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Savior of Silent Stone

By September 19, 2014 One Comment

Dowa Yalanne is the kind of place that really deserves the word monumental. There it stands like a momentary eruption stopped in time, a bundle of fisted hands reaching skyward, not necessarily aspiring, but signalling power and strength that some who live in its presence quite understandably call eternal.

At least three times–maybe more–the Zuni people took refuge on top the mountain. I’ve never been up there, but some I know who have been say it’s full of holy places. The Zunis hid from the Spanish, the Mexicans, and the Apaches up there, where the world at the top is so wide you can’t see to the other side. There’s room to live up top, and lots of reasons for an enemy to turn his horse around and simply go home once he looks up its dusky cliffs. For 7000 years, Dowa Yalanne was a citadel of strength, a savior to those who lived in its presence.

It looms almost parentally over the Zuni pueblo just as it has since men and women first began to think of the world beneath the mountain as the birthplace of life itself. You want to know where the Zuni came from?–there’s a place just down the road.  For thousands of years for thousands of Zunis all of life was right here in the shadow of the mountain.

Think of it this way: Dawa Yalanne has astonishing stage presence, so much of it that volumes of Zuni lore originate in its caves and promintories. Once upon a time, when the whole world was flooded, a gargantuan sea monster bit off a chunk of the mountain. Two promintories are the pinnacles from which two children jumped to their deaths to save the people (versions of that story may well have moderated over the years). The mountain is not simply a citizen of the pueblo, it is, in a way, its magistrate. There it stands, always, perfectly indomitable.  

But there’s nothing there to tell the epic story of a people who’ve been in residence right in this very spot longer than any people have been anywhere on the continent. Some say 7000 years. You won’t learn that at the foot of the mountain.

There are no historical markers, no signs or displays anywhere to tell the stories, because the Zunis really don’t want people around their mountain; they are of the belief that there’s just too much divinity, too much precious, too much of the people’s heart and soul and mind right here. They’re not looking for crowds.


So unless you know the stories from your grandma, the only joy you’ll take away from a visit to Dowa Yalanne is the grace it bestows simply by its magnificent presence. The Zunis don’t really care if you don’t know what happened on their mountain. It’s their story, and if you’re not one of them, it’s not yours.

Even though I’ve read a little history, I stood there at the place where the sea monster bit off a chunk of the mountain, and I couldn’t help but wish that someone would tell me the story.

If you’re not Zuni, you can always read what you can of the mountain elsewhere; you can page through its myths and legends. And you can go there and listen. Sometimes there is far more to meet the soul in a space where there seems to be nothing at all. If you do go, don’t make a fuss. Be still.

But you’re on your own. No one will tell you the story. No one will preach the Zuni word, precious as it may be to them. No one will ask you to believe.

Some call the Zuni, even today, a mysterious people. If you stand there, alone, in the silence, maybe you’ll understand. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

One Comment

  • Clive Huggins says:

    I totally respect the Zuni people for not wanting the unwanted lnvading their Holy lands! For me, just to see this mountain and stand at the foot of Dawa Yalanne
    Who fill
    Me with the wonder of the Elders of their Tribe!

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