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Dowa Yalanne, or Corn Mountain

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

As the modern traveler approaches Zuni Pueblo from the west along State Highway 53, one sees a massive cream-colored mesa as a backdrop for the pueblo itself. This mesa is called Dowa Yalanne, meaning Corn (Dowa) Mountain (Yalanne). The mesa is indicated on maps by several other names, most of which make an attempt to translate Zuni words into something English speakers might possibly pronounce.

As early as 1692 Governor don Diego de Vargas Zapata Luján called it the "peñol de Caquima." Kyaki:ma is an ancestral village located at the base of the mesa. In 1892 anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes labeled it Tay-a-ol-o-ne and the Roads of New Mexico map of a century later refer to it as Taaiyalone Mountain. In the 1880s the anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing rendered the name of the mesa as Tâaiyá'hltona Hlúelawa and confusingly translated it as "towns-all-above of-the seed-all." He also called it Thunder Mountain when referring to its mythic importance. Anthropologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson, a contemporary of Cushing's, heard the Zuni words as To'wa Yäl'länne, which of the many attempts comes closest to today's accepted spelling.

West of the Continental Divide, Dowa Yalanne rises 1000 feet above Zuni Pueblo and covers approximately 320 acres. In geologic terms, the formation is a continuation of the Colorado Plateau. Its geologic history is replicated at El Morro National Monument, further east along Highway 53. Here Triassic and Jurassic sedimentary rocks slope southward off the Zuni Mountains. The cliffs, composed of cream-colored Zuni sandstone, are the product of sand dunes formed during the Jurassic Period (135-180 million years ago), but this massive rock also overlays mudstone from the Triassic Period (180-200 million years ago). Capping the cliff is the oldest Cretaceous sedimentary layer, Dakota sandstone, a unit deposited along the western shore of an advancing Cretaceous sea. Zuni sandstone erodes into sculptured pinnacles, as can be seen in the formation called Los Gigantes, just north of El Morro. Both Entrada and Zuni Sandstones are known by their stunning red and white cross banding and together they form the steep escarpments of Dowa Yalanne.

The ecology of the mesa falls within the general zone of piñon-juniper, trees common to most of the Colorado Plateau, called the Great Basin conifer woodland. At an elevation of 7100', with approximately twelve inches of precipitation annually and 120 frost-free days, Dowa Yalanne also supports some arable land that includes biotic communities of grasses and herbs.

For the Zuni, Dowa Yalanne holds much deeper meaning than its mere geological existence conveys; it also has a spiritual significance. The Zuni maintain shrines on the mesa top and a Zuni myth associates the mesa with various deities. It has served as a refuge from storms both celestial and human. Sacred Dowa Yalanne is also a major landmark used in observations for the Zuni calendar. Stevenson reported that "when the rising sun strikes a certain point at the southwest end of Dowa Yalanne it is winter solstice." To commemorate this event bundles of prayer plumes are placed at a shrine atop the mesa.

Because of its steep sides and near inaccessibility, the mesa was a formidable natural fortress, with few trails to the top. It has been said that it was the topography of Dowa Yalanne, and not the architecture of the mesa top buildings “that created a fortress that was virtually impregnable." As early as 1540 a document from the Coronado expedition describes how the Zunis fled to the mesa top after the village of Hawikuu was attacked and overrun by Spaniards. "It must be on the 19th of this past July that [the general] traveled four leagues from this ciudad [Cíbola] to see a steep, rugged hill of rock where [people from Cíbola] told him that the Indians of this provincia were fortifying themselves." This was probably not the first time the Zunis took refuge on Dowa Yalanne. Given the often hostile relations with neighboring tribes and the establishment of the villages of Kyaki:ma and Mats'a:kya nearby, it seems clear that in time of threat the people could and did flee quickly to the safety of the mesa top.

When the Spanish, under the command of Governor don Juan de Oñate, came to New Mexico in 1598 to settle it permanently, friars were sent out to missionize the Zuni people. Tensions mounted between the two groups, which resulted in the killing of two friars in 1632. Zunis, fearful of retaliation, having not forgotten the governor's punishment of their rebellious Acoma neighbors 30 years earlier, fled to Dowa Yalanne and remained there until 1635. During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which was a widespread Indian uprising, Dowa Yalanne once again became the refuge for frightened Zunis. In 1694, Governor Vargas reported that the Zunis were under attack from Mechón Apaches, and had taken refuge there.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have enhanced our knowledge of life atop the mesa during its many refuge periods. Their investigations confirmed what Governor Vargas observed in 1693 when he ascended the mesa to visit "an extensive pueblo with three plazas with a few inhabited dwellings on it." As early as 1880, Adolph Bandelier mapped its ancient sites. Archaeological surveys were conducted by Cushing (1888), Victor Mindeleff (1891), Leslie Spier (1916), and T.J. Ferguson (1987). Through efforts like theirs, we have some physical and cultural understanding of the history that has transpired atop “Corn Mountain.”

