Eliza McFeely
Zuni and the American Imagination

from the publisher:
Zuni society existed for centuries before there was a United States, and it still exists in its desert pueblo in what is now New Mexico. More than a hundred years ago, three anthropologists -- among the first in this new discipline -- came to Zuni to study it and to salvage what they could of its tangible culture before modern life engulfed and destroyed it, which they believed was sure to happen. The pioneering work of Matilda Stevenson, Frank Hamilton Cushing, and Stewart Culin -- and their belief in the power and significance of Zuni life -- put this fascinating Native American group into the heart of the American imagination, where it has resided ever since. The complex relationship between the Zuni as they were and are, and the Zuni as imagined by these three easterners, is at the heart of Eliza McFeely's important new book.

Stevenson, Cushing, and Culin were eccentric, remarkable personalities in their own right, and McFeely gives ample consideration to each of them in her colorful and absorbing study. For different reasons, all three found professional and psychological satisfaction in leaving the East for the West, in submerging themselves in an alien, little-known world, and in bringing back to the nation's new museums and exhibit halls literally thousands of Zuni artifacts. Their doctrines about social development, their notions of "salvage anthropology," their cultural biases and predispositions have now been superseded, even repudiated, but nonetheless their work imprinted Zuni on the American imagination in ways we have yet to measure. It is the great merit of McFeely's fascinating work that she puts their intellectual and personal adventures into a just and measured perspective; she enlightens us about America, about Zuni, and about how we understand each other.

Eliza McFeely, who earned her Ph.D. at New York University, teaches at the College of New Jersey in Ewing, where she lives with her husband and two children. This is her first book.

"Thanks to Eliza McFeely's fine study, we can see the extraordinary confusion of bluff, bullying, and awe that lay at the heart of nineteenth century Americans' search for their own antique wonders, and we see as well the rich mixture of curiosity, generosity, and realpolitik that inspired the Zunis' interest in exchange and conversation. This is a marvelously discerning book, at once delicate and powerful." --Christine Stansell, Princeton University
The following is an excerpt from the book Zuni and the American Imagination by Eliza McFeely.



"O brave new world, / That has such people in't!" muses Shakespeare's Miranda as she gazes for the first time on other people of European descent. She speaks to her father, Prospero, who has to a large extent "gone native." "'Tis new to thee," he replies, smiling sadly, for he knows the history of this Spanish branch of the human family. In The Tempest, civilization is brought to an isolated, untamed land to purge it of its excesses and to set things right again for its return to Europe. In addition to the familiar morality play, Shakespeare offered his audience, in the misshapen Caliban, a glimpse of the strange inhabitants of the mysterious continent across the Atlantic that had begun, in the late sixteenth century, to excite the European imagination. Here was an inversion of what civilization should mean, a dark, cruel other against whom Europeans of birth and refinement might measure and confirm their own accomplishments. And, in the idea of an exiled child of civilization who casts a fresh eye over its claims, he lit a creative spark that has continued to inspire authors, social critics, and audiences.

This fantasy of Spaniards at large in the New World had a basis in reality that had already stretched back a century or more when Shakespeare wrote The Tempest in 1611. On the heels of Columbus, the Spanish had invaded and ruthlessly conquered the empires of the Aztecs and the Incas, set to work extracting what precious metals they could find, and restlessly looked around for other lands and peoples that might yield similar wealth. Wonder at the sophistication of the societies they encountered mingled with age-old romances of lost cities and a powerful desire to believe in untold riches. One such romance attached itself to the Seven Cities of Cíbola. Spanish memories of a medieval legend about seven wealthy Christian cities somewhere in the Atlantic seemed to be echoed in stories the Aztecs told of seven caves that might be found along their trade routes to the north. Inspired by the extraordinary worlds they had already discovered in what is now Mexico and Peru, Spaniards in search of new conquests pushed north along the Pacific coast, but they found neither golden cities nor treasure caves.

