitors from around the world. During one day late last summer, the church was visited by a pair of Italians, a Japanese tour group and an anthropology class from Arizona.

Mother Theresa and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis have toured the church. Pope John Paul II has granted the painters an apostolic blessing.

Catholicism was first introduced to Zuni by Fray Marcos de Niza in 1539. Since then the religion, like the mission, has become intertwined with Zuni culture. The church was built in 1629 as Our Lady of Conception. Later the name was changed to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas. Its missionaries were recalled in the late 1600s, when the Pueblo Indians revolted against the Spaniards. A martyr priest from the 1670s is buried beneath the altar.

After the priests fled the area, the Zunis used the mission as a fortress, but it fell into disrepair. When restoration crews arrived in 1966, they found a collapsed roof and 6 inches of dirt caking the floor. It took them three years to renovate the building.

Now, heavy, carved beams accent the room, and some of its original artifacts remain, although around the turn of the century many were spirited away to institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum. (The Zunis have successfully sued to retrieve some of them.) Buffalo heads hang at either side of the altar, left from the beasts that were roasted in celebration of the mission’s restoration.

The Seowtewas are restoring murals that were originally painted perhaps more than a century ago. When Alex started researching the murals’ history in the early 1970s, tribal elders, some of them more than 100 years old, told Alex about the kachinas they saw inside the church during their childhood, Ken said. The kachinas included Adosle, We\H-H-H, Hi\nawe and Su\uke, disciplinarians meant to remind people to attend Mass and lead their lives according to the teachings of the church and Zuni traditions.

Alex decided to repaint the kachinas and use them to illustrate parallels between Catholicism and Zuni spirituality, Ken said. “I’m a Catholic as well as I do partake in my Zuni rituals,” Ken said. Similarities between the traditions include ritual fasting in February with unleavened bread and the use of holy water, he added.

Although he had no formal art training, Alex began repainting the kachinas in 1970, elevating them above the floor and moving the stations of the cross to eye level.

‘Like paintings in the Vatican’

“Their kachinas up there are like paintings in the Vatican,” said William Hozie, a friend of Ken’s and an anthropology professor at Northland Pioneer College in Arizona.

The kachina project often requires the patience of a saint. As the Seowtewas work on scaffolds about 15 feet above the floor, other Zuni holy men pay visits to examine their handiwork. The holy men may point out missing details like feathers and corn pouches. The painters make the corrections, striving to make the murals an accurate record of their heritage.

“[Alex] feels he’s involved in cultural preservation,” Kennedy said. “Some of the figures he’s depicting there are no longer a part of the kachina dances. They’ve gone obsolete already.”

One of the tribe’s holy men has been immortalized in the murals. No pictures were ever taken of the elder, so he was painted from memory, his proud white-haired profile dwarfed by the huge kachinas. The elder’s family was permitted to snap a picture of the painting when it was done. The Seowtewa family is working on a canvas that will hang above the altar. The painting is partly copied from an old photograph of the mission, taken when it was surrounded by a traditional pueblo town with flat-topped buildings and tribal members carrying corn and skins. Above the town, Jesus stands on a zigzag pattern that symbolizes a rain cloud. In the depiction, he’s dressed as a rain priest in Zuni leggings, blankets and turquoise jewelry, a corn pouch at his belt. The panel will go on a 50-state tour when it’s completed.

Former councilman Quetawki isn’t happy about this mural. “I really, really disagree with that,” he said. “I don’t see my creator as an Anglo.”

No one says Mass regularly now in the mission, but visitors frequently make appointments to tour it, despite the ban on photos. Ken has asked a local man to stop selling copies of the Native Peoples story to tourists.

The Seowtewas accept donations from visitors, and a poster for sale at the church for $50 shows a detail of one of the murals.

The modern town of Zuni, with 5,600 inhabitants, is built over ruins of ancient pueblos. Throughout town, they appear as gently rising mounds of pink-red dirt. Other Zuni ruins are sprinkled around New Mexico and Arizona.

One such ruin, the Village of the Great Kivas, is near Zuni. The ancient ones’ precision is still clear at the 1,000-year-old ruin, where wall-builders painstakingly layered tiny slabs of rock between larger stone blocks. They built circular ceremonial areas, or kivas, sunk into the ground.

On the cliffs above, the ancients chiseled petroglyphs -- an owl traveling to the moon, two spirals and dancers from the Comanche tribe with whom they were trading partners. Beneath an overhang, faces of kachinas drawn with colored chalk around the turn of the century gaze over Zuni land, guarding the people.

“Whenever Dad and I lose patience, we come out here,” Ken said.

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999