Zuni dance and song
Zuni, New Mexico

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. 

Those ancestors came to what is now known as the American Southwest at least 12,000 years ago. The people who early Spanish explorers called Pueblo (literally, village) Indians encompassed several 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. 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 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, including the 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 and sisters Juanita Edaakie (singer, drums) and Loretta Beyuka (singer, rattle) learned to drum and dance from their mother and other elders. Additional family members round out the group and will be joining Juanita and Loretta in Lowell.

Through joyful and reverent performances, these dancers and singers take seriously their foremothers’ belief that the Zuni Olla Maidens are 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. Balancing entertainment with education, they use each masterful performance as an opportunity to engage audiences’ questions with honesty, respect, and a dose of playful humor.