Chautauqua presentation will focus on importance of Zuni identity

Kenneth Seowtewa will speak this weekend at San Juan College

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Kennth Seowtewa

FARMINGTON — During his frequent travels with his father, the late painter Alex Seowtewa, Kenneth Seowtewa said many of the people they encountered already were familiar with the distinctive silver-and-turquoise inlay jewelry for which their Zuni Pueblo is noted.

But Kenneth Seowtewa wasn’t satisfied with that.

"I wanted to let not just the people of our state or our country, but the whole world to know about the importance of the Zuni identity," Seowtewa said.

Seowtewa's message is basically this: the Zuni people have been living in the Southwest for thousands of years, and they aren't going anywhere.

"We're still here. We still have a vibrant, very active community," he said, describing the gist of the "Cultural Life of the Zuni Nation" Chautauqua presentation he will deliver this weekend at San Juan College. "I also stress the importance of them knowing their identity. We all come from somewhere, not just Native Americans."

Seowtewa is a scholar, artist and author who has devoted much of his life and career to chronicling and relating the story of his people. Much of that effort has been directed toward taking part in a mural-painting project in an ancient mission on the Zuni Pueblo with his father since the 1970s. Seowtewa said the murals are based on the oral traditions of the Zuni and reflect their moral teachings.

Seowtewa said he basically grew up in the church which is believed to have been constructed in 1629. He recalled playing inside it as a child before joining his father in painting frescoes on its walls as an adult — "helping Dad preserve the legacy of our people," as he said.

While most presenters in the New Mexico Humanities Council's Chautauqua program are performers or academic types who have developed an intense interest in their chosen subjects from the outside, Zuni culture is something Seowtewa grew up immersed in. That makes his Chautauqua presentation deeply personal to him.

"This was always my school, my teaching experience," he said of growing up on the pueblo. "There were many people in my family who held high religious positions through the centuries. … I've lived the life, and that's what I talk about."

But Seowtewa said he likes to end his presentation by broadening his approach.

"What I cover at the end of my talk is the importance of humanity looking at each other as brothers and sisters," he said. "Never to judge people by their skin color, but by what's inside each one of us. … That's a message that needs to be heard, especially now when we have conflict like this going on within our country."

Seowtewa will speak at 7 p.m. May 24 in the Little Theatre on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. Admission is free. Call 505-566-3430.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.