Woh'Dem'La', Ko:Koshi, Uh'Be'Ka'Yad'Un'Na', Hu:Du'Du', Sa'Li'Mo:Be'Ya', Shu'La':Wits Un/Da'Chu, and Sha'La/Ko'

Adding a Breath to Zuni Life


Ken Seowtewa

Photography by Susanne Page

Fifty-eight years ago, my father, Alex Seowtewa, was born into the shiwi, the Zuni Tribe. His mother, Annie, was of the Sandhill Crane Clan and his father, Charlie, was of the Parrot Clan. When he was about three, Alex's mother died. When his father remarried, the teachings of Zuni tradition and philosophy became the responsibility of Alex's maternal grandfather, Na-Seowdewa. During their times together, which included days at the sheep camp, Alex learned many things from his grandfather.

He came to know and understand that Na-Seowdewa was not only his grandfather but was also a high priest to the north. He learned that the Zuni Way dictates that anyone who holds the position of high chief must be of the Bitchi;kwe, Dogwood Clan. As the high priest, he is also the head of the theocratic government - a traditional system that continues today alongside the democratic form of government within the Zuni tribe.

Na-Seowdewa taught Alex the Zuni traditions and philosophies handed down from many grandfathers before. Alex learned from his elder the importance of everyone walking hand in hand as brothers and sisters. The knowledge shared with Alex came not from Na-Seowdewa but from our people who came to this world thousands of years ago.

Na-Seowdewa's words were indelibly placed in the mind and soul of Alex, helping him to overcome the obstacles in his life.

After high school, Alex received a one year art scholarship to the University of St. Joseph in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His studies were interupted by the Korean War.

Upon his return home from the war, he and his wife, Odelle Panteah, reared their ten children. My father has told me that the tragic loss of one son was overcome through our great, great grandfather's teachings taught to him by Na-Seowdewa.

Alex worked at St. Anthony's Mission which was established in 1922 and located north of the Zuni village. While there, he discovered that in 1928, his father, Charlie Chuyate, was the artist who painted the ceiling of St. Anthony's rectory and that he was also a Zuni historian and one of the religious leaders.

While Alex was engaged in working and providing for his family, another project was developing and would eventually call upon his own artistic talents.

Located in the heart of the Zuni village is Our Lady of Guadalupe Church which was built in 1629. Following Mexico's independence, all proests were recalled from New Mexico, and in 1820 the church was abandoned.

Through the combined efforts of Franciscan priest Father Niles Kraft, Zuni tribal officals, the US Park Service and religious leaders of the community, excavation and renovation of the church were begun in 1966.

During the years of reconstruction, Father Niles approached Alex and requested that he design and carve the confessional of the church. While Alex worked on his new task, his father, Charlie, visited the church and his son. During his stay, Charlie told his son of the oral history and stories surrounding Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. He recalled stories he had been told of the ancient kachina paintings that once adorned the walls of the church.

Charlie explained that the ancient kachinas, Adosle, We\Ho-Ho-Ho, Hi\nawe and Su\uke, were representatives of just a few of our Zuni ogres - disciplinarians of the people. They had been painted upon the walls of the church as a reminder to the people that they must attend mass and lead their lives according to the teachings of the church and Zuni traditions.

Following Charlie's visit, Alex thought of his father's wish to see once again the ancient kachina paintings upon the church walls. He spent considerable time contemplating this enormous project and, with his father's information, approached a number of tribal elders. Two of the elders, 109-year-old Lonkeena and 108-year-old Mahooty, recalled for Alex their childhood memories when they played inside the old mission. They told him of the kachinas painted on both sides of the church and facing the altar. They also recalled that the kachinas were disciplinarians.

With all of the information gathered from his father and the elders, Alex approached Father Niles about Charlie's wish. However, rather than replace the original kachinas of discipline, Alex recommended a different approach. Because Catholicism, introduce by Fray Marcos DeNiza in 1539, is an integral part of Zuni life, he suggested that the new kachinas describe the similarities between Catholicism and Zuni spirituality. these paintings would also serve to document and preserve Zuni history for future generations.

