FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Zuni culture is rooted in farming and food traditions dating back many millennia. This weekend the annual Zuni Festival of Arts and Culture and the Museum of Northern Arizona will celebrate these important traditions, along with the art, music and dance that flowered from them.
Many of the motifs and imagery in Zuni art come from the agricultural tradition, according to Curtis Quam, cultural educator for the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni , which is cosponsoring the 29th annual Zuni Festival at MNA.
During the festival two dance groups, the Cellicion Dancers and the Olla Maidens, will perform social songs and dances, which often refer to the wish for rains to come and nourish the crops, for good growing conditions and healthy harvests. The designs in pottery depict clouds, rain, land formation and vital crops.
“A lot of how we express ourselves, whether it be songs or prayer or art, a lot of that is really built in our culture and our place in it. A lot of it is that to survive you need water, you need to eat,” Quam said. “A lot of the expression in the art, it shows the uses of land. The very geometric designs you see in pottery – they are expressions of how we want to see life, of water, of good crops, of birds.”
Quam will demonstrate how to build a Zuni Waffle Garden during the Zuni Festival May 25 and 26. This garden design involves building mud walls around small square growing plots. The mud walls protect seedlings from the harsh winds and a special soil mixture helps direct moisture to the plant roots.
Growing food is also a way to grow community and connections, said Quam. The harvests are shared and create moments of gathering. This becomes even more important in our modern era, when it’s so easy to become disconnected from our food source and each other. Quam recalled talking to one of the last women who was still gardening with a traditional waffle garden, watering the plants by hand. She was offered a drip-line system for her garden, free and installed, but she refused it.
“She said ‘I have to water by my hand. I have to know my plants,’” Quam said. “That was amazing to hear and made sense. This is a connection we have and it’s the same for people and our relationship in our community as well - we have to maintain our relationship and we have to do it face to face.”
People also bond around food, and two young artists have been working to bring ancestral foods to a new generation. Elroy
Natachu Jr. and Kandis Quam have been carefully translating the “pinch of this, handful of that” recipes passed down through their families into more standardized recipes. They will give presentations on Ancestral Foods during the Zuni Festival.
“Anything that’s traditional, just because the ingredients are simple it usually means you have to put more work into it,” Kandis Quam said. “We’ve tried to cheat at every possible turn and it’s backfired.”
Many traditional recipes look deceptively simple, such as parched corn, which has only two ingredients – corn and salt water. Transforming those simple ingredients into a crunchy, tasty snack that won’t break your teeth is a long and painstaking process, including carefully aging the corn under the correct conditions, then cooking over intense heat.
“That one’s a little bit dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing because of the heat,” said Natachu, Jr.
The most accessible recipe is for wheat pudding, because the ingredients can be bought at a grocery store and the pudding is easily adapted.
“It’s kind of like the Fro Yo of Pueblo cooking,” Quam said.
Natachu and Quam will both be bringing their art as well, and see how the traditional motifs in older art link back to the food and farming traditions.
“They kind of go hand in hand. Where you can see it a lot is in the old pottery. All the motifs are based on the moisture and the farm,” Natachu said. “Then as the art started to evolve from ceramics you can see the most moisture patterns into the fine arts and painting, you can see images that aim toward the elements like rain, cloud.”
The arts have flourished in Zuni, with finely crafted silverwork, stone-carving, and pottery recognized internationally for its refined design and style. The Zuni Festival is a rare opportunity for people to meet the artists and see them at work, said Curtis Quam.
“For us, it’s important that these artists that are amazing and masters at their crafts are highlighted and that people know a little more about them. In today’s world where people look for bargains, when you see some art and you see how much work went into it, you see why they are priced the way they are,” CQ said. “It’s like your food. If you know where it comes from, you value it.”
“If you had the chance to meet Picasso or Michelangelo or Salvador Dali and have a conversation with them and purchase something from them, most people would jump at that. This is a chance to do that,” Curtis Quam said.
This year the festival is expanding across the museum campus, to include tours of the Easton Collection Center, hands-on gardening workshops, and presentations of MNA research. The Zuni Festival runs from 9 am to 5 pm May 25 and 26. Tribal members always receive discounted admission at MNA with proof of tribal affiliation.
Information provided by the Museum of Northern Arizona