Zuni Pueblo

Painting of a Zuni kachinaThe language and the history of the Zuni people is passed orally from one generation to the next. The language is an ‘isolate,’ meaning it is not related to other languages. Until the 1990s, there were no tools for translation. As a result, most of the Zuni legends and history were unknown outside of the tribe. Fortunately, they are documenting the language now, which means the story of the Zuni people is becoming more accessible others.

Hiking Around Hawikuh

Zuni offers a full day tour exploring the seven Zuni ancestral villages known as the Cities of Cibola. One of these pueblos, Hawikuh, was the site of the first battle and first contact between Spanish conquistadors and puebloans.

Today the site is an expansive area of adobe and sandstone rubble. It would be challenging to find without a tour guide and it would be a bad idea to try. Coordinate all adventure and exploration on Zuni land swith the Zuni Pueblo Department of Tourism.

Trail at HawikuhThe Zuni established Hawikuh in the early 1200’s, possibly earlier. The site contains a wealth of information that sheds light on how ancient communities in the region lived and interacted. The “Heye Foundation” partially excavated between 1917-23. Records and artifacts from the excavation are stored at the Smithsonian-National Museum of theAmerican Indian in Washington, D.C. Additional preservation work is currently underway.

National Historic Landmark

Hawikuh was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961, though it is a historic landmark that few people know about. A google search turned up a few academic records rather than information related to tourism or history. Fortunately, Zuni Pueblo and the Zuni Visitor Center are working on making the site more accessible to visitors. Their tour director, Kenny, noted that traffic has increased every season for the last five years. Tours provide the resources needed to develop and protect archaeological resources across the reservation.

The Youth Conservation Corps created an interpretive trail at Hawikuh to preserve critical habitat and to protect fragile archaeological structures. They gathered shards of pottery scattered throughout the site and placed them neatly on boulders. The display represents more thn 2,000 years of Zuni pottery tradition, providing a tactile, tangible interaction with the past.

There are notable differences in both style and decoration, which Kenny is more than happy to explain.

Pottery lesson at Hawikuh (Zuni)

Posted by New Mexico Nomad on Tuesday, August 2, 2016

First Contact Between Europeans and Puebloans

Often Coronado’s story is inaccurately woven, like a Don Quixote fable. Story tellers and historians depict him as a persistent explorer looking for treasure in a legendary city that didn’t exist. This is a romanticized, wildly inaccurate, version of the story.

Hawikuh was the site of first contact between Europeans, Africans and Native American Indians. This was one of the “Cities of Cibola,” where Francisco Vázquez de Coronado expected to find gold. The tales of treasure were a lie. Rather than punishing the individual who lied, Coronado ordered his troops to attack Hawikuh.

Frederick Remington painting of the Coronado Expedition
Frederick Remington painting of the Coronado Expedition, painted 1898

The Scouting Party

A year prior to Coronado’s adventures in the southwest, the viceroy sent Father Marcos de Niza into the northern territory with a small scouting party, including a linguistically adept slave named Esteban.

Esteban spent more than 12 years traveling across the southwest with three other survivors of the failed Florida expedition. The Spaniards dispatched him as their emissary when they encountered native tribes. Over the years, Esteban absorbed multiple languages and assimilated many of the native customs. This knowledge made him an asset to the northern expedition.

Father Marcos didn’t like Esteban. Based on the priest’s letters to the viceroy in Mexico City, Esteban had a penchant for turquoise and native women. Additionally, Marcos resented the respect that Esteban received from the tribes encountered. He decided to send Esteban ahead of the main party, accompanied by a few scouts.

Esteban’s Story Ends

Esteban’s group was the first to encounter Hawikuh. Most versions of the tale say he was killed by the Zuni immediately. One variation suggests that he made contact with Zuni allies who helped him escape. One detail is consistent across all accounts. The Zuni did not attack any of the scouts with Esteban. They released them.

None of the scouts witnessed Esteban’s murder, though they reported his death to Father Marcos a few days later. The priest didn’t bother to investigate. Instead, Father Marcos promptly returned to Mexico City where he spun fanciful tales of treasure; wealthy villages with roads paved in gold. It was these depictions that motivated Coronado to head north the following spring.

Zuni welcome signCoronado Expedition of 1540

Coronado set out for “Cibola” with 500 Spanish soldiers and about 1,500 Indian allies. The expedition made their way across southern New Mexico in June and July. Most of what is known about the journey is based on written accounts by Coronado and his soldiers. Many of these narratives were gathered as depositions during trials against Coronado and his men for cruelty inflicted on the natives during the expedition.

All of the reports reflect a harsh trip; trails were rough, which made passage difficult for troops, equipment and livestock and there was little food or water available. Coronado’s troops arrived at Hawikuh exhausted, hungry and hostile. They realized the village had no treasure to plunder, but they attacked anyway, killing several warriors and seizing the town.


Hawikuh overlooks a valley that has been home to the Zuni for thousands of years. It is a beautiful place for a village; quiet and peaceful. Contact the Zuni Pueblo Department of Tourism if you would like to visit Hawikuh, the Great Kivas, Zuni Mission or the Badger Springs Petroglyphs. 505-782-7238

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