Then, in 1528, a Spanish ship was wrecked off the coast of Florida. Two survivors wandered inland, like the shipwrecked Spaniards in Shakespeare's play. For a decade they made their way west across the continent, arriving at last at a Spanish settlement at Culiacán, on the Pacific coast. Along the way, they encountered people who told them of cities to the north whose inhabitants exchanged turquoise and other stones for the bright feathers of tropical birds. When they reached Culiacán, their reports mingled with existing legends and convinced an ambitious Spanish viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, to sponsor a small exploratory expedition northeast toward the pueblos of present-day New Mexico. In 1539, guided by one of the two shipwreck survivors, a black African named Esteban, the expeditionary party set forth. When Esteban, who had gone on ahead, sent back word that he had found seven opulent cities in a land called Cíbola, he gave credence to an elaborate combination of legend, reality, and wishful thinking.

In fact, he had found Zuni, a pueblo in western New Mexico that encompassed a central village and several outlying farming villages. That there were probably only six cities, not seven, and that they were beautiful but not, by Spanish standards, wealthy, the Spanish discovered only later. But at that moment in 1539 the pueblo of Zuni crossed from prehistory to history and entered the ethnocentric written record that served Europeans as a benchmark of civilization. Still the center of their own complex story of themselves, the Zunis were now also peripheral characters in a story of others.

Zuni is just one of many pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona. The most famous, Taos, is north of Santa Fe, and others lie along the banks of the Rio Grande, stretching south from Santa Fe toward Albuquerque. The Hopi pueblos are much farther west, near the Grand Canyon, in Arizona; their reservation today lies within the larger Navajo reservation in that state. Zuni itself is relatively isolated; it lies in a broad, flat valley in New Mexico, close to the Arizona border, surrounded by mountains and divided from its eastern neighbors by both distance and badlands, the remains of a long-inactive volcano.

Like their neighbors, the Zunis trace their ancestry to the builders of the remarkable ruins that still exist in the Southwest, cliff dwellings high in canyon walls and on rock ledges, small cities in valleys like Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly, or on mesa tops, like Mesa Verde. Those settlements flourished in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, trading, in some cases, with people as far south as Mexico. By the thirteenth century the people had mysteriously disappeared, the victims of drought or warfare, perhaps, leaving behind these tantalizing traces of their existence. They themselves scattered, in all likelihood, finding their way to other people who took them in, and eventually to the sites of the pueblos that exist today.

No one knows exactly when Zuni was settled, but it was well established when the Spanish arrived in 1539 and began their conquest. The walls of the present pueblo were built at the end of the seventeenth century, on the site of other walls that date much further back. In 1680, the Zunis joined their pueblo neighbors in an uprising against the Spanish. The uprising took the Spanish by surprise, and they retreated temporarily; in 1692 they returned, however, reasserting their authority with acts of legendary brutality, though the Zunis fared somewhat better than the inhabitants of some of the other pueblos. The Zunis, following long-standing tradition, moved into the mountains during the Pueblo Uprising, inhabiting easily defensible caves in the cliffs. When they returned, they rebuilt their town where it is today, consolidating a number of smaller villages into the central pueblo. The pueblo was built of flat stone and adobe, redder and rougher than the golden adobe of Taos; tall outer walls protected the Zunis from intruders, and the ground immediately outside the walls was covered with low-walled gardens, laid out in a waffle pattern designed to maximize the usefulness of the unpredictable rainfall in the valley. Corn, beans, melons, and even peaches grew in this unlikely terrain. Inside, dwellings were stacked one on top of another, with entrances, equipped with ladders, in the roofs. Wonderful chimneys made of stacks of spherical pots dotted the roofs as well, and fruits and vegetables and animal skins were laid out there to dry.

The dwellings were built around central courtyards, and narrow alleys allowed passage through the town. The courtyards and the alleys were the main site of the pueblo's ceremonial dances, though many of them began outside the pueblo. Also vital to Zuni's rituals were kivas, rooms within the pueblo where members of Zuni's secret societies held meetings, performed rituals, and prepared for their roles in the dances. In general, each society was organized around a particular spiritual task, related to healing a specific sort of malady or taking responsibility for some aspect of the pueblo's well-being -- helping to bring rain or ensuring a prosperous hunt, for example. Often membership in a medicine society was extended to those whom the society had cured. Adult Zunis belonged to societies that mixed members of many households, in part as a defense against family feuds. For the most part, societies were responsible for discrete parts of Zuni's religious rituals and obligations. Overseeing all of them were six rain priests, who were responsible for making sure that Zuni properly carried out its spiritual obligations, and who, for all intents and purposes, governed the pueblo; they were assisted by the priests of the bow, the warrior society, who put their decisions into practice, shielding the rain priests from the violence and disharmony that might interfere with their spiritual powers. There was also a civil governor, whose job was to deal with outside authorities, first the Spanish, then the Americans.

