ZUNI, N.M. — The 6-foot-thick adobe walls of the old church in the center of the village have weathered rain, snow and neglect for more than 360 years, a monument to the determination of long-vanished Spanish missionaries who sought to convert American Indians to their religion.
Now these massive walls are also a tribute to the survival of traditional Zuni religious practices, thanks to the vision of a remarkable artist.
For the last 21 years, Alex Seowtewa has perched high atop metal scaffolding to paint richly symbolic murals depicting nearly 30 masked kachina figures dancing across the distinctive landscape of the Zuni reservation.
With Seowtewa's work, the church's interior has come to graphically represent the synthesis of old beliefs and Roman Catholicism that many Zunis embrace.
The chancel is conventional, furnished with an altar, a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a crucifix. But the upper half of the 30-foot-high north and south walls are lined with Seowtewa's brightly colored life-size kachinas, rendered in oils. Paintings of the Stations of the Cross hang beneath.
Zunis see kachinas as ancestral spirits who bring rain, ripen corn and bestow happiness and prosperity. Each kachina is unique and is impersonated by a masked dancer during sacred religious celebrations marking the cycle of the seasons.
Seowtewa, 58, who attends Mass, sees no contradiction when he takes part in Zuni rites, believing Christian teachings are embodied in the traditional religion. It's a matter, he says, of keeping his Indian and non-Indian sides "in balance."
"I know it's not displeasing to my own people," he says. As for the church, he recalls how the Pope, during his 1987 visit to the Southwest, urged native peoples to preserve their languages and cultures.
The 50-foot-long murals are also a powerful medium for transmitting tribal lore to future generations. "This project is actually the preservation of my Zuni identity," Seowtewa says.
Named for Our Lady of Guadalupe, the church was built in 1629 by Zunis under the direction of Franciscan priests. Fifty years later, in 1680, the Zunis joined pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona in an uprising that drove the Spanish from the territory for 12 years. Like most Zunis, Seowtewa knows stories that have been passed generation-to-generation recounting the brutality of the Spanish occupiers.
Missionary activity resumed after the Spanish returned, but halted again in the 1820s following the Mexican Revolution. The Franciscans did not return to Zuni until 1923, when they opened a new mission and school dedicated to St. Anthony.
The old church gradually fell into ruin as its roof collapsed and the walls eroded. Children played inside and Seowtewa himself scaled the walls as a youngster to view village dances.
In 1966, the Zuni tribe reached an agreement with the Catholic church and the National Park Service to restore the building, and after archeological work was done, renovation began in 1968.
Seowtewa, who was carving new confessionals for the church, was intrigued to learn from several village elders that kachina paintings had long ago adorned its walls. "My father said, 'Son, there's only one thing missing. It would be nice if you or someone would do paintings of the kachinas,' " Seowtewa recalls.
Seowtewa's relationship with his father, a gifted artist who painted murals at the St. Anthony mission, was complex.
After his mother died when he was 5, Seowtewa was raised by his mother's family. He did not know his father well until he was older, but he showed an early artistic knack and still remembers learning to sketch on the back of an old cardboard box with charcoal taken from a campfire.
After attending the mission school, he attended a Catholic college in Albuquerque on an art scholarship, where he learned a little about landscape painting. But the Korean War was on, and he was drafted after two semesters.
When he returned to Zuni, Seowtewa fell prey to serious alcohol abuse for about a year. "I was almost in a direction to dig my own grave, but I recovered from it," he says. He credits his elders with helping him.
'I reflected on my upbringing," he says. "My grandfather pointed out that life is a gift."
He married his wife, Odelle, with whom he has had 10 children, 39 years ago. He worked as a maintenance man and bus driver for the mission school, among other jobs, but he also developed a local reputation for his painting.
When the church renovation was finished in 1970, Seowtewa asked the pastor whether he could paint kachinas. Receiving permission, he set to work. "The hardest part was, 'How shall I start? How shall I go about it? How shall I end?' " he recalls.
On the sun-warmed south wall he portrayed kachinas associated with the spring, fall and summer months, along with the vegetation appropriate for each season. The north wall is devoted to winter kachinas set against a snow-shrouded landscape.