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People of the Colorado Plateau
Paleoindian and Archaic Peoples
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peoplebutton.gif (1940 bytes)Zuni (page 2 of 4)

Author:: T. J. Ferguson. Adapted from: Ferguson, T.J., 1996. Historic Zuni Architecture and Society: An Archaeological Application of Space Syntax. Anthropological Papers, No. 60. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, p. 25-40.

Spanish Contact

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Zuni villages occupied in 1540

In A.D. 1540 the first Spanish Entrada in the Southwest encountered the Zuni Indians living in six or seven large pueblos along a 14-mile stretch of the Zuni River Valley. These villages were situated on elevated landforms above the floodplain, such as low hills, ridges, or mesa tops. They were also located on or adjacent to the more fertile agricultural soils in the Zuni area, in positions to take advantage of abundant water resources at springs or at confluences of major drainages. The documentary record suggests that the Zuni had a successful and well-established agricultural economy.

The arrival of the Spaniards initiated a long sequence of events that eventually disrupted the Zuni’s trading patterns, land use, and settlement system. The greatest initial impact was a dramatic decline in the Zuni population (see figure below). The Zuni had no immunity to the new diseases introduced by the Europeans, and the epidemics took a devastating toll. This population decline, along with other factors, required a reorganization of Zuni society and land use.

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Zuni population from 1540 A.D. to 1988. Data from Hart (1991)

The Spaniards introduced new items of material culture to the Zuni, including important new cultigens like wheat and peaches and domesticated livestock, most notably sheep, horses, burros, and cattle. As a result, the Zuni were able to exploit the environment in new ways to adjust to the changing sociopolitical conditions of the Southwest. The grazing of sheep and cattle on distant ranges provided the Zuni with a new way to harvest the biomass of the sustaining area, converting grass into useful products (meat, wool, hides) that could be herded on the hoof back to the Zuni villages for use and consumption. Horses and burros increased mobility and made it easier to transport crops and other items. The incorporation of livestock into the Zuni economy made it feasible to undertake agriculture and other subsistence activities at a greater distance from residential settlements.

During the seventeenth century there was a decline in the number of occupied villages. The reduction of population, political pressure from the Spaniards, and raiding from the Navajo and Apache all contributed to attrition in the number of occupied settlements. Violence became a regular part of the social environment as the Zuni defended their land and resources from encroachment from other groups and resisted Spanish attempts to suppress their culture and religion. The Zunis joined with other Pueblos in August of 1680 in the historic Pueblo Revolt which succeeded in driving the Spaniards out of New Mexico. Documentary evidence indicates that the Zuni fled to the top of the Dowa Yalanne mesa and prepared for defense. Between 1680 and 1692 the Zuni built and maintained a large settlement that incorporated many pueblo room blocks on the mesa top, an area of less than 250 ha (617 acres). Since it did not contain enough land to support the entire Zuni population in 1680, there can be no doubt that the Zuni continued to farm and graze livestock in the valleys below throughout the period of the Pueblo revolt.

The village on Dowa Yalanne was pivotal in the development of historic settlement patterns. It is the first village in which the whole Zuni population gathered into a single settlement. Although it is unlikely that the contact period villages were totally abandoned, apparently every Zuni family maintained a residence on top of Dowa Yalanne that could be used for refuge when the Spaniards returned. The mesa top was also a position defensible against the hostile attacks of the Apaches.

In 1692, Diego de Varga, the Spanish general in charge of the "reconquest," entered the village peacefully, bestowed absolution, and convinced the Zuni to relinquish the occupation of Dowa Yalanne. Rather than reoccupy their multiple pueblos, the entire tribe coalesced settlement into a permanently occupied village at Halona:wa on the north bank of the Zuni River. Following this event, Halona:wa became known as the Zuni Pueblo.

In the eighteenth century, the Zuni developed a new land-use system that entailed the seasonal occupation of a variety of small settlements in satellite relationship to the single, permanently occupied village at Zuni Pueblo. These seasonally occupied settlements were used to support grazing and agricultural activities distributed throughout the area formerly occupied with full-time residential villages. By using seasonally occupied settlements the reduced Zuni population was able to maintain a large community with complex social organization at Zuni Pueblo and still benefit from the most fertile farmland and copious springs during the growing season. The settlement patterns of the eighteenth century were also influenced by Navajo and Apache raids. Zuni Pueblo was built into a multistoried fortress, and the outlying, seasonally occupied settlements were located on elevated landforms that could be more easily defended than villages on the valley bottom.

During the eighteenth century, the villages that had been abandoned as residential locations were reused as "sheep camps," facilities used by herders who camped on the range while they tended livestock. Sheep camps functioned in the livestock industry as basic support stations that supplied provisions to herders grazing livestock on grasslands far from Zuni Pueblo. The importance of livestock in the eighteenth-century Zuni economy is emphasized by the fact that, in 1779, the Zuni were grazing 15,736 sheep, a sizable livestock industry by New Mexico standards of that period.

Apache and Navajo raiding led to the establishment of sheep camps which were "refuge sites," safe areas with difficult access and associated with hidden corrals and small room blocks. These areas were situated along ridges and on the benches of canyons throughout the Zuni river valley and tributary drainages. Other refuge sites, sometimes referred to as "peach orchard villages," were established in part for peach orchard farming in areas of sandy soil that occurred at the bases and on the sides of mesas in the Zuni River valley. They represented the exploitation of a new topographic setting for agriculture in the Zuni area, one made possible by the assimilation of new cultigens in the subsistence system. The peach orchard villages were the largest of the seasonally occupied settlements in the eighteenth-century land–use system.

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