Cultural Reference


In Zuni ceremonial tradition, human dancers wear sacred outfits and masks to impersonate katchinas (spirit beings) that preside over Zuni life and their natural surroundings. Ceremonial dances are performed regularly, following a detailed calendar of seasonal prayers and rituals. Pa'-u-ti-wa is a winter solstice katchina who is considered the most venerable and powerful of the Zuni pantheon. He represents beauty, dignity, benevolence, prosperity, and generosity. As the chief of the spirit village of Kothluala, Pa'-u-ti-wa has many religious duties such as controlling the ceremonial calendar, receiving the spirits of the dead, and answering human appeals and prayers, often by sending various helping katchinas to visit pueblos.


This Zuni term refers to a group of men chosen by the tribe to perform as runners of the sacred dance in public ceremonials. Zuni communal rituals are closely aligned with the seasonal cycle of planting, growing, and harvesting grain, especially corn, and these agile runners' task is to carry pouches of grain between certain locations in or around the village, creating a symbolic connection between the people of the village and the spirits and gods that surround them. Zuni sacred gatherings involve interrelated societies that are dedicated to a particular group of spirits, each with its own system of priesthood, codes of conduct, and a unique tradition of worship and rituals. The purpose of these societies' activities and celebrations is to promote harmony with the forces of nature and ensure health, fertility, and abundance of corn and other crops and sources of food.


Sayatasha is the Rain God of the North. According to the Zuni myths, each year, the Sayatasha title is given to a person chosen by the eldest female of the ceremonial host family. This person performs specific tasks that are part of the ritual. He is also responsible for the Zuni religious calendar, reckoned primarily by the position of the moon. He must notify all parties at the appropriate time to prepare for ceremonial occasions.

One of the members of the Zuni Council of the Gods, Sayatasha, or Longhorn, wears a mask that bears a long sweeping horn. The horn is evocative of the trailing walls of rain and virga that accompany the monsoonal flows that swing around from the North in the American Southwest, making the horned appearance of Sayatasha one associated with life-giving force and deep appreciation, rather than one of monstrosity.


Also known as the Little Fire God, Shulawitsi is an important spiritual figure in the Zuni pueblo tradition. Personated by a young boy of the Badger Clan, this figure’s body and mask are painted black with various multicolored dots, and his role is to carry a fire brand during the Shalako ceremony, which marks the end one year and the beginning of another. The ceremony intends to ask the protective spirits to provide the community with rains and sustenance. The Little Fire God also carries a small deerskin bag within which are seeds to be blessed during the fertility rites that are a part of the Shalako ceremony.

It is important to note the use of the word “personate” in the discussion of Zuñi and other Pueblo people’s gods and kachinas. Generally speaking, in Pueblo culture, when a dancer dons a mask for a specific ceremony, that dancer becomes the god represented by the mask, just as the mask becomes animated by the god as it is worn. Masks are sacred objects that facilitate communication and connection between man and gods. Even when not worn during ceremonial dances, masks are revered objects that are fed and taken care of by kiva societies or clans who are responsible for their well-being. These masks are believed to be vital and dynamic objects, if not sentient things. Therefore, the young boy, who spends a year preparing to wear the mask of Shulawitsi during the Shalako ceremony, does not impersonate or merely act like the Little Fire God; he actually becomes--or personates--Shulawitsi during the ceremony itself.


In the tradition of the Zuni people of the American Southwest, Shalako refers both an annual winter solstice ceremony, as well as to spirit deities perceived as giant, beaked messengers to the gods. Six Shalako messengers, one for each cosmic direction (the four cardinal directions as well as one for above and one for below), carry prayers from the Zuni people to the gods all year long. After the fall harvest, close to the winter solstice, as the year transitions from old to new, the Shalako ceremony takes place. It includes dances, prayers, remembrance of ancestors, and ritual blessings for health and fertility. The Shalako messengers, personated by trained dancers, are depicted as very tall kachina who accompany the personated Council of the Gods in a ceremony that lasts all evening.

The participating members of the Zuni Council of Gods and their retinue enter Zuni on the evening of the Shalako ceremony in a very specific order. First enters Shulawitsi (Fire God), accompanied by a ceremonial "father" who has tended a sacred juniper fire in the days prior to the ceremony. Second enters Sayatasha (Rain God from the North), wearing a mask with a turquoise horn sweeping out from the right side of his face. Third is Hu-tu-tu (Rain God from the South), followed by two Yamukato protector warriors, one from the East and one from the West. Two Salamobia enforcers with their beaked masks, ruffed necks, and yucca whips bring up the rear, followed finally the giant Shalako. The six Shalako figures enter the pueblo at sunset, accompanied by their attendants, and tower over the attendees and participants, as their giant beaked masks make these dancers rise to about nine feet tall.

Preparations for the next Shalako begin as soon as the current year’s celebration is over, and involve the entire community. On the one hand, the ceremony marks several days of concentrated spiritual observance and ritual practice; on the other, Shalako remains a vital and active presence in the Zuni pueblo’s daily life all year long.

Dance Hall of the Dead

A reference to the holy village beneath Lake Kolhu/wala-wa, where the Zuni go to be with their ancestors after they have died. In Zuni mythology, before settling into permanent pueblos, the Zuni were in search of their final home in the Middle Place or Halona: Itiwana. While they traveled, the Zuni made temporary camps in various places, which later became sacred places. Eventually the groups split up and one group traveled down the Little Colorado River and founded a village at the lake at the junction of the Zuni and Little Colorado Rivers, this was Lake Kolhu/wala-wa. This village is known as Zuni Heaven or Kachina Village, or as recounted in Tony Hillerman's telling of the Zuni myth, Dance Hall of the Dead, as the lake is also the location where Zuni kachina reside when they're not among the people. In the tradition of the Pueblo peoples of the U.S. Southwest, the term kachina generally refers to protective deities that are generally understood to be supernatural manifestations of elements occurring in the natural world, such as weather phenomena, plants, and animals. When kachina interact with the people, they are summoned by the sacred ritual of dance, and they move among the people by dancing.


This word could not be translated with any reliability. It's closest counterpart is the word "do'ninne," meaning rope. It could mean that dragonfly is crying out to be released from the threaded loop of hair holding him captive but there is no way to discern the exact meaning.


An enduring despondency and sadness causing the loss of hope for a positive futurity.


This is the term ethnologist Frank Cushing gave to Zuni processed seeds and grains. All kinds of batter cakes, bread and crackers were made by placing the batter in corn husks and covering with a scaffolding of stones for baking in the fire. Sweet mush is a kind of breadstuff, as are the delicate salt tortillas. The fire-baked crackers were known to be quite thin and flaky, in all the hues of corn: red, yellow and blue. Cushing reports that as the men filed in from work in the fields, the women would lay out a feast along the roof of steaming bowls of red chile stew and breadstuff crackers, inviting the workers to sit and eat.


Another word for the practice of witchcraft, magic, or the manipulation of supernatural powers, especially with the intent of influencing the behavior of others. Sorcery tends to have a negative connotation when used in the context of Native American traditions, as does witchcraft, although neither is necessarily always associated with dark, hurtful, or negative work.

In Tony Hillerman's 1973 Navajo detective novel DANCE HALL OF THE DEAD, he references a Zuni "Sorcery Fraternity," but it seems that this may be an oblique reference to the Zuni Bow Chiefs, who don't really comprise a "fraternity," but who became responsible for policing the alleged use of sorcery after their war duties evaporated as a result of European settlement.


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