Since 1973, Albion College has unknowingly held an object of the Zuni Nation embodied with one of their spiritual protectors in storage at the Bobbitt Arts Center. In 2015, art history professor Bille Wickre invited a scholar on Native American art to the college, and he discovered that this artifact was actually an important piece to the southwestern Native American group.
After the protector — or as it is formally known, an Ahayu’da — was discovered, the college immediately contacted a Zuni councilman to arrange a repatriation.
An Ahayu’da is a carved piece of wood from a tree that was struck by lightning. Only members of the Zuni Deer and Bear Clans can partake in the process of creating this statue: carving, singing, painting and praying.
Once the Ahayu’da is finished, the Bow Priest, a high-ranking member of the religious clergy, sets the Ahayu’da in a special altar where it overlooks the land of the Zuni and protects its people.
Traditionally, Ahayu’das come in pairs, each possessing a part of the spirit of either the evening star (Ma A’ Se We) or the morning star (O U’ yu ya we). The two spirits are twin brothers, created by the Zuni Sun Father, and tend to be mischievous. Regardless, they are the protectors of the Zuni Nation and are vital to its strength and survival.
Each year, two new Ahayu’das are made and the previous year’s are retired. The Bow Priest retires the last two by placing them in a natural area where they can erode and go back into the earth. When the Ahayu’da are in the process of retirement, however, people often remove them from their rightful area of rest.
It is crucial that each Ahayu’da be retired by a Zuni member, considering the evening and morning star spirits only understand the Zuni language, which is unlike any other Pueblo language. When an Ahayu’da is stolen by someone who is not from the Zuni Nation, the theif possess the spirit of a brother.
“If [an Ahayu’da] is taken, then it chips away at the protection of the Zuni people, so with it coming back, it gives us back our strength, our protection. That’s one of the main reasons we want that back,” said Octavius Seowtewa, member of cultural practitioners and the Zuni Medicine Society.
On Aug. 30, Albion College returned the Ahayu’da to the elected members of the Zuni Nation, Carleton Bowekaty, Octavius Seowtewa and Nelson Vicinty. With faculty, students and community members in attendance, the Ahayu’da was given back to its rightful nation. The three cultural practitioners and councilmen expressed their gratitude to the college for returning their protector.
“We want to bring [the Ahayu’da] back and give it back to the Bow Priest. It’ll make him really happy. That’s what I’m really looking forward to […] We’re really grateful for that, and I personally am especially grateful,” said Bowekaty, with tears in his eyes.
The three councilmen gifted Albion College a handmade vase with decorations of water painted on it to signify the prosperity of the college and city. In return, the college gifted the councilmen three handmade pottery that they had observed and admired earlier on in the day and pocket watches to signify a deeper, personal conversation President Mauri Ditzler said he had with the three men.
Photos by Gabby Henriksen