Preservation and Research of Sacred Sites by the Zuni Indian Tribe of New Mexico

By Mills, Barbara J.; Ferguson, T. J. | Human Organization, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Preservation and Research of Sacred Sites by the Zuni Indian Tribe of New Mexico


Mills, Barbara J., Ferguson, T. J., Human Organization


Sacred sites are important in the ceremonial life of the Zuni Indians of the American Southwest. To protect these sites, both on and off the Zuni Indian Reservation. the Zuni Tribe has used two research and management strategies: (1) historic preservation, and (2) legislation and litigation. In this article, the Zuni Tribe's use of historic preservation to manage sacred sites is analyzed using the report series of the Zuni Archaeology Program. While sacred sites were only a small fraction of the total number of sites recorded, the treatment of these sites as cultural resources resulted in their protection. The Zuni Tribe has also successfully managed sacred sites through special Federal legislation and litigation of land claims. In two instances, sacred places have been added to the Zuni Reservation. Although the strategies employed by the Zuni Tribe have generally been successful, our analysis identifies two as yet unresolved issues: (1) the limited ability of archaeologists to recognize sacred sites, and (2) the unknown impact that may result from the reduction of a dynamic oral tradition to the literate scholarly and legal forms of the dominant society.

Key words: Zuni Indians, sacred sites, historic preservation, archaeology; US, Southwest, New Mexico

The protection of sacred sites poses special challenges to national and international heritage preservation programs (Carmichael et al. eds. 1994). The Zuni Indians of New Mexico have actively pursued protection of their sacred sites over the past two decades, providing an example of the diverse means through which contemporary tribes in the United States have access to sacred sites protection and the varied contexts in which anthropological knowledge may be employed in the process. Zuni ceremonial life involves the ritual use of many locations, many of which are located off their reservation. In this article, we summarize how the Zuni Tribe has successfully protected sacred sites, which we define as places with ritual importance, through two major means: (1) the historic preservation process, especially the activities of the tribe's own archaeology program; and (2) legislation and litigation.

We begin this article with a brief overview of the cultural context of sacred sites at Zuni. Next, we discuss how the historic preservation process works at Zuni and analyze how the tribe used this to protect sacred sites. We then discuss several cases where the Zuni Tribe has been able to protect sites through the legislative and legal systems. We conclude with a summary of the benefits of each of these strategies of sacred sites protection and discussion of some of the issues raised by this case study. One of these issues is the limited ability of archaeologists to recognize sacred sites, which, in turn, limits the effectiveness of the historic preservation process. The use of Zuni cultural advisors provides a means to overcome the limitations of archaeology. Another issue is the yet unknown impact that will ensue from the reduction of a dynamic oral tradition to the literate scholarly and legal forms of the dominant society.

The Cultural Context

The Pueblo of Zuni is a federally recognized tribe of North American Indians that occupies a portion of the high plateaus of the American Southwest. It is one of the largest of a related group of tribes known as Pueblos (Eggan 1979), with a population of about 10,000 tribal members (Anyon and Ferguson 1995). Most tribal members live on the Zuni Indian Reservation, encompassing four tracts of trust land with a total area of 655 square miles in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona, as well as some additional fee land not held in trust. The original extent of the Zuni land use system was, however, much larger, encompassing over 24,000 square mile (Ferguson 1989; Ferguson and Hart 1985). The Zuni have a complex socioreligious structure, one that has brought them a large share of anthropological study during the last century.

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