Each society performed both its own private rituals and public dances, sometimes as part of the yearly dance calendar, sometimes because of particular situations that demanded its intervention. For the public dances, members (most of whom were men) wore costumes that were specific to their societies; these included both special clothing and paint, rattles and other noisemakers, and oversize sculpted masks that identified those who wore them with characters in Zuni's cosmology. Dressed in kachina costumes, the men were representatives of gods and other sacred figures; the kachina dolls that are popular tourist souvenirs today were, in Zuni, made to help children learn the identities of the dancing figures in the courtyards. For those outside Zuni, the most easily identifiable characters in the dances were the Koyemshi and the Newe:kwe, both ritual clowns, though with different responsibilities, and the giant warrior birds, the Sha'lako, whose impersonators wrapped blankets around their shoulders in a way that increased their height by several feet and placed enormous beaked masks atop them. The Sha'lako festival came in the fall, a celebration of the gifts bestowed by the gods and of prayers for continued rains and prosperity.

For two centuries after the Zunis returned to their pueblo following the Pueblo Uprising, their lives consisted of a yearly cycle of farming, herding, and hunting, overlaid by the cycle of their religious obligations. Spanish friars maintained a presence in the pueblo, and the Zunis felt, from time to time, the political and economic demands of the Spanish empire. It is, in fact, important that Zuni was conquered long before there was a United States; it became part of the nation through acquisition, as part of the settlement of the Mexican War in 1848. By then, Zuni, like the other pueblos, had a claim to its land that had legal bearing in Spain, and thus the Zunis existed in a relationship to the United States different from that of other Native American tribes who held their land by tradition but had no formal legal title to it.

Zuni was incorporated into the United States not so much by conquerors as by collectors. There were sporadic visits to the pueblo by curious military men and travelers in the nineteenth century, but it was not until 1879, while the last of the Indian wars were under way, that Americans showed concerted interest in the people who inhabited it. In that year, representatives of the Bureau of American Ethnology made Zuni the focus of the first federally funded experiment in professional anthropology. These representatives initiated a steady flow of anthropologists who were eager to document Zuni's cultural practices and procure extensive collections of its material culture. That flow lasted well into the twentieth century and seems likely to extend into the twenty-first.

Though anthropological interest in Zuni has remained more or less constant since those first encounters, and the pueblo is a well-established stop on the southwestern tourist circuit, neither the Zunis nor those who have studied them are as famous now as they once were. Some of the later students of Zuni, notably Ruth Benedict, Ruth Bunzel, Leslie Spier, Alfred Kroeber, and Elsie Clews Parsons, figure in the history of American anthropology, but few of them are well known to the general public. The individuals who preceded them, including the subjects of this book, are even more obscure. Matilda Stevenson, Frank Hamilton Cushing, and Stewart Culin are relegated to footnotes in the history of anthropology. Yet they have recently begun to attract the attention of people, like myself, who are interested in what the form and substance of their lives and studies reveal about the thinking of Americans of their time.

Stevenson, Cushing, and Culin are now on the margins of the history of anthropology and, in many ways, at the edges of American history. Yet few of us who have explored Indian exhibits in the dark halls of a hundred museums have not brushed up against them. They were part of a small network of people who in a very brief time collected thousands of Native American artifacts. The provenance of some of those pieces was suspicious, and some have recently been repatriated to their rightful owners, but others remain at the heart of exhibits, old and new, that still fascinate children and adults alike. Not everyone has heard of Zuni, and the three anthropologists who first gave shape to our thinking about the pueblo are not world-historical characters. It is not the centrality of Zuni and Zuni anthropology that is compelling but their persistence. Borrowings from Zuni continue to run like a subtle thread woven at the edge of a larger pattern of culture.

Copyright © 2001 Eliza McFeely