By Lynn Cline

By Lynn Cline

Pasatiempo, a weekly arts supplement of The Santa Fe New Mexican, March 2002


"The majority of mountain people are unprincipled ruffians," a New York Times editorial stated in 1912. "There are two remedies only: education or extermination. The mountaineer, like the red Indian, must learn this lesson."

Zuni Pueblo's Corn Mountain, or Dowa Yalanne, and central Appalachia's Pine Mountain stand 1,600 miles apart, and Zuni's history is a far piece from the history of central Appalachia, settled in part by the Scots-Irish and the Cherokees.

Despite the geographic and cultural differences, a trove of traditions link the people who live in the densely forested Cumberland Plateau - which includes areas in southwest Virginia, upper Tennessee, eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia- with those who live in one of the oldest continually occupied settlements in North America, located in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.

If you question whether a group of Southwest Native Americans rooted to an ancient past can share much in common with the mountain people of Appalachia, then don't miss Corn Mountain/Pine Mountain: Following the Seasons.

The contemporary bilingual play relies on stories, humor, music and dance to honor the cycle of seasons that once nurtured traditional life for the people of Zuni and Appalachia. Performances take place at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 2, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.

Corn Mountain/Pine Mountain emerges from a collaboration between Idiwanan An Chawe, a Zuni-language theater company, and Roadside Theater, a theater company in Whitesburg, Ky. that celebrates the culture and voices of people living in the Appalachian Mountains.

"Both cultures have very strong oral history traditions," said Dudley Cocke, one of the founders and the director of Roadside Theater, in a recent phone interview. "Ours reach back to the British Isles. The songs, the stories and the histories are all in the oral traditions, and that's critical because both here in Appalachia and there in Zuni, there's been very little access to the written word."

Cecil Sharp, a noted British musicologist who from 1916-1918 studied the songs of Appalachia, found that the story tradition was more intact there than it was in the British Isles where it originated, Cocke said.

The Zuni tribe, one of the most traditional tribes in the United States, relied so heavily on oral language that an alphabet didn't exist until the Zuni people decided to develop one 30 years ago.

Zuni traditions reach back more than 9,000 years to when the Ino:de:kwe, Zuni for "ancestors," originated at the Grand Canyon, then migrated south and east searching for the Middle Place. Those ancestors, known to the rest of the world as the Anasazi, a Navajo word that means "ancient enemy," settled in places today called Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde and Bandelier.

The Zuni people's oral traditions contain a rich past - ancient knowledge, stories, beliefs and histories that must be preserved for the future, said Edward Wemytewa, the founder of Idiwanan An Chawe, which in Zuni means "Children of the Middle Place."

But radio, television and other forces from the modern world threatened to destroy many of those traditions.

"All the storytellers had just about disappeared in the 1960s," Wemytewa said. "As a people, we used to laugh together, we used to cry together. So we created this Zuni-language theater company to make sure that the language and the beliefs are getting passed on to the younger generation."

The partnership between Roadside Theater and the Zuni theater took root more than 30 years ago, when, during a visit to Zuni, Cocke met Wemytewa at a game of pick-up basketball.

"I enjoyed the culture and community and the natural beauty, but I also saw the struggle of the Zuni people," Cocke wrote in Journeys Home: Revealing a Zuni-Appalachia Collaboration, a new book chronicling the creation of the play edited by Cocke, Wemytewa and Donna Porterfield of Roadside Theater, and published by Zuni A:shiwi Publishing.

"It's a lot like Appalachia. We've got a lot of the same troubles and a lot of the same joys, and that's what drew us together. In sharing our troubles and joys, we got connected to one another. You could say we're both privileged because we each have a sense of our history, of heritage, of being part of a special culture. We each have this historical sense of who we are based on our oral traditions."

As the excerpt from the 1912 New York Times editorial makes clear, mainstream America once viewed both cultures disparagingly. Despite those harsh views, and perhaps even because of them, the Zuni and Appalachian cultures persisted, decades later forming their creative partnership.

After that first meeting in 1969, Cocke returned to Zuni with the Roadside Theater troupe, and people from Zuni traveled to Kentucky to experience life in Appalachia. Workshops and residencies took place, and many stories were shared.

Wemytewa soon realized that both traditional ways of life centered on agriculture and that the Appalachian theater's form of storytelling resembled Zuni storytelling.

Excited about the role of language in performance, Wemytewa formed the Zuni theater troupe to collaborate with Roadside on a play that explored two of the country's most traditional cultures.

"Theater is just a medium that helps us to demonstrate the live use of the language," Wemytewa said.

Corn Mountain/Pine Mountain premiered in Whitesburg in 1996 and has played in Zuni as well as in Arizona and New Orleans. Written by Wemytewa and Arden Kucate of Idiwanan An Chawe and Porterfield and Ron Short of Roadside Theater, the play features Appalachian and Zuni musicians and storytellers and a group of Zuni dancers and singers dressed in traditional regalia.

The play cycles through the seasons, beginning with spring, a season of new life, and ending with winter, when Mother Earth and the Corn Maidens all sleep.

"In Zuni we are season-oriented, and so are they in Appalachia," Wemytewa said.

But the play looks at much more than simply the seasons. "It's also about the whole mythological world that encircles our two cultures," Cocke said.

The spring segment of the play includes a Zuni Turkey Dance and a Cinderella-style story, Turkey Girl, about a mother who learns a hard lesson after abandoning her children to attend a social dance.

The Appalachian springtime story, Hairy Woman, addresses the tragedies that can arise from people's judgments about those who are different. "Hairy Woman is one of the oldest stories in the mountains," Cocke said. "It's a huge story about origin. It comes to us in this recent 200- to 300-year-old version from its long, long history in Europe, and perhaps even from Africa before that. It's one of the oldest stories we've ever known."

The play's creators hope their traditions will inspire audiences watching Corn Mountain/Pine Mountain to reflect on their own origins.

"We want audiences to think about their own stories, their own songs, their own dances and their own myths - in other words, their own roots and their own traditions," Cocke said.

Seeing the point where two seemingly different cultures can converge may also reveal how connected we all are through stories and songs.

"Without our stories, how will we know its us?" Cocke said. "And without hearing the stories of others, how will we know who they are?"


Excerpt from 

Corn Mountain/Pine Mountain: Following the Seasons

Ino:de. Idiwan'an luwal'ap, lessi' dekkwin hame' luwala:w ullapna'kya. Dem widelin Tsitda k'yahkwi ya:n'ap, a:deya'kya. A:lashshinde, a:waminande, ts'ana' deyande, kwa'hol uwak'yanapdun'ona' che'k'wat isha'malde a:wan tsemakwi: deya'kya. Ko'n chimik'yana'kowa, yam Awidelin Tsitda an ukkwaykowa' yam do:shonan lakwimo' adeyyaye. Akkya lesna' ants'ummehna' a:deya' delakwayikya.

In ancient time, there lived a people in the Middle Place. The valley was surrounded by many villages near and far. It was a time when the earth was moist and fertile. The old ones, feeble as they were, and the young ones, too, they all had in their minds and hearts the devotion to raise crops. Their existence depended upon the blessings of the seed family, which was rooted in the culture since the Time of the Beginning, when the people had emerged from the womb of the Mother Earth. Eagerly everyone anticipated the planting season. Spring would come to them.

Cite This

Lynn Cline. “Connecting Traditions.” October 22, 2015.

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