Zuni Olla Maidens
When the dancers of the Zuni Olla Maidens enter a performance space, balancing intricately decorated ceramic vessels called olla on their heads, they transform their foremothers’ essential, life-giving work of carrying water from the river into an eloquent dance tradition. Each olla is a smaller replica of the water jars their ancestors carried; the cultural weight they hold, however, is greater. Before performing, each dancer breathes into her pot, ceremonially taking in a blessing, and expressing thanks to the ancestors.
Those ancestors came to what is now known as the American Southwest at least 12,000 years ago. The people who the early Spanish explorers called Pueblo (literally, village) Indians encompassed a number of autonomous groups organized by settlement. Among these were the Zuni, who have been practicing agriculture on the banks of the Zuni River for at least 5,000 years. The present-day pueblo at Zuni has existed for more than 700 years, making it one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in North America.
Zuni culture is matrilineal, but in its traditional division of labor, religious ritual, including sacred singing and dancing, is the province of Zuni men. However, in 1922, the revival of pottery traditions among Zuni women inspired the potter Daisy Nampeyo to found the Zuni Olla Maidens; the group was given official permission to use songs from the men’s social dance tradition to create and choreograph their own dances celebrating women’s role in Zuni life. Their current repertoire ranges widely through Zuni cultural touchstones, and includes: rain dances that accompany traditional melodies and request blessings for the people; performing “The Buffalo Song,” a tune honoring veterans that was gifted to them by a male relative who wrote it after surviving the infamous Bataan Death March of World War II; and, of course, their iconic Pottery Dance.
The current members of the Zuni Olla Maidens are all from the same extended family that has led the group since the 1940s. Current co-leaders Juanita Edaakie (singer, drums) and Loretta Beyuka (singer, rattle) are sisters who learned to drum and dance from their mother, former leader Cornelia Bowannie, and other elders. Performing with them at the 80th National Folk Festival are three of the troupe’s dancers, who are also Juanita and Loretta’s nieces: sisters Breana and Ashleigh Yamutewa, and Kimberly Dewa.
Through their joyful and reverent performances, in their meticulous and beautiful dance regalia, these dancers and singers take very seriously their foremothers’ belief that the Zuni Olla Maidens are both stewards of a rich cultural legacy and role models for women balancing traditional and contemporary life. To this end, they often call attention to their roles as mothers and working women. They also balance entertainment with education, using each masterful performance as an opportunity to engage audiences’ questions with honesty, respect, and a dose of playful humor.