Located in the remote red-earth land of western New Mexico, the Zuni Pueblo has weathered nearly half a millennium of challenges from outside forces. But thanks in part to the pueblo’s isolated location, the Zuni people have persevered through the centuries, and their culture has remained largely intact. Today, the scenic land is home to a unique language, traditions, and religion.
At the pueblo, visitors can take unique tours that allow them to walk in the footsteps of early Zuni people at the 1200s-era village of Hawikku, or take in a 17th-century Franciscan mission where Catholic and Zuni religious symbols now stand side-by-side.
Most of the cultural sites are accessible only with a Zuni tour guide, and on my recent visit, I took part in an excellent tour with guide Shaun Latone, who grew up in the Zuni community and offered an authentic perspective on the history and culture.
That history and culture, combined with the starkly beautiful terrain, make the Zuni Pueblo a wonderful spot to visit.
Here are 7 reasons to add the Zuni Pueblo to your New Mexico road trip.
1. The History And Culture Of The Zuni Pueblo
In many ways, a visit to the sprawling 700-square-mile Zuni Pueblo offers a condensed history of the U.S. Southwest. Starting with the era of Spanish explorers and conquistadors led by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1540, the Zuni people have also experienced efforts by Franciscan missionaries to convert Native people to Catholicism, raids by neighboring Navajo and Apache people, the westward expansion of the U.S., and the government’s Native American reservation system.
Of course, the history of the Zuni people dates back far beyond the arrival of Europeans. I loved hearing the migration story of how the Zuni people emerged from the underground “fourth world” at Ribbon Falls deep in the Grand Canyon. Zuni legend has it that the exit occurred during the time of the dinosaurs, and the Zuni people followed the route of the Little Colorado River and ultimately found their home in the “Middle Place” (known as Halona Idiwan’a) amidst the red buttes and blue skies of western New Mexico.
Visitors to the pueblo are asked to check in at the visitor center upon arrival. A stop at the center includes an orientation and an opportunity to schedule tours and purchase photo permits. Visitors can also browse the center’s informative exhibits that include historic photos, jewelry and pottery, and a traditional food display.
Pro Tip: The Zuni name was bestowed on the Native people by the Spaniards, and Latone said an effort has been underway to change the name to the original Ashiwi (also A:shiwi) of the Zuni Pueblo.
2. The Middle Village
Known as the most historic and significant neighborhood of the Zuni Pueblo, the Middle Village offers a glimpse into the heart of Zuni culture.
A walking tour takes you to a series of multistoried adobe dwellings and up a staircase to a viewing area overlooking a ceremonial plaza below.
The Middle Village is the site for the Zuni Pueblo’s traditional ceremonies, such as the Shalako Festival held in early winter. The pueblo’s website notes that Zuni life includes a complex ceremonial system based on a belief in the ancestor (ancient ones). During the Shalako Festival, for instance, dancers representing the couriers of the rain deities come to bless new homes.
Pro Tip: Many of the Zuni Pueblo’s events are open to the public, during which photography is usually allowed with a valid photo permit. However, during religious dances and activities, photographs are forbidden, and no photo permits are issued.
3. The Great Kiva Village
Originally considered a “Chacoan outlier” by the early Zuni people because of language and cultural differences, the Great Kiva Village was later brought into the Zuni Pueblo culture. Today, visitors can tour the village and its two great kivas, as well as nearby rock art (petroglyphs and pictographs) that were excavated in 1930 by archaeologist Frank Roberts.
The Zuni Tourism website describes the Great Kiva Tour as two tours in one that offer a glimpse “into the culture and society from Zuni’s distant past but with links to more recent history.”
The ancient village of Hawikku (also known as Hawikuh) played a pivotal role in the Zuni Pueblo’s interactions with Spanish conquistadors who were in search of the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola. When Coronado and his expedition arrived in 1540, it was the village of Hawikku that they first saw. The Zuni people were outnumbered and unprepared for the Spanish’s swords, shields, and horses, and Hawikku was conquered by Coronado and his troops, after which the Zuni village served as the Spanish conquistador’s headquarters for a time.
A Franciscan mission was established at Hawikku in the 1600s but was later destroyed during the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when the Native Americans rose against the Spanish, according to a National Park Service website. Hawikku was permanently abandoned after the revolt, and its ruins remain today atop a ridge.
As an important historical footnote, information at the visitor center notes that the first contact between the Zunis and the Spanish conquistadors actually occurred at Hawikku, one year before the 1540 arrival of Coronado. In 1539, Esteban (Estevanico), a formerly enslaved person from North Africa had been sent with a Franciscan friar to discover more about the fabled gold in the Seven Cities of Cibola.
“Suspected as a spy (and perhaps due to his brazen demands), the Zuni warriors had Esteban and some of his party killed,” says the exhibit. A year later, Coronado’s full and heavily armed expedition arrived from Mexico.
5. Zuni Mission Of Our Lady Of Guadalupe
The Zuni Mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe tells a riveting story about the efforts of the early Franciscan missionaries to spread their faith among the Native people. During my tour of the church, Latone explained that the Zuni forefathers were forced to build the mission in 1630, and then were forced to change religion. After 50 years of pushback from the Native people, New Mexico pueblos came together in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and the mission was partially burned.
In recent decades, following a series of additions and declines, the Mission Church changed hands and became the property of the Zuni people. Meanwhile, Zuni artist Alex Seowtewa received permission in the 1970s to paint murals of kachinas in the interior of the church, and his sons completed the work in 2006.
Today, the inside of the mission consists of a combination of remaining Catholic symbols alongside the beautifully detailed murals of Zuni deities. The National Park Service calls it a “fascinating result of the complex history of different cultures coexisting together for centuries.”
Special tours of the mission church are offered during limited hours, with the proceeds going toward the upkeep of the crumbling church. The artist’s family has asked that no photos be taken inside.
6. Traditional Jewelry
One way the Zuni people express their cultural traditions is through their art, and the resulting paintings, pottery, jewelry, and stone fetish carvings are known worldwide for their unique and intricate designs.
Many art shops line the main street in Zuni, each offering renditions of the distinctive art. I stopped at the All Tribes Jewelry and Art and loved the silver and turquoise inlay bracelets and necklaces. The shop also has a large assortment of pottery, paintings, and baskets.
7. The Spectacular Terrain
Stunning scenery is another joy of visiting the Zuni Pueblo. On my tour through the countryside, I took in sweeping views of the distinctive Twin Buttes in the distance, alongside the flat top of Corn Mesa. Latone said special tours in the Twin Buttes area that include sections of spectacular rock art are available. Information is available at the visitor center.
The pueblo also offers scenic and rugged hiking in a number of spots, including the public trail system that takes in the 8-mile Mountain Lion Trail, the 5-mile Bear Trail, the 2.5-mile Badger Trail, and the 6-mile Wolf Trail. The 50+ miles of trails were established by the Zuni Health & Wellness Coalition.
When To Visit The Zuni Pueblo
Daytime temperatures at the Zuni Pueblo tend to be warm from May through September, with average highs of 76 degrees in May, and averages ranging from the 80s to the 90s from June to September. The shoulder-season months of April and October are also pleasant, with average highs in the 60s and 70s. From November through March, the temperatures drop into the 40 to 50–degree range.
Note that July and August can experience extreme monsoon rainstorms. When I visited in early August, some of the dirt roads to major cultural sites were inaccessible because of muddy conditions.