Sacred Lake

Encyclopedia Article


A shallow saline lake located about 50 miles south of Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico. The Zuni understand the lake to be their sacred mother, Ma’l Oyattsik’I or "Salt Woman," and the lake is also a sacred site for the Navajo, Apache, Laguna, Acoma, and Hopi peoples as well. Each of these groups make annual pilgrimages to the lake to conduct ceremonies and harvest salt used in rituals throughout the year. Because the site and the salt it provides is so significant, the lake and the network of pilgrimage trails surrounding it are considered neutral and protected, as the salt, the lake, and the ceremonies associated are believed to sustain the spiritual lifeways of the peoples of the region.

The Zuni Salt Lake has also been at the center of contemporary controversies over water and mineral rights, as utility companies continue to submit proposals for coal mining, water pumping, and infrastructure development that would all severely impact the sacred site as well as its connecting cultural landscapes and associated ecosystems. The Zuni Salt Lake Coalition, an alliance between tribal grassroots organizations and the Sierra Club, succeeded in getting the lake limited protection under the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, although the struggles to maintain the spiritual, cultural, and environmental integrity of the lake and its network of pilgrimage trails are ongoing.

Photo Credit: 

"Zuni Salt Lake, also known as Fence Lake, New Mexico, circa 2000," photograph by Bureau of Land Management. (). Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico. All Rights Reserved, Use with permission only.