The modern pueblo at Zia is one of nineteen in New Mexico that can trace some part of its history to residence in southwestern Colorado. Located on a mesa above the Jemez River about thirty-five miles northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the pueblo of Zia has been the site of farming settlements since the AD 1300s. The nearest neighboring pueblos are at Jemez about seven miles northwest and at Tamaya (Santa Ana) some six miles to the southeast. Prior to the establishment of the Jemez River villages, Zia ancestors had been among the peoples who established farms in the area of Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico before AD 400, spreading farther north into the Mesa Verde region of southwestern Colorado in the next few centuries. A southerly move to the Jemez Valley led to the establishment of at least six villages in the AD 1200s. Zians today continue to claim Mesa Verde and Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon as ancestral homes.
The Zia language is a dialect of Keres, also spoken at Tamaya and related to other Keres dialects traditionally spoken along the Rio Grande to the east among the pueblos of Cochiti, Kewa (Santo Domingo), and Katishtya (San Felipe), as well as at Acoma and Laguna pueblos to the southwest. Today, the more than 850 members of the pueblo may also speak Spanish or Navajo, and most speak English. However, Zia cultural traditions have been successfully maintained despite the pressures of the outside world. Guarded protection of their religious practices and an insistence on following traditional lifeways and values have allowed Zians to maintain their cultural identity.
That identity was threatened when Spanish expeditions reached the Jemez Valley in the sixteenth century. First visited in 1541 during the Coronado expedition, Zia received more visitors in 1583 with the arrival of an expedition led by Antonio de Espejo who claimed the area for Spain. He described five villages in the valley, together named as the Province of Punamé, the largest (“Old Zia”) consisting of more than 1,000 two- and three-storied homes housing some 4,000 men along with their women and children. Today, the name Punamé is used to denote the historically occupied area west of the Rio Grande that includes the pueblos of Tamaya and Zia.
Spanish influence led to the establishment of a Catholic church and convent by 1613, with consistent suppression of traditional Zia religious practices. This led to Zia’s participation in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when the Spanish were temporarily expelled from the territory, followed by extreme reprisals during the Spanish Reconquest. An assault in 1688 was repulsed, but the following year Governor Domingo Jironza Petriz de Cruzate led another attack that resulted in the loss of about 600 Zia residents with another 70 taken captive and held in El Paso for a decade. Populations at Zia have never completely recovered since this period, but the twentieth century brought a significant rebound.
Zia crafts, particularly in their distinctive ceramic tradition, have helped maintain their cultural identity. Indeed, many tribal members credit Zia women’s production of pottery in the early twentieth century as saving the tribe during a particularly gloomy period by trading for food and other essential goods. In recent decades, the agrarian traditions of the tribe have been supplanted by a significant investment in stock raising, initially in sheep and now in cattle. Still, aspects of the Zia way are known region wide, most conspicuously with the sun symbol depicted on both the state flag and license plates of New Mexico.
Representative of the father of the Zia people, the sun is depicted with sets of four rays in each of the four cardinal directions. Four is a sacred number to the Zia people: embodied in the earth with its four directions; in the four seasons of the year; in parts of a day with sunrise, noon, evening, and night; and in the lifetime of an individual from childhood to youth, adulthood, and old age. The central circle of the sun binds all together in life and love.