Zuni, October 2019
The Zuni nation’s primary industry is producing art. From inlays of semi-precious stones and pottery to kachina dolls and animal fetish carvings, Zuni artisans produce hundreds of items increasingly on sale at artists’ cooperatives on the reservation. An estimated 70 percent of reservation Zunis are engaged in producing art or traditional crafts.
In land mass, the Zuni reservation is the largest of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos, but that is still less than five percent of the tribe’s traditional use territory before the mid-1800s. Subsistence farming and ranching remain significant to retaining traditional lifestyles. This nation of around 20,000 south of Gallup has another significant export: lessons in sustainability, perhaps better understood as survival. Although nearly 40 percent of Zuni people —they call themselves A:shiwi and have no clear idea where the name “Zuni” came from— live below the federally-designated poverty line, they have survived in their traditional homeland for at least 1,300 and perhaps as long as 7,000 years. And in some circles far and wide, that accomplishment is under serious study for generalized applications for human societies in the future. Back in 1992, a Zuni tribal representative, Jim Enote, and I were among the few New Mexicans to participate in the United Nations’ “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Sustainability was the primary theme of that intergovernmental conference that launched the decades-long effort to confront climate change, leading to the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Governments around the world were encouraged to submit their proposals for how to achieve that hopeful goal. Few actually did. But Enote, representing Zuni, did.
The proposal was based on his recommendations on how to use a 1990 $25 million settlement from the federal government whose land and water use policies had devastated tribal territory. When he returned home from the Earth Summit, officially the UN Conference on Environment and Development, Emote led a team that produced a 300-page report that was one of the world’s first major documents modeled after the UN “Agenda 21” plan adopted in Rio.
“Sustainable development is nothing new for the Zunis,” Enote is quoted as explaining in the book Eco-Pioneers: practical visionaries solving today’s environmental problems. “We wouldn’t be here if our ancestors had not acted sustainably. What we’re really talking about here is enhancing Zuni sustainable development.” Educated at New Mexico State University and Colorado State University, Enote’s degree is in agriculture. He has planted a crop on tribal land every year since he was a toddler.
Long time director of the pueblo’s A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, he is now chief executive officer of the Colorado Plateau Foundation, which directs funding for indigenous communities’ efforts to apply traditional knowledge to address persistent problems of poverty and environmental degradation. But if it seems the Zuni world view and influence are becoming more extensive, consider that in earlier millenia, that influence may have been much more extensive than it is now. As explained in exhibits and presentations at the A:shiwi A:wan Museum, the creation story tells of a contingent of Zunis migrating far, far to the south. An interpretive talk at the museum suggests elders think that may indicate Zuni ancestors settling in Central and South America. Zuni guide Otto Lucio, after leading a tour of the archeological site Hawikku, site of first contact between Native peoples and Europeans in New Mexico, said he hopes to conduct research in Guatemala to search for evidence of Zuni influence there. —Jeff Radford