In 1539, Moorish slave Estevanico led an advance party of Fray Marcos de Niza's Spanish expedition. The Zuni killed him as a spy. This was Spain's first contact with any of the Pueblo peoples. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado traveled through Zuni Pueblo. The Spaniards built a mission at Hawikuh in 1629. The Zunis tried to expel the missionaries in 1632, but the Spanish built another mission in Halona in 1643.
Before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Zuni lived in six different villages. After the revolt, until 1692, they took refuge in a defensible position atop Dowa Yalanne, a steep mesa 5 km (3.1 miles) southeast of the present Pueblo of Zuni; Dowa means "corn", and yalanne means "mountain". After the establishment of peace and the return of the Spanish, the Zuni relocated to their present location, only briefly returning to the mesa top in 1703.
The Zunis were self-sufficient during the mid-19th century, but faced raiding by the Apaches, Navajos, and Plains Indians. Their reservation was officially recognized by the United States federal government in 1877. Gradually the Zuni farmed less and turned to sheep and cattle herding as a means of economic development.
Frank Hamilton Cushing, a pioneering anthropologist associated with the Smithsonian Institution, lived with the Zuni from 1879 to 1884. He was one of the first participant observers and an ethnologist.
A controversy during the early 2000s was associated with Zuni opposition to the development of a coal mine near the Zuni Salt Lake, a site considered sacred by the Zuni and under Zuni control. The mine would have extracted water from the aquifer below the lake and would also have involved construction between the lake and the Zuni. The plan died in 2003 after several lawsuits.
The Zuni traditionally speak the Zuni language, a language isolate that has no known relationship to any other Native American language. Linguists believe that the Zuni have maintained the integrity of their language for at least 7,000 years. The Zuni have, however, borrowed a number of words from Keresan, Hopi, and Pima pertaining to religion and religious observances. The Zuni continue to practice their traditional religion with its regular ceremonies and dances, and an independent and unique belief system.
The Zuni were and are a traditional people who live by irrigated agriculture and raising livestock. Their success as a desert agri-economy is due to careful management and conservation of resources, as well as a complex system of community support. Many contemporary Zuni also rely on the sale of traditional arts and crafts. Some Zuni still live in the old-style Pueblos, while others live in modern flat-roofed houses made from adobe and concrete block.
Traditionally, Zuni women made pottery for food and water storage. They used symbols of their clans for designs. Clay for the pottery is sourced locally. Prior to its extraction, the women give thanks to the Earth Mother (Awidelin Tsitda) according to ritual. The clay is ground, and then sifted and mixed with water. After the clay is rolled into a coil and shaped into a vessel or other design, it will be scraped smooth with a scraper. A thin layer of finer clay, called slip, is applied to the surface for extra smoothness and color. The vessel is polished with a stone after it dries. It is painted with home-made organic dyes, using a traditional yucca brush. The intended function of the pottery dictates its shape and images painted on its surface. To fire the pottery, the Zuni used animal dung in traditional kilns. Today Zuni potters might use electric kilns. While the firing of the pottery was usually a community enterprise, silence or communication in low voices was considered essential in order to maintain the original "voice" of the "being" of the clay, and the purpose of the end product. Sales of pottery and traditional arts provide a major source of income for many Zuni people today. An artisan may be the sole financial support for her immediate family as well as others. Many women make pottery, clothing, and baskets.
Religion is central to Zuni life. Their religious beliefs are centered on the three most powerful of their deities: Earth Mother, Sun Father, and Moonlight-Giving Mother, as well as Old Lady Salt and White Shell Woman, as well as other katsinas.
Zunis have a cycle of religious ceremonies. Each person's life is marked by important ceremonies to celebrate the passage of certain life milestones. Birth, coming of age, marriage and death are especially celebrated.
The Zuni make a religious pilgrimage every four years on the Barefoot Trail to Kołuwala:wa, also called Zuni Heaven or Kachina Village; a 12,482-acre (50.51 km2) detached portion of the Zuni Reservation about 60 miles (97 km) southwest of Zuni Pueblo. The four-day observance occurs around the summer solstice. It has been practiced for many hundreds of years and is well known to local residents.
Another pilgrimage conducted annually for centuries by the Zuni and other southwestern tribes is made to Zuni Salt Lake. They harvest salt during the dry months, and celebrate religious ceremonies. The lake is home to the Salt Mother, Ma'l Okyattsik'i, and is reached by several ancient Pueblo roads and trails.
Coming of age, or rite of passage, is celebrated differently by boys and girls. A girl who is ready to declare herself as a maiden will go to the home of her father's mother early in the morning and grind corn all day long. Corn is a sacred food and a staple in the diet of the Zuni. By grinding the corn the girl is declaring that she is ready to play a role in the welfare of her people.
When it is time for a boy to become a man, he will be taken under the wing of a spiritual 'father', selected by the parents. This one will instruct the boy through the ceremony to follow. The boy will go through certain initiation rites to enter one of the men's societies. He will learn how to take on either religious, secular or political duties within that order.