The Zuni tribe, inhabiting a region of west-central
New Mexico before European contact, preserved
their religion, history, and cultural practices in a
lively and textured tradition of verse narrative. Like
other traditions of ORAL LITERATURE, Zuni stories
are anonymous in origin and were meant to be performed.
They were remembered and retold in Shiwi’ma,
the Zuni language. Storytellers frequently
acted out the dialogue and other conversations
within the story, requiring inventive techniques to
represent a range of voices. Changes in volume,
pitch, and rhythm were used to give emphasis. The
tale-teller might use pauses or silence to punctuate
a line; at other times he or she might chant or burst
Zuni tales, because of their twining nature, were
associated with snakes. Telling a tale out in the open
might attract the “smile of a snake” (snakebite).
Therefore, tales were reserved for the cold winter
months, after the meeting of the medicine society
sent all the snakes, especially the rattlesnakes, into
their homes under the ground. Since no one
wanted to speed along the brief bit of light available
during the winter day, tale-telling took place
after dark, to help fill the long evenings. Someone
in the audience would address the storyteller with
“telaapi,” meaning “take out a tale.” The storyteller
would respond with “so’nahchi!,” something to the
effect of, “so it begins.” Listener responses encouraged
the tale-teller to continue, indicating that
they were paying close attention, and no one was
allowed to fall asleep until the story was over. The
storyteller typically ended by reminding listeners
that the events in the story happened long ago, in
a mythical sort of time where things had different
meanings than they do in the present world. This
suspension of time allowed animals to talk, spirits
to circulate, and magical events to take place side
by side with daily living without evoking any sort
of suspicion or surprise. In the absence of a written
means of communication, the recitation of story
and verse carried tribal memories, histories, and
instructions on how to behave in the world.
Many of the Zuni narratives are origin tales, explaining
the beginnings of religious practices or of
a natural state. The story of “Coyote and Junco,”
for example, explains why coyotes have bad teeth,
while the story of “The Girl and the Little Ahayuuta”
explains why the Ahayuuta twins and their
grandmother are worshipped at three separate
shrines. The stories contain the Zuni’s mythology,
such as a description of the creation of the world
by the All-Father, Awonawílona, as well as distant
memories of tribal founders and migrations in
search of favorable places to live. The narratives
also portray values and practices in which the Zuni
believed. For instance, the story of the boy hunter
who never sacrificed the deer he killed carries a
moral point, while the story of the boy who was
raised by deer shows humans living in harmony
with other creatures of the world.
The narratives also describe important religious
practices and beliefs, such as the tale “The Sun
Priest and the Witch-Woman.” This narrative,
which builds dramatic tension around the plans
of the witches to kill the sun priest, makes clear
the importance of the sun priest as the highestranking
of all Zuni priests and the one responsible
for greeting the Sun Father every morning with offerings
and prayers. It records the practices of the
medicine societies, such as the Saniyakya Society; or
the Coyote Society, whose members cared for
hunters and, at festivals such as Good Night, the
winter solstice, held ceremonies wherein they cured,
for free, anyone who came to them with an illness or
complaint. It also emphasizes the importance of
family or clanship and the beliefs that would guide
one down the Pollen Way, the path of life.
Like any folktales, the stories recorded in Zuni
narrative poetry have a deeper symbolic meaning,
and the interactions of the characters convey valuable
cultural information about Zuni beliefs, practices,
and ways of life.
English Versions of Zuni Narrative Poetry
Cushing, Frank Hamilton. The Mythic World of the
Zuni. Edited by Barton Wright. Albuquerque:
University of New Mexico Press, 1988.
Finding the Center: The Art of the Zuni Storyteller.
Translated by Dennis Tedlock. Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press, 1999.
The Zunis: Self-Portrayals by the Zuni People. Translated
by Alvina Quam. Albuquerque: University of
New Mexico Press, 1972.
Works about Zuni Narrative Poetry
Murray, David. Forked Tongues: Speech,Writing, and
Representation in North American Indian Texts.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Tedlock, Barbara. The Beautiful and the Dangerous:
Encounters with the Zuni Indians. New York:
Tedlock, Dennis. The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania