The Spirit of Zuni Salt Lake

In western New Mexico a remote site embodies religious concerns and some very wordly pursuits.

A year ago I sat with Edward Wemytewa on a sandstone wall by his garden, where early summer desert corn inched toward a perfect sky. Beyond the garden and rolling hills covered with grass and sage, broad mesas tufted with piñon and juniper defined the southern edge of the Zuni Valley in western New Mexico. To the east, Corn Mountain—Dowa Yalanne—with its sheer red cliffs and sandstone spires presided as Zuni Pueblo's central emblem. Like Noah's Ark, it had sheltered the people when a great flood came. The valley, bordered by mesas to the north as well, expanded to the west like a broad fjord might open to the ocean. Beyond the horizon, in the high desert of eastern Arizona, lay Zuni Heaven.

I had first met Wemytewa in 1991, when he was an art teacher at Twin Buttes High School in the Zuni public school district and I was researching tribal education for a college thesis. He was now a member of the Zuni Tribal Council. With charcoal and silver hair kept short on top and, in Zuni fashion, lengthening into a broad tail that covered his collar, Wemytewa could have been switched at birth for Charles Bronson by a careless nurse. But there was no bluster in Wemytewa, and I found it easy to be with him and still notice the surrounding details, like the red-tailed hawk that soared above us.

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