Zuni Olla Maidens are one of the most renowned dance groups in New Mexico. The members, all women, dance with fragile water jars, or ollas, balanced on the top of their heads. These women play an important role in Zuni, acting as cultural ambassadors for the community portraying and preserving cultural traditions for future generations.
Dressed in traditional costumes—colorful dresses and turquoise jewelry that Zuni jewelers are known for—the Zuni Olla Maidens sing songs of their own composition in the Zuni language as well as those written by male community members. In addition, they utilize hand held instruments including drums, rattles, and another wooden instrument that mimics the sound of frogs.
The largest of the New Mexico’s nineteen Pueblos, Zuni is relatively isolated. It lies about 150 miles west of Albuquerque and a distance away from the other Pueblo villages that primarily sit along the Rio Grande valley. This isolation limited Zuni contact with the Spanish during the colonial era, and resulted in the pueblo’s current status as one of the most culturally conservative of all the pueblos. Mistaken for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold by the Spanish after an expedition led by Friar Marcos de Niza descended on the pueblo in 1539, Zuni underwent a second wave of Spanish intrusion when Francisco Vasquez de Coronado arrived the following year.
The Zuni Olla Maidens emerged after a group of Zuni women, wanting to show their handcrafted pottery and their ability to walk with these pots balanced on their heads, began performing at parades and other community events. They attended pottery classes taught by Daisy Hooee Nampeyo—a potter responsible for revitalizing Zuni pottery. In their initial performance, these women simply walked with the ollas balanced above head and later incorporated dancing and singing. Historically, Zuni women collected water in ollas from nearby springs for everyday use.
Throughout its existence, the group has been led by a number of different women. In the 1970s, under the leadership of Chrystal Sheka, the group sought opportunities to perform outside of the state, incorporated the use of wooden instruments, and changed their singing style. When Sheka retired, her daughter, Cornelia Bowannie took over. Bowannie made several changes including adding younger women, changing the singing style, and incorporating drums and rattles. Whereas, the group previously had no familial ties, under Bowannie’s direction the group comprised of members of Bowannie’s family.
The Zuni Olla Maidens perform on a regular basis at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico and annually at the Inter-Tribal Ceremonials in Gallup, New Mexico. Most notably, they have performed at the Festival of American Folk Life, the Museum of Women’s in the arts, and the Museum of the American Indian—all in Washington D.C.—and the Ganandogen Native American Music Festival in Rochester, New York. They have also traveled outside of the country, performing at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Banff, Canada. They appeared in a documentary entitled, Singing Our Stories. The Zuni Olla Maidens received the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southwest Association for Indian Arts. Recognizing the importance of the group, the Zuni tribe is currently undertaking an effort to record the experiences and history of the Zuni Olla Maidens.
According to promotional information from the Zuni Olla Maiden, the group formed in the 1940s, but a pamphlet from the 1937 Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial and dated photographs suggest that they may have existed even earlier.
Promotional materials from the Zuni Olla Maidens. N.d. In author’s possession. Sando, Joe S. Pueblo Nations: Eight Centuries of Pueblo Indian History. Santa Fe, Mex.: Clear Light Publishers, 1998.