Interesting article about the Zunis of New Mexico...


The Zunis of New Mexico.

WASHINGTON, D. C., March 20, 1882.

The oldest nation on the continent is just now furnishing the newest sensation of the day. The incident to which I refer is unique in the extreme and altogether without a parallel.

Away down on the western border of New Mexico, about thirty miles south from the Atlantic & Pacific railroad, lives a tribe of Pueblo Indians, called the Zunis. This is undoubtedly the oldest organized community in America--it was old when the Spaniards first visited that country early in the sixteenth century; old, when Columbus sailed among the islands of the West Indies in 1492. There is no way, as yet, of determining how long they have lived where they now live, or how long they have cultivated the same fields and led their flocks over the same broad mesas on which they now range. It may be hundreds; it may be thousands of years.

I am going to tell you about the sensation. It is a long and strangely interesting story, but I'll "boil it down." Mr. F. H. Gushing, a young ethnologist of this city, and connected with the Smithsonian Institute, was sent out three years ago to study the language, habits, and customs of the Pueblo Indians. He soon came to the conclusion that the Zunis, inhabiting the largest pueblo in New Mexico, were the only pure stock. By adopting their dress and proclaiming his determination to be a Zuni and aid in the common defence against the hostile Apaches, he finally, after a long effort, got himself adopted into the tribe. I cannot tell you how he gradually worked his way into popular favor in the tribe, for I have more wonderful things to occupy the space than that would consume. Let me only say he has succeeded so well that he is now second in authority in the tribe.

The object in seeking admission to the tribe was to get possession of their language, for he was then satisfied that the Zunis, while ready to talk about themselves to the whites, and about the origin of their rude civilization, were also expert liars. His later discoveries have established the justness of this estimate of their character as his researches go to show that the worship and traditions of Montezuma,--so long accepted in all accounts of the Aztecs,--have no foundation in fact. Having been adopted into the tribe his next ambition was to become acquainted with their religion, as that was the key to the ethnological vault he wished to unlock. Every effort in that direction on his part was refused by the Zunis till one day he told them of the practice of the spiritualists among the whites. To use the phrase of the miners of that region, he had "struck it rich." He discovered the fact in time to take advantage of it.

They are spiritualists themselves; they have their circles and their mediums, and worship the spirits of their dead. While explaining modern spiritualism to them, he observed their interest in it and pretended to be himself a believer. That was most fortunate, for without further serious objection they admitted him to participation in their religious rites. His task grew easier, or at least more encouraging, as he now made more rapid progress toward the attainment of his object.

One great thing yet to be desired was admission into the highest order of the tribe--the order of the priesthood of the bow--because this order of priests is the repository of the sacred unwritten history of the tribe. This sacred literature is in a dead language, not like the spoken language of the tribe. It is composed of hymns and prayers, and chief of all is what Mr. Cushing calls the sacred "Iliad." Out of 1,600 in the tribe, only about 35 belong to the order of the priesthood of the bow and the height of his ambition, as viewed by them, may be the better understood when this fact is taken to account. Another obstacle in the way of his admission to this order was that no one could become a member till he had taken a scalp, for it is an order of war as well as of religion. It is only necessary to add that during the Apache outbreak in Arizona last summer, Mr. Cushing obtained a scalp. The justice of his act, if the killing of an Apache on the war-path requires any justification, will be the better appreciated when it is remembered that as a Zuni he was as much at war with the Apaches as any member of the tribe.

I would not pass this important period in his experience without relating the particulars as he told them to me, of that strange masonry into which he was conducted, with its solemn prayers, ancient hymns, the unwritten bible, obsolete language, and weird ceremonies, if it were possible in this brief article to give anything like a definite idea of these rites. I can only wonder what were the thoughts of the young American scientist as he submitted to those days of pagan rites, and admire the courage and enthusiasm which carried him through such a trying ordeal as it undoubtedly was.

As a member of the order of the priesthood of the bow, his authority was increased, and his standing in the tribe elevated. It now became his duty to learn the prayers and hymns, which are only communicated to members of this order.

But he soon discovered that there was yet a higher rank to be attained before he could come into possession of the "Iliad." This sacred history is committed to the care of four caciques or chiefs, who compose what is called the Ka-Ka, and is handed down through this mystic body from year to year, and from generation to generation.

Once every four years, one of the caciques, at a certain stage in their religious ceremonies, appears masked before the people and recites the "Iliad." It is so long that nearly twenty-four hours are necessary to recite it, during which time the priest who officiates is allowed to eat or drink nothing.

This sacred book, being unwritten and preserved only in the memory of the members of the Ka-Ka, it was plainly impossible for Cushing to learn it by simply hearing it recited once in four years. It was of the highest importance that he should become a member of the Ka-Ka. From having heard it recited, he knew enough about it to make its preservation in writing of the highest importance to him. As the sacred history of the nation, it commences with the fabulous, stating that man came out of the four great wombs of the earth. Two periods or stages of man's development are blank, that is nothing is related of the progress of the race, but the third and the eighteen following that treat of the race in a historical way. The third begins with what is called the separation of the tribes while the last or the nineteenth covers a period running back from the present time 200 years before the invasion of the land by the Spaniards. If one period covers so long an interval--more than 500 years--it is possible to get from that some idea of the antiquity of this race though the periods be not of equal duration.

How to become a member of the Ka-Ka and a possessor of the "Iliad" was the problem of the hour. The solution is now being worked out. They were not very much averse to his being elected to that high rank, but there was one serious obstacle in the way. The reader may have wondered if this tale would end without a woman being introduced somewhere. This is where the woman came in, and she came very near upsetting the whole scheme of the young scientist. No Zuni had ever become a member of the Ka-Ka before his marriage to one of the daughters of the tribe. "The Washington Zuni," as his Pueblo friends called Mr. Cushing, must have a wife. Whom must he marry? He was on the topmost wave of popularity now and doubtless any of the young Zuni squaws would have been glad to be chosen. They are not altogether unattractive and have the virtues of obedience, chastity, and industry. But Cushing was in love with his science and from some things he told me I am inclined to think he may also be in love with some fairer maid in the East--fairer than any the Zuni pueblo could boast. For a long time there seemed to be no help for him. He must either abandon his enterprise or wed a Zuni.

At last he hit upon a plan which he is now working out and it is in pursuance of that idea that he has come east with six of the chiefs of the tribe, including old Pedro Pino--known to the history of the border as a warrior of great intelligence and a friend of the scout, the late Kit Carson.

There was an understanding before leaving the Zuni pueblo that in consideration of his bringing certain representatives of the tribes to the East to enable them to worship the ocean and perform certain rites which can only be performed at the ocean--that in consideration of such great services to the gods, Cushing should be admitted to the Ka-Ka without being required to marry.

The Zunis are now in Boston, and that ceremony, so full of solemn reality to them, is to be performed for the first time it has been possible to observe it for hundreds of years. Indeed, it is so ancient and so long since it was observed that even the traditions which preserve its perfect details do not say when it was performed or where. Only that it was at the ocean. We know that these people have lived where they do now for over 300 years. The interesting question is when were they at the sea?