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Zuñi Indians

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A Pueblo tribe residing at Zuñi on the bank of the Rio Zuñi near the boundary of New Mexico, and in the adjoining villages of Nutria, Ojo Caliente, and Pescado. The name Zuñi is a Spanish corruption of the Keresan Sunifisti, and was first used by Antonio de Espajo in 1583; the natives however called themselves Ashiwi (from Shiwi, flesh) and their territory Shiwona. They were discovered by Fray Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan missionary in 1539. Fray Marcos accompanied by a negro Estavanico and some Indian guides had set out in that year to prepare the way for his fellow missionaries in unexplored regions. Estavanico had been sent forward to inspect the unknown lands; when Fray Marcos arrived in Arizona after passing through Sonora he learned that Estavanico had been killed. Nevertheless, he continued his journey and got sight of Hawikuh, one of the seven Zuñi villages or pueblos. Owing to the hostility of the inhabitants, he was forced to return to Mexico, where he published an account of his journey, relating what he had heard of the Kingdom of Civola. This glowing description of the region led to the expedition of de Coronado in 1540, the little army being accompanied by Fray Juan de Padilla.

Coronado, after storming Hawikuh, discovered that Fray Marcos had been misled by the reports of the Indians, and that Cívola's rich cities were only seven ordinary Indian pueblos, none containing over 500 houses. In 1598 Fray Andres Corchado was sent to preach to the Zuñi and the neighbouring tribes. This first permanent mission among the former was begun at Hawikuh in 1629 by the Franciscans. On 22 February, 1632, Fray Francisco Letrado, and, five days later, Fray Martin de Arvide were martyred by the Zuñ. When the Apache attacked Hawikuh on 7 August, 1670, and destroyed the Zuñi church, another Franciscan, Fray Padro de Avila y Ayala, gained a martyr's crown. In 1680 the Zuñi joined in the Pueblo rising, killed their missionary, and fled, as they usually did when stricken with fear, to their fortress of Taaiyalone. The mission was continued until the nineteenth century, when it decayed from a want of priests and resources.

Recently, under the care of the United States Government, the Zuñ, who now number about 1640 souls, are becoming civilized, and are learning to speak English. Catholic missionaries are again working among them. Of the twenty-two Zuñi pueblos mentioned in historical times only Nutria, Ojo Caliente, Pescado, and Zuñi are still in existence. The Zuñi were the first of the Pueblo tribes met by the Spaniards, and have changed but little in character since that time. They were in general peaceful unless much provoked, tenacious of their traditional practices and beliefs, intellectual and serious, yet at times very witty. Their features are clear cut, noses aquiline, and lips thin; contrary to most of the Pueblo tribes very many of them are long-headed. Albinos, with light golden hair and pink-gray or blue eyes, are not unfrequently met among them.

The term Pueblo Indians (so called form the Spanish pueblo, a village) was applied to denote those Indian tribes living permanently in groups of adobe or stone houses in Arizona, New Mexico, and the adjoining part of Mexico, and in prehistoric times in Utah and Colorado. It now includes 5 tribes of Keresan, 6 of Shoshonean, 15 of Tanoan stock, and the Zuñ. The first great exploration of the Pueblo country was by de Coronado in 1540-2. In 1581 Francisco Sánchez* Chamuscado and three Franciscans, Augustin Rodríguez, Francisco Lopez, and Juan de Santa Maria, were slain by the Tigua Indians near the Rio Grande. Seventeen years later Juan de Onate visited this region, and, dividing it up into districts, had each district entrusted to the care of a missionary, thus definitively bringing the Pueblo into contact with civilization; but the scarcity of priests available retarded the spread of Christian truth. In 1630, in answer to an appeal, thirty more Franciscans came to the mission and worked with great success, until August, 1680, when disputes having arisen between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, the Indians broke into rebellion, destroyed the missions and the religious archives, and murdered twenty-one of the thirty-three Franciscans as well as several hundred colonists. Again in 1696 an insurrection occurred and some more of the friars lost their lives, but since then the Indians have in general remained tranquil, though in 1847 Governor Bent was murdered by the Taos, incited by Mexicans; on the other hand the Zuñi in particular have been very friendly and faithful to the Americans, supporting them in the Mexican War.