When discussing this enormous project, I recall how Alex, my father, told me of his concerns. Because the Zuni people have more kachinas than can be painted on church walls, he said: "How shall I start? How shall I go about it and how shall I end?" Finally he decided to paint the highlights of our village practices of today.

In February of 1970, my father chose to portray our winter solstice on the north wall of the church. He began the project by painting the kachinas of Sha'La/Ko'.

To the Zuni people, Sha'La/Ko' is the biggest annual celebration and is held about the time of the winter solstice in late November or early December. It is the culmination of the entire year's celebration - the highlight of our yearly religious dances.

The kachinas of Sha'La/Ko' painted upon the walls are seen to be bearing offerings to past ancestors - asking for their help in bringing rains and other gifts to the people, such as long life and peace.

The blankets above the altar are symbols telling the parishioners that this is a place of worship and respect. During the celebration of Sha'La/Ko', the host families also display their finery upon the walls of their homes, symbolizing their respect and place of worship.

In reality, the kachinas of Sha'La/Ko' are men who are chosen by the kiva leaders. A kiva is a group of men, young and old, who have been chosen to impersonate the kachinas. these men must go through two initiations to become members. Each of the six kivas, representing the six directions of the earth, selects two of its men dedicated to traditional Zuni ways and who have sworn not to physically or emotionally hurt another person. Of the twelve men chosen, six are Sha'La/Ko's (known also as the older brothers) and the remaining six (known as the younger brothers) are designated to be alternates.

In 1978, I was chosen to represent my kiva. Since our kiva to the north is considered the oldest brothers of the other kivas, I addressed some of the men who were older than me as shu\we, younger brother. For one year, a group of men who we call wo\lea,, slaves to the Sha'La/Ko', would come to my house and teach me the prayers that I had to memorize - one in particular that took an hour and a half to recite. Part of my preparation also included a fast of four days each month for one year. During each fast I also had to plant my own special prayer stick.

Preceding the Sha'La/Ko' in the paintings on the church walls are four men - one representing the Longhorn - a rain priest to the north. The men of the Longhorn group must memorize a certain prayer which takes about six hours to recite. This prayer tells us of our own creation story and the importance of our Zuni place in the universe. The leader of this group is identified by the horn on the right side of his mask. His responsibility is to set the date of the Sha'La/Ko' ceremony. he also has the authority to dismiss any of the men if they do not follow their oaths.

As Alex's father told him of our ancient ways, archaeologists and anthropologists also recognize Sha'La/Ko' to be the oldest continuing drama in the Americas.

Alex and his son, Gerald, worked together on the Sa'Li'Mo:Be'ya', two warrior gods who are the bodyguards of the Longhorn group. They have black crow feathers around their masks. In 1977, I joined my father and now I am participating in Sha'La/Ko' once again by assisting him in his daily painting.

When I joined my father's project, the meaning of life became apparent to me. I knew I had been somewhat of a rebel - making my own fun the most important thing in my life. While preparing for and taking the oath of the Sha'La/Ko' ceremony, I realized the heartache I must have created for my father. His example had an enormous impact on me. I have seen him give time to his family and to children of broken homes, troubled teenagers and parents - helping them to develop self-respect and to raise their self-esteem. With my wife, Selina, a member of the Turkey Clan, and my father's teaching and wisdom, we are rearing our family of four children; Amber, Devin, Leslie Kay and Joshua. Today, if I knew I could fill just a one thirty-second portion of my father's shoes, I would be satisfied.

A typical day in our work schedule requires that we meet early each morning at the church. We discuss our daily schedule and any new ideas we may have, including the financial situation of the project. There are times when we talk about the history of Zuni and what we are attempting to do for our people. Some of our tribal members come to talk with us and express their opposition to the project. Because we understand their fears of someone exploiting our religion and spirituality, we give them time to discuss our intentions and hopes of creating a permanent record for all of Zuni.

