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Tradition remains strong for Zuni bread business

By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico (AP) 11-08

On any given week, tourists from around the world may knock at the front door of the Paywa home in Zuni Pueblo.

Along with freshly baked Zuni bread, they are probably looking for something more – a unique tourist stop, information about a centuries-old tradition or a personal glimpse into an American Indian home.

They get all of those things when they stop by the Paywas’ house, where they can see the largest bread oven in Zuni Pueblo, learn about the Zuni tradition of bread making and purchase bread, fruit pies and turnovers.

Paywa’s Zuni Bread is a family affair, run by siblings Jimmy Paywa and Rose Seeyouma and Jimmy’s daughter, Karlene Paywa.

The business was started in the 1970s by Jimmy and Rose’s parents, Bowman and Louise Paywa, who called it B&L Zuni Bread.

Thirty years later, Jimmy, who once ran his own machine shop; Rose, who retired from a long career at the Leupp Boarding School; and Karlene, who used to work at the Gallup Head Start, are carrying on a family business rooted in Zuni tradition.

“It’s a lot of hard work, but you get to meet a lot of people,” Jimmy Paywa said.

Three days a week the family members work from about 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., preparing and selling their bread, pies, and turnovers.

Jimmy Paywa oversees the outdoor oven and everything that goes with it – chopping the firewood, heating and cleaning the oven and loading and unloading the bread and pies.

Seeyouma, a lifelong baker, oversees the kitchen work by preparing the dough, pie crusts and fruit filling.

Karlene Paywa helps both her father and her aunt by kneading and weighing dough, making turnovers, helping load and unload the oven, wrapping the baked items and waiting on customers.

On Saturdays, Jimmy Paywa sells the baked goods at the Gallup Flea Market, while Seeyouma sells in front of the Zuni tribal building. On Sundays, Karlene Paywa and her husband haul more firewood for the next week.

They take two vacations a year during times of religious ceremonies in Zuni Pueblo during June and December.

The rest of the year, the family sells about 180 loaves of traditional Zuni sourdough bread each week, along with 80 loaves of yeast bread and 24 loaves of raisin bread.

The women fashion the sourdough and yeast bread into one of two styles: “flip-over,” where the dough is folded over like a taco, and “fancy,” where the dough is cut into horn-like shapes.

Seeyouma said the fancy style is the traditional Zuni bread style.

“It’s always been made like that,” Seeyouma said when asked about the unique shape. Zuni people call it “bread with the horns,” she said, while Navajo customers call it “bear claw” bread.


The family also makes and sells about 16 fruit pies and nearly 100 turnovers each week. Seeyouma regularly mixes up apple, peach, cherry and pineapple filling, and sometimes apricot and blueberry.

In addition to the attraction of freshly baked goods, many visitors to Paywa’s Zuni Bread stop by to see Jimmy Paywa’s huge bread oven, which sits inside a three-sided metal building.

The average Zuni bread oven can hold about 30 loaves of bread, and his family’s old oven could hold about 55 loaves, Jimmy Paywa said. About a year ago, he completed building the new oven, which can bake 100 loaves at one time. Because of the oven’s size, the family was able to cut their work week down by one day.

The beehive-shaped outdoor ovens, which were introduced into pueblo culture when the Spanish introduced wheat into the American Southwest, attract a lot of attention regardless of their size. The Paywa family says tourists who have some knowledge of Native American culture sometimes think the ovens are the Zuni version of a Navajo sweat lodge, while other tourists think the ovens are Zuni dog houses.

Although amused by such comments, the family members said they enjoy meeting new visitors. Karlene Paywa said the family ends up in a lot of photographs taken by tourists and visiting school teachers.

Some of their visitors keep in touch and send postcards, letters and even gifts. A customer from Texas mailed the family gifts of jam and pecans, and a French woman sent them a postcard featuring a photograph of French crepes.

But non-Indian tourists aren’t the only customers of Paywa’s Zuni Bread. Members of other tribes will frequently stop by, particularly Navajo families needing bread for family gatherings, weddings and funerals.

“We even have Apache people clear from Arizona,” said Seeyouma.

Other Zuni people are also frequent customers. Not all Zuni families have their own bread ovens and those who do have ovens don’t necessarily bake their own bread on a regular basis, the family members explained.

The Paywas and Seeyouma agreed that although the business involves a lot of work, it gives them time to spend together. Karlene Paywa grew up helping her grandparents when they ran B&L Zuni Bread, and she now enjoys working with her father and aunt.

“I guess it brings back memories of my grandparents,” she said.