The archaeological record indicates that there are 62 architectural features covering approximately 120 acres, including room blocks, enclosures, walls, dams, rubble areas, and possible kivas located on the southwestern edge of the mesa. Some of these features were constructed at the time of the Pueblo Revolt, and others were present during the pre-Contact period. The settlement called Heshoda Ayahltona, meaning "ancient buildings above," included 14 structures and was used as a refuge from 1540-1680. It has also been determined that 48 structures are specifically associated with the Pueblo Revolt occupation. The major buildings, some two stories high, have 433 ground floor rooms. With an approximate Zuni population of 2500 in 1680, archaeologists have speculated that they crowded into about 559 rooms.

The Pueblo Revolt had a lasting impact on village settlement of the Zuni. Even at the time of Governor don Diego de Vargas's 1692 pre-resettlement tour of New Mexico, there was evidence of a shift away from inhabiting six or seven distinct villages. Instead of returning to their traditional pueblos, the Zuni settled in a single village, Halona, and established what is known as Modern Zuni.

The mesa fortress served as a refuge for other New Mexico tribes and even a wayward priest. Back in 1680 before the Pueblo Revolt, an oral tradition has it that a runaway priest, fray Juan Greyrobe, hid out among the buildings of “Thunder Mountain.” What he was fleeing from was never explained, and perhaps the Zuni never knew. After Vargas's tour of New Mexico, the official re-conquest of New Mexico began in 1693. And in 1696 Governor Vargas made a final push to pacify New Mexico's native populations. As a consequence, Vargas reported that twelve Tanos with eight women, presumably from the Santa Cruz de la Cañada area north of Santa Fe, fled to the Zuni mesa fortress. And in 1703, some Zuni fled to the Hopi Mesas and others to Dowa Yalanne after killing three Spaniards illegally residing at Zuni.

The United States government established the Zuni Reservation in1877 and with this came issues of sovereignty regarding Dowa Yalanne. The Zuni considered Dowa Yalanne within their jurisdiction, citing an early Spanish land grant and subsequent confirmation in 1846, when New Mexico became a part of the United States. Resolution of ownership came in the 1930s when Congress confirmed a Spanish land grant (subsequently proven to be fraudulent) which gave the Zuni one square league around Dowa Yalanne; apparently this decision has never been challenged.

The spiritual importance of Dowa Yalanne to the Zuni is significant both historically and in contemporary times. Many shrines dot the mesa top and are scattered along its base and Zuni people continue to use them today. Matilda Coxe Stevenson recorded a myth regarding Dowa Yalanne and a great flood. She reported that the mesa came to be called “Corn Mountain” at this time because the people carried great quantities of corn to the top during the flood, stuffing many rooms in their mesa top houses with it. The story says that the water nearly reached the people and their corn atop the mesa; so to appease the angry waters, a son and daughter of one of the Zuni priests were dressed in their finery, adorned with precious beads and were thrown into the waters: “The waters receded and they were turned into stone." This rock, known as "Mother Rock," is visible today. Also during this period of flooding, religious activities were transferred to the mesa top, where its natural setting was used to represent sacred places found below. Dowa Yalanne is mythologically associated with the "House of the Gods and the making of rain, lightning, and thunder," and from this came its alternate name, “Thunder Mountain.”

Environmentally and geologically, the mesa and the land around it contain important plant and mineral resources. It’s fine-grained, white Zuni sandstone is used in the baking of the paper-bread called hewe. Cushing reported that a few select, old women, "with many a mysterious rite and severe penance," quarry and manufacture the flat stones on which to cook the bread. The importance of finding a suitable slab of the sandstone was the key to a young woman's success at making the flaky rolls and sheets of this very thin, cornmeal paste bread. Sometimes successful marriages hinged on properly produced hewe. Today hewe is still made for special occasions.

Important mineral sources used to make black paint and clay deposits used in pottery manufacturing are located atop the mesa and at its base. With the introduction of European plants to the Southwest, the land around Dowa Yalanne proved to be conducive to the planting of peach orchards. From these imported trees the Zunis extracted a red dye from the bark.

Today, sacred Dowa Yalanne, although no longer needed as a refuge from hostile neighbors, continues to play an important role in Zuni spiritual life as evidenced by the many active shrines still to be found on top and scattered among the rocks at its base. Although closed to outsiders, many Zunis, young and old, make their way to the mesa top. Whether for the beauty of the mesa itself or access to ancestors and spiritual forces, Dowa Yalanne has for centuries played an important role in the identity of the Zuni people.

Sources Useds:

Chronic, Haika. Roadside Geology of New Mexico. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1987.

Eggan, Fred. "Pueblos: Introduction." In Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 9, Southwest, edited by Alfonso Ortiz, 224-235. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.

Ferguson, T.J. "Dowa Yalanne: The Architecture of Zuni Resistance and Social Change during the Pueblo Revolt." In Archaeologies of the Pueblo Revolt: Identity, Meaning, and Renewal in the Pueblo World, edited by Robert W. Preucel, 33-44. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

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