October 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

“Night poured over the desert. It came suddenly, in purple. In the clear air, the stars drilled down out of the sky, reminding any thoughtful watcher that it is in the deserts and high places that religions are generated. When men see nothing but bottomless infinity over their heads they have always had a driving and desperate urge to find someone to put in the way.”  – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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Old Zuni Mission

Old Zuni Mission

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“…..paintings that covered both side walls of the church. There, life-size, were dozens of the kachinas of the Zuni kachina religion, and priests and dancers and others performing religious functions of tribe and kiva and clan.

Traditional Zuni life is a complex interweaving of clans, societies, and religion. The centerpieces of Zuni religion (and that of some other Pueblo Tribes) are the kachinas.  Kachinas are spirits of things in the physical world. In terms of their power and influence they somewhat resemble Catholic saints. They are powerful manifestations that can bring good things for people: rain, healing, abundant crops, or protection.

On the left wall were the warm month activities, rain dancers and initiation rites and the alter of a medicine man, all under blue sky and rainbow and sacred serpent, birds and plants and sun gracing the procession of kachinas with the gifts of the earth. On the right was the winter when Shalako, the biggest annual celebration, happens (there will be a later posting here about out experiences with Shalako), and there were the Mudheads and the Longhorns and the Shalako Kachina himself, and the Shalako priest and the other kachinas of the cold months. Above them stretched a snowy sky and snow lay at their feet, all sparkling with glittered frost.

Alex Seowtewa, a Zuni man, has been painting these kachina scenes since 1970, when he convinced a priest that despite his slight artistic training, he could capture the images on the walls of the church. He wanted to depict the traditional Zuni religion in this Catholic place, and preserve images of Zuni culture that may be otherwise lost. Zuni priest functions are sometimes lost when a priest dies before he can teach his chants and songs to another.

With two of his sons, Alex paints high on a scaffolding against the wall or up in the loft where they are working on a large panel depicting the church as it was many years ago, including a Zuni Christ figure above pouring corn pollen blessings upon the church and the town below. When Alex or one of his sons is here and visitors enter, they will stop their painting to explain what they are doing and why, what the figures mean, some of the history of the Zuni tribe, and its religious beliefs and its painful encounters with the Spanish.”

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“The fire. The odor of burning juniper is the sweetest fragrance on the face of the earth, in my honest judgment; I doubt if all the smoking censers of Dante’s paradise could equal it. One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West. Long may it burn.”  – Edward Abbey

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§ 2 Responses to gift.

  • David Crews says:

    I was able to visit the Zuni Mission a number of years ago and was toured by one of Alex’s sons. Amazing and beautiful murals expressing such a rich tradition.

    • southwestdesertlover says:

      Hi David and thank you for your comment. Experiencing those kachina murals (and two buffalo heads near the altar) is one of my favorite memories. I hope to visit again!

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