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What are the Key Events of Zuni History?

By Eleanor Newman
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Zuni Indians have a long history as descendants of the Pueblo Indians of the southwestern United States. People have lived in the Zuni area since before 2500 B.C. Zuni history begins with the Anasazi Indians, who lived in the Zuni area 1,000 years before the first Europeans reached there. Anasazi Indians lived along a river in what is now western New Mexico, and they developed a system of irrigated agriculture and made pottery and baskets, which the Zuni improved upon. Around the year 900, Zuni agricultural improvements sparked a population gain, and settlement expanded.

Beginning in the 1100s, the Zuni tribe built the distinctive plaza-like pueblo housing units that have endured for centuries. Population continued to expand. Sometime between 1300 and 1500, the Zuni founded seven towns around the region. These cities still have strong ties to Zuni history, as the architecture has remained virtually unchanged.

In 1539, Spaniard Fray Marcos de Niza came to the Zuni valley on a quest for gold and riches. Fray Marcos sent his slave Esteban ahead to speak with the tribes. Esteban wanted turquoise and Zuni women from the tribes; his demands infuriated the Zuni, and they killed him. Fray Marcos returned to Mexico and told of the "Seven Cities of Gold" that the Zuni were guarding. Though these stories had little basis in truth, the Spaniards were intrigued.

The next year, another explorer named Francisco Vasquez de Coronado launched an attack on Zuni villages with cannons and horse-mounted swordsmen. He quickly overcame the Zuni defenders and took possession of the villages. Finding no gold, Coronado only occupied the area briefly before going on to other areas.

In the next hundred years, Spanish explorers passed through the Zuni valley in their search for wealth. A Catholic mission was established in the area. Many of the tribes in the region chafed at Spanish domination, and in 1690, the Pueblo Indians began a concerted rebellion called the Pueblo Revolt. The Zunis burned down the Catholic mission, killing one friar. The tribe then retreated to a mesa called Dowa Yalanne, meaning "Corn Mountain" in the Zuni language.

After 12 years at Dowa Yalanne, the Zuni signed a treaty with the Spanish and went to the mesa. Thus began a peaceful period in Zuni history marked by little contact with outsiders. The Zuni abandoned their old villages and built a new pueblo called Zuni to the north of the Zuni river. Area Catholic missions fell into disrepair.

Meanwhile, the US government consolidated its territory in the southwest. In 1850, Zuni elders traveled to Sante Fe to sign a treaty protecting tribal lands. They built more villages and signed peace treaties with neighboring tribes. In the 1800s, the Zuni began blacksmithing and jewelry-making; by the 1870s, the tribe had learned how to set turquoise stones in silver bracelets, necklaces and rings.

Around the turn of the 20th century, several schools were founded in the Zuni valley. The Catholic mission reopened in 1921. The Zuni collaborated with Americans to build dams and irrigation systems in the area and continued to make jewelry: by 1945, jewelry sales made up 65% of the Zuni tribe's cash income.

From the 1980s to the early 2000s, the Zuni were involved in a series of court battles to redress the US occupation of tribal lands and a proposal to open a coal mine near the sacred Zuni Salt Lake. The Zuni won control of the lake and $25 million US Dollars (USD) in reparations. The struggle to preserve Zuni history continues as the tribe maintains its sovereignty and opens new economic opportunities for its people.

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