By Edward Wemytewa

“Are the Storytellers There? Are the Stories Going to Be Told?” by Edward Wemytewa

Edward Wemytewa is a founder of Idiwanan An Chawe, a new (and the first) Zuni language theater. For the past 15 years, Roadside and traditional Native American artists of the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico have been engaged in an exchange. A joint creation, Corn Mountain/Pine Mountain: Following the Seasons, will be performed in April at The Untold Stories Festival at Arizona State University. The Zuni people, one of the most traditional tribes in the U.S., trace their beginnings in New Mexico back more than 10,000 years.
Here at Zuni, our language and our connection to the land are important. Idiwanan An Chawe tells stories in the Zuni language because we are concerned about the language. We have to maintain it. Who we are, our religion, our history, our culture, are embodied in our language. If the Zuni language is lost, how will we make prayers; how will we be Zuni? We are finding that theater — telling our stories through live performance — is a good way to keep the language alive.

Last year, in the winter months, we created a new play about the Zuni Salt Lake called Ma’l Okyattsik An Denihalowilli:we (Gifts from Salt Woman). The Salt Lake is important to us because it is where the Salt Mother lives. We make pilgrimages there for health reasons, to make prayers, and, of course, to gather salt. But the Salt Mother has not always lived at the Zuni Salt Lake. She used to live at K’yanahnakn’a (Lake That Was Emptied).

When the salt deposits dried up at K’yanahnakn’a, the Salt Mother moved, and the people blamed themselves for not taking better care of the lake. The Frog Clan adopted the lake, draining and cleaning it every year. There was the hope that the Salt Mother would return, so the lake became a shrine.

Then, in 1904, the federal government began building the Black Rock Dam just east of the main village. It was completed in 1908, but for the next 25 years there were all kinds of problems, and the dam silted, destroying forever K’yanahnakn’a, once home of the Salt Woman. The shrine and way of life for the Frog Clan were destroyed.

Now it looks like Salt Woman’s present home, Ma’k’yay’a, is threatened. Ma’k’yay’a is on the Zuni Reservation, however, the state issued a permit to a coal company to mine coal on land just twelve miles to the east.

Water is very scarce around here, so we are worried. The coal company says that they are taking measures to ensure that the lake doesn’t dry up, but we don’t believe them because we have hydrologists who say otherwise. The coal company hydrologists have contradicted themselves many times on their points, and have left out information that doesn’t work for them.

It reminds us of the Black Rock Dam. The government built the Black Rock Dam for us becausethey said we would become more successful. Instead, our farming has stopped because the dam didn’t hold enough water.

When we did research for our play, we found that the government had more in mind than just trying to block a body of water. The project was also about making a reservation — centralizing Indians so they could be made manageable. It was about taking land away. It was about educating us to forget our cultural ways. The realization was very upsetting, but, at the same time, it was rewarding that we had access to this kind of information, and that we could share it with our people.

When we made the play, we also made five radio programs that aired on KSHI, Zuni community radio. When they started to air, people stopped us on the street; people stopped us at the store; people let us know that they heard us on the radio. Our programs were live. Sometimes we would be a few minutes late getting on the air, and people would start calling in and saying, “Are the storytellers there? Are the stories going to be told?”

Cite This

Edward Wemytewa. “Idiwanan An Chawe, A Zuni Language Theater.” October 23, 2015.

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