The Zuni people have lived and farmed in the Zuni River Valley in New Mexico for thousands of years. The Zunis (Ah-Shiw in the Zuni language) are Pueblo Indians who live on the Zuni Reservation in the northwest part of New Mexico. Most of the 12,000 Zuni who live on the reservation live in the Pueblo of Zuni.
Dance is considered to be the heart of Zuni culture, religion, and identity. Zuni believe that their complex system of ceremonies and dances keeps the Pueblo of Zuni and the world at large in balance. Many ceremonies and dances are based on the cycle of the seasons. For example, in early winter, dancers representing the messengers of the rain deities come to bless new homes. In many ceremonial dances, dancers wear masks and elaborate regalia to represent the spirits or Kachinas. Most dances take place in the ceremonial plaza surrounded by the multi-storied buildings of their ancestors.
Visitors to the Pueblo of Zuni are allowed to observe some of these dances as long as they are respectful and take no photos or videos. They are also asked not to write about the dances. Zuni believe that some knowledge should be shared, but some should be protected and they ask their visitors to respect this. Dances like the Harvest Dance are social dances and can be shared, even though they have a spiritual significance.
After harvesting all the crops that have grown over the summer, the Zuni people celebrate a productive growing season and the end of many months of hard work. Kiva (religious) leaders meet to decide on a date for the harvest dance. In this dance, the Zuni people honor the earth and gather the community for a celebration of the harvest.
After setting a date, kiva leaders choose those who are to be in charge of inviting young and old dancers and preparing dance regalia for the female dancers. Over the next four days, the people in charge of the dance make plans to invite the dancers to meet and prepare for the dance. They gather at an underground room generally used for sacred and spiritual meetings. After days of preparation and nights of practice comes the day of the actual dance.
When it is time to dance, the dancers form two lines, finding their appropriate places before they go into the plaza. There are usually four sets of songs/dances with breaks in between. After the dancers come out for the fourth time, the families bring out a feast of food for everyone in the plaza. Religious leaders offer bits of food to Mother Earth as offerings for a year of prosperous crops and longevity. After the feast, the dancing continues until leaders decide it is time to stop.