In the northern part of the Pueblo region the village dwellings were generally constructed of sandstone or lava blocks; in the southern most of the houses were of adobe. The houses were generally several stories high, with ladders or steps on the outside, the roof of one story serving as a kind of veranda for the story above. The ground floor, evidently for reasons of defence, had no door, entrance being made by means of movable ladders. The houses were owned and built by the women, the men supplying the materials. The pottery and weaving of the Pueblo Indians are the finest in the present territory of the United States; while the basket work of the Hopi in particular is highly esteemed. The northern Pueblo were adept agriculturists, and made use of a system of irrigation. Corn and cotton were extensively grown. At present, beans, chile, melons, and pumpkins are carefully cultivated. Fish is never eaten, and there are few domesticated animals except the turkey and dog. The Pueblo men usually wore a jacket and trousers of deerskin, though now they use woollens; the women wear a cotton shirt and a woollen blanket passing over the right and under the left shoulder, and caught at the waist with a long coloured sash.

Each tribe is formed of a certain number of clans, descent being through the maternal line; formerly the clan was presided over by a priest. The Zuñi had many secret societies dealing with agriculture, magic, religion, war, etc. These societies could be entered only after severe ordeals had been successfully borne. As part of an initiation ceremony among this tribe chosen men clad only in the breech-cloth had to walk to a lake forty-five miles distant, under the blazing sun, to deposit a plume-stick and pray for rain; while one of the trials to be undergone by a candidate for admission to the priesthood of the Bow, was to sit unclad for hours on a large ant-hill. The rituals of the Pueblo contain many prayers; thus the Zuñi have prayers for food, health, and rain. Prayer-sticks, that is sticks with feathers attached as supplicatory offerings to the spirits, were largely used by the Pueblo. These sticks are usually made of cottonwood about seven inches long, and vary in shape, colour, and the feather attached, according to the nature of the petitions, and the person praying. The stick is intended to represent the god to whom the feathers convey the prayers that are breathed into the spirit of the plumes. The Hopi had a special prayer-stick to which a small bag of sacred meal was attached. Green and blue prayer-sticks are often found in the Pueblo graves and especially in the ceremonial graves of Arizona. Polygamy among the Indians is unknown; the woman is the more important element in married life; she has the power to divorce the husband for trifling reasons, and he then returns to his parents' home, the children, if any, belonging to the mother. In former times the government was in the hands of the Indian priests; since the Spanish conquest, however, purely civil affairs are controlled by an elected body. The population of the Pueblo has remained practically stationary for the last hundred years, New Mexico containing about 8400 inhabitants in the year 1887.


HODGE in Handbook of American Indians, II (Washington, 1910), s.v.v. Pueblos, Tigua, Zuñ; HOUGH, Ibidem, s.v. Prayer sticks; JOHNSON, Pioneer Spaniards in North America (Boston, 1903); BANDELIER, Discovery of New Mexico by Fray Marcos of Nizza in Magazine of Western History (Cleveland, 1886); IDEM, Documentary History of the Zuñi tribe in Journal of Amer. Ethnol. and Archaeol., III (Boston, 1892); CUSHING, Zuñi Creation Myths in 13th Ann. Rept. of U.S. Bureau of Ethnology (Washington, 1892), 321-447; IDEM, A Study of Zuñi pottery as illustrative of Zuñi culture in 4th Ann. Rept. of U.S. Bureau of Ethnology (Washington, 1886), 467-521; IDEM, Zuñi Fetiches (Washington, 1883); SITGREAVES, Rept. of an Expedition down the Zuñi and Colorado Rivers (Washington, 1854); STEVENSON, Zuñi ancestral gods and masks in American anthropologist, V (Washington, 1898), 33-40; IDEM, Zuñi Indians (Washington, 1905); FEWKES, A few summer ceremonies at Zuñi Pueblo in Journal of Amer. Ethnol. and Archaeol., I (Boston, 1891); CUSHING, Zuñi Folk Tales (1901); KRAUSE, Die Pueblo-Indianer in Abhandl. Kais. Cop.-carol. deutsche Akad. d. Naturforscher., LXXXVII (Halle, 1907), 1-226; FEWKES, Tuscayan Katcinas in 15th Ann. Rept. of U.S. Bureau of Ethnology (Washington, 1894), 245-313.

About this page

APA citation. MacErlean, A. (1912). Zuñi Indians. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. MacErlean, Andrew. "Zuñi Indians." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael T. Barrett. Dedicated to the Zuñi people.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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