ArtPlace, Zunis, and Pinterest, Oh My.

We (Creative Startups) are finalists for a 2015 ArtPlace grant in partnership with the Indigenous Design and Planning Institute at UNM.  So, last week the team and I spent a full day in Zuni Pueblo. If you have ever been to Zunilands you know it is nestled amongst pine covered red rock mesas, 120 miles southwest of Albuquerque.  It is the spot where Europeans first encountered Americans – in 1539.  That bloody encounter foretold the struggle Zunis would face for centuries as their community clashed with outsiders. Yesterday I heard the word “struggle” 17 times.  In Zuni, everyone is struggling it seems.

I struggle with the paradox.  Zuni is really rich – and really poor.  Zuni Pueblo is historic, lovely, and unique.  Zuni people by and large still speak their native language, celebrate their feasts and complex religious practices, and hold their clans in tact.  80% of families rely on sales of art and cultural production to support incomes. Visitors can see hand-crafted rounded dome ovens (hornos), worldclass historic ruins, and rez dogs. (Recall I love all dogs.)  However, the average *annual* income per person, according to the census, is $9,730.  Like farmers who are “land rich, cash poor”, many Native peoples are “culture rich, cash poor”.  This place is brimming with art and history, yet void of tourists and economic opportunity.

I love going to Zuni.  The people are funny, welcoming, and shy while making silly jokes.  I make self-depracting jokes about my cultural cluelessness and people giggle politely.  Zuni folks make me feel like their front door is open and they want to be my host.  I always feel good about life when I’m in Zuni.  That’s why I am excited about our ArtPlace project.

The artists of Zuni want to bring more visitors to the Pueblo.  They want to connect with people, share their story, tell people about their culture.  I am all for it. Import economic opportunities, highlight the gorgeous artwork, sing praises for the creative entrepreneurs who have powered through.

To get more people to Zuni Pueblo we have to make a compelling invitation: we need to tell the story of this place.  The idea is to work with the artist community to create a shared, self-generated “community brand” and set of marketing tools (my words –I’m the marketing person on the project).  We will craft an iterative artist community design process through which the community comes to consensus on how and with what tools the community will represent itself.

Recall that the rights of self-determination and self-representation have been withheld from Native communities since 1539. “Indians” have been defined solely by others for hundreds of years. Self-representation is a BIG deal for Native communities.  And for many years Native elders refused to share the stories of their people and places as a means to protect what was so dear – their heritage and culture.  But that has shifted and now Zuni, like many Native communities is eager to attract visitors. As long as it is on their own terms.

We think if we do the design process well we can tell the stories that get visitors excited to come to this unique place and represent the Pueblo as it wants to be represented. Seems straightforward until you take into account challenges such as photos rarely being allowed on Zuni – and Instagram and Pinterest being primary travel marketing platforms.  And the centuries-old arguments among the clans that make decisions risky business.

But we wouldn’t be change makers if we didn’t like to take the hard cases.  So, stay tuned.  And let me know if you’ve been to Zuni.  What were your experiences?

One Response

  1. Tom Aageson February 3, 2015

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