Zuñi Pueblo is the largest of the 19 New Mexican Pueblos, covering more than 700 square miles, with a population of over 10,000.
Mission Building in Zuñi Pueblo
The Zuñi encountered the Spanish conquistadors first. Coronado sacked the Zuñi pueblo of Hawikuh in 1540, hoping to find gold. Antonio de Espejo crossed Zuñi lands in 1583, followed by Don Juan de Oñate in 1598. The Spanish priest founded their first mission in Zuñi 30 years later.
Zuñi pueblo is so far from Santa Fe that being assigned as a priest was perceived as punishment, or penance, rather than as an honor or higher calling. Father José, a Franciscan priest assigned to Zuñi, pointedly remarked,
If it had been chosen for a prison for those guilty of the gravest crimes there would have not been a more severe decision.
Don Juan de Oñate assigned Father Estevan de Perea to preside over the province encompassing the Acoma, Zuñi and Hopi pueblos in 1629. Father Perea built the mission at Hawikuh later that year. By the time Father Francisco de Letrado arrived in Zuñi in 1630-1631, there were three missions under construction in the area. The priests running the project dedicated Hawikuh to La Purísima Concepción. They dedicated Halona to Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria. They never completed the third church at Kechipauan.
On February 22, 1632, Zuñi warriors ambushed Father Letrado at the mission. They murdered him. Five days later, they killed another priest and burned the missions. To avoid Spanish vengeance, they fled to the protection of the nearby mesa, Dowa-Yalanne, aka “Thunder Mountain.” The mesa top pueblo is a Zuñi sanctuary. Historically, the mesa has been their best defense option. Zuñi warriors sequestered their women, children, and village elders on top when Coronado attacked Hawikuh in 1540. It worked again in 1632, though they stayed up there for three years. By 1643, the Franciscans restored the missions in Hawikuh and Halona. The sole priest lived in Halona.
Spanish influence wasn’t strong on the outer periphery of the province. Prolonged drought during the 1600s provoked desperate circumstances for the pueblos, the Navajo and the Apache. Raiding parties sacked the villages regularly. In 1672, an Apache raiding party attacked the mission at Hawikuh. The warriors killed the missionaries and burned the church to the ground. The priests built another mission. Same outcome.
The Zuñi aligned with the other pueblos during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Zuñi warriors killed the priest and destroyed the missions. Hawikuh’s inhabitants abandoned the village. They took refuge with the other five Zuñi pueblos on Black Mesa. They never returned.
Diego de Vargas reclaimed the region for the Spanish crown in 1692. He sent emissaries to Zuñi. The emissaries discovered the churches in an advanced state of disrepair and the Zuñi sequestered on Dowa Yalanne. Diego de Vargas promised that he would not attack, coaxing them to return to their fields and rebuild the church. The Zuñi agreed. Vargas assigned a troop of eleven soldiers to maintain order and to supervise the restoration of the mission in Halona.
Zuñi | Remote and Overlooked
The priests abandoned Zuñi by 1821 due to the persistent Navajo and Apache attacks. They didn’t hold Mass regularly. Most tribal members followed the traditional path, adhering to Zuñi religious beliefs and customs. They ignored the Spanish. For the most part, the Spanish ignored them.
By 1881, the mission church in Halona was deteriorating and sinking back into the dirt that had given it form. The windows were large holes in the walls barred with wood. The interior was in disarray. The fresco had peeled from the walls. Water and wind had withered the adobe towers. The balcony was sagging, held in place by a post.
Villagers rebuilt part of the roof in 1905. They reduced the width of the nave 10 feet and its length by 20. The campo santo remains in front of the church, divided in burial practice with women to the north and men to the south.
The renown Zuñi artist, Alex Seowtewa, painted life-sized Kachinas on the interior of the church during a remodel in the 1960s. Unfortunately, his murals are at risk. The church currently needs extensive repair. The interior is off limits. The Kachinas can’t be removed from the walls without destroying them.
The Hawikuh ruins are on the Zuñi Indian Reservation. The Zuñi Pueblo offers tours of the site for a fee. Visitors should make reservations at least a week in advance to ensure availability. For tour information, please visit the Zuñi Pueblo Department of Tourism website or call (505) 782-7238, ask for Tom or Kenny.