Other times we find ourselves giving lectures to visiting groups of people - many of whom are from foreign countries. We talk about our history as a people. We share what we can about our kivas and the similarities between Catholism and Zuni spirituality. We talk of our Zuni ways, but we give as much history as possible on the church itself. These talks are often followed by a question and answer period.

Because of my father's dedication and commitment to the project, he has acquired considerable recognition, requiring him to suspend his own personal schedule. On November 14, 1991, he received the award for Excellence in Art from New Mexico Governor Bruce King. He also received the New Mexico Preservation Heritage Award from the New Mexico Cultural Affairs office. The most exciting award that my father has received came as a result of a visit to Zuni two years ago by Gennadi Klushin, President of the Fine Artists Union in the Soviet Union. Klushin returned to Zuni this past May to attend the rededication and open house ceremony of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. My father was then invited to travel this past October to Tver in the Soviet Union where he accepted the Fine Artists Union Award from Klushin. This award was granted as a part of a Soviet art and cultural exchange program.

Even with all of the interruptions, my father's project continues. On the south wall of the church, the Spring, Summer, and Fall events of Zuni life are depicted. Spring weather, Summer thunderstorm clouds with a double layer rainbow will flow into Fall weather. Soon the remaining cracks and loose plaster on the north wall will be reapired. Over the Winter figures on this wall, a blizzard scene from the mountain ranges on the north side of our village will be painted.

One of my brothers, Edwin, is also involved in the project. He has completed the frames and stretched the canvas for the central panel to be painted above the altar. This panel will measure six-feet-ten inches by ten-feet-six inches. He will carve traditional Zuni pottery designs on the California redwood panels to be used for the altar paintings.

Above the altar of the church, we have a twenty-two-inch figure of Jesus dressed in traditional Zuni wear and he will be painted in a transparent fashion. The surrounding area will be painted with a Summer sunset and through reddish orange clouds, there will be an opening for Jesus. When the area is completed, we will paint rays of light entering the village as Heaven's blessings.

Two side canvas panels will be located on both sides of the altar at the front of the church where two mounted buffalo heads and two blankets are positioned. In 1972, these buffalo, named Homer and Omer by the school children of St. Anthony's, were barbecued for the rededication ceremony of the church. The two blankets, along with several others hanging above the altar were contributed by the parishioners to reinforce the Zuni way of life that is combined with Catholicism.

The symbols of our village clans are to be included at the front of the church. Of the original twenty clans, only fourteen remain. We will paint the identity of each and the position they hold in our village. These paintings will tell how we came to be as Zuni people. So that we are able to record the existence of the extinct clans, they will be painted in a transparent fashion below the remaining clans of today. These records will reinforce the need for our people to carry on our culture, our heritage and our traditions.

Although the project will not see completion for three or four more years, my father, my brother Edwin and I will continue to work together, preserving and documenting Zuni life. We hope that our children and future generations will understand and appreciate just how much has gone into the project, and will use the final outcome as a guide and inspiration for their lives. We also hope that the importance of the project will impress upon other people the importance of knowing their heritage - their roots. If they know where they come from, they will know where they are going.

Renovating the church and painting Zuni life on the walls is not just a tribute to our people. We feel that we have been given an opportunity to add another breath of life to our people.

This article was first published in Native Peoples Magazine, Winter 1992. Permission to reprint should be obtained from their editorial offices at: 5333 North Seventh Street, Suite C-224, Phoenix, AZ 85014. The rights to the photographs are held by Ken Seowtewa. He must be contacted about their reuse.

Contributions to aid in the completion of the murals and the maintainence of the mission should be sent to:
Ken and Alex Seowtewa
P.O. Box 1308
Zuni, New Mexico 87327
Tours of the old mission available.
Call: (505) 782-2732 or (505) 782-2258

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