Woman takes on task of looking over sacred Zuni statue

By Karen Francis
Zuni, New Mexico (AP) 11-07

Each morning Missy Yatsattie rises, she has a task to perform, a duty that was bestowed upon her through generations of her family on her mother’s side.

Since the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, one family has been responsible for the care of an 18-inch wooden statue that was rescued before the missions were destroyed.

Santo Nino, or Baby Saint, has been kept at the same home since 1690 when the Zuni people returned to Halona after escaping to Thunder Mountain following the revolt.

Now Yatsattie needs help to make repairs on the home of the Santo Nino, where she also lives to care for the statue. Last month Yatsattie walked 23 miles to raise funds to repair the adobe wall and the roof of the home. Earlier this month, she held a raffle. She also is planning another walk like one that raised nearly $400, most of which came from the Zuni people.

The Santo Nino is sacred to both the Catholics and the Zunis. For the Catholics, he is seen as a powerful figure because he represents Jesus in his most innocent stage – as a baby.

For the Zuni, the Santo Nino is actually a female – the daughter of the sun. Both attribute various miracles to the Santo Nino in past centuries.

It is believed the Spanish Franciscans brought the statue to Hawikuh, 15 miles south of present-day Zuni, in 1628 from Spain as a gift for La Purisma Concepcion Church, one of the original churches in the area. Santo Nino was moved in 1670 to Nuestra Senora de La Candelaria Church, where the statue was rescued before the church was burned during the Pueblo Revolt.

People have come from as far as Germany, China and Australia seeking out the ancient figure, which is said to have healing and protection powers.

“People that go to war, they come here to ask for protection,” Yatsattie said.

The responsibility of caring for Santo Nino is passed through the matrilineal line. Before Yatsattie, two sisters cared for Santo Nino. After the older one died, Yatsattie moved in to the home and began learning from the younger sister about caring for the relic. Two years after the younger sister died, Yatsattie moved back.

Yatsattie already is teaching her daughters how to care for Santo Nino since the duty will one day be passed on to them. And because Yatsattie herself is a traditional Zuni who sees the Santo Nino as the child of the sun, she also teaches her children about its sacredness.

Santo Nino usually stays in a special room until either the first visitor of the day comes or until late morning. Yatsattie says a prayer to Santo Nino each time she sets it on the altar.

“During the day when we eat, we set aside a small portion for Santo Nino and for our ancestors,” she said.

For example, when her young son had an orange, he had to set aside some of it to be put in a bowl for the Santo Nino.

When visitors come, Yatsattie drops what she is doing to tend to them.

“At the end of the day, when the sun goes down, I go to Santo and tell her it’s been a long day. Let’s go to bed now,” she said.

She then takes the statue to her room and sets it down until everyone is ready to go to sleep. “Good night,” she tells the Santo.

Santo Nino’s clothes are changed about once a week. On a recent day, she wore a red blouse and skirt with numerous pieces of turquoise jewelry.

“I eventually put on everything that people bring to her,” Yatsattie said.

In the past, an annual dance was held by the Zunis in Santo Nino’s honor. However, the rituals that the Zunis once had to honor Santo Nino have become increasingly rare, Yatsattie said.

“The belief in the Santo through Zuni is disappearing like most other things, like our language and rituals,” she said. “People are forgetting about her and not passing it on to the children.”

Yatsattie also has had a more difficult time maintaining a good home for the sacred relic, since she cannot hold a full-time paying job because she spends most of her time caring for the altar.

Her ultimate goal is to open a small museum with information on the history and the significance of Santo Nino, as well as various artifacts that Yatsattie possesses.

For now she is concentrating on getting much-needed repairs to keep Santo Nino safe for centuries to come.