Kachinas and the Cross: two cultures commingle


January 29, 1995|By New York Times News Service

ZUNI, N.M. --Inside the doorway at Our Lady of Guadeloupe Church on the Zuni Indian Reservation is a portrait of the Virgin Mary. Another hangs at the other end of the sanctuary, behind the altar. Between the two, on the historic church's plaster walls, visitors find a breathtaking surprise. Above pictures of the Stations of the Cross, depicting scenes from the Crucifixion, are murals of more than two dozen life-sized kachinas, the spirit beings of Pueblo culture.

In vibrant colors, their masks and clothing richly detailed, they seem to dance across the walls toward the altar in a vivid celebration of the Zuni ceremonial cycle: summer rain dances, winter solstice celebrations and other rituals performed by costumed dancers in Zuni Pueblo.

But their presence raises a question: How do such figures coexist with the symbols of Roman Catholicism, in a church built by Colonial missionaries as an anchor of Christianity in this part of the New World?

"It's the first question I get asked," said the Rev. Dale Jameson, a priest in the local Franciscan mission who celebrates Mass in the church when it is warm enough to do so. His answer: "Ask the artist."

That would be Alex Seowtowa, 62, an altar boy in his youth and a graduate of parochial schools.

In speaking of his work recently, he described himself as a Catholic who is also a "cultural practitioner" of Zuni traditions. "I personally feel that when I mix my colors, everything is a sign of prayer to me," he said.

Working atop a metal scaffold, Mr. Seowtowa has devoted 25 years to the paintings in the thick-walled adobe church, assisted by his sons Kenneth, 37, and Edwin, 35. Built in 1629 and restored in the late 1960s, the mission has been designated a national landmark.

Kenneth Seowtowa said he had found "a lot of similarities" between Zuni and Catholic practices, citing a period of fasting during the winter solstice that he compared to Lent.

"We don't fall down and worship the kachinas," he said. "They're like our intermediaries," similar to saints or guardian angels.

The murals, he said, are "bringing the past to the present and then preserving our Zuni heritage."

Among American Indian tribes, the Zunis retain more of their original culture than most. Some ceremonies, like the winter Shalako dance (SHAH-luh-ko) featuring towering, costumed figures, have long been popular among tourists -- so popular, in fact, that in recent years the tribe has taken measures to dissuade outsiders from attending Shalako.

Yet northwestern New Mexico, a starkly dramatic landscape of mesas and canyons, has had a longer exposure to Christianity than almost any other part of the country.

The first contacts with Christians date to 1539, when a Spanish Franciscan missionary, Fray Marcos de Niza, glanced down from a nearby mesa upon the multistoried houses of Hawikuh, a Zuni pueblo, and rushed back to Mexico City claiming to have found the legendary Seven Golden Cities of Cibola.

These days, missionaries of many denominations are active in this region, but the Catholic Church officially acknowledges a need to respect cultural traditions, at least those that do not contradict its basic teachings.

"The process of the church's insertion into peoples' cultures is a lengthy one," Pope John Paul II wrote in 1985. "She transmits to them her own values, at the same time taking the good elements that already exist in them and renewing them from within."

Mr. Seowtowa began the murals in February 1970. He had been asked to build a confessional booth for the church, which had been restored after more than a century of decay and disuse.

One day, his father remarked that the restored church lacked only one element: kachinas had decorated the original walls.

That afternoon, Mr. Seowtowa said, he kept looking up at the blank white plaster.

"I guess I felt the vision coming up," he said.

The local priest gave him permission to go ahead.

For a place above the altar, he and his sons have sketched out a canvas that portrays Jesus, dressed in Zuni blankets and turquoise jewelry, hovering on a stylized rain cloud above the church.

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