A Teacher Falls a Little Closer to Earth

By Lauren Ressler –

“When the Shalako falls, you better watch out.”

Maria Vita, a teacher at Penn Manor High School, is well-known for her uproarious personality. Currently Vita teaches college prep US history I, advanced placement psychology and social psychology. Vita is marked by her strong sense of humor, admired for her lack of technological conformity, and content with being an independent woman. Although most students know her face, many aren’t aware of an experience that changed the way she views life.

Maria Vita studied Indian history at the University of Wyoming. She uses the word ‘Indian’ because she feels it is the most accurate way to describe Native American culture.

Following graduation, Vita decided to live on and teach at a Zuni Indian reservation in New Mexico.

Rock pictures at the Zuni reservation in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of David Edwards

“Even though I loved Indian history, I still had myths in my head about the people,” said Vita.

She said she thought all Indians were spiritual and that they all worshiped the Earth and the land. Vita was shocked when she witnessed an Indian boy littering on the reservation. It reminded her that Indian people fall victim to human tendencies, like the laziness of not finding a trash can.

She recalled that the kids on “the res” enjoyed video games and sports, and behaved much like the typical American teenager of any other race. There also were Christian churches and private schools on the reservation, creating a society not much different from modern American society.

“Indians don’t like other Indians, and they don’t know their own history,” noted Vita, explaining that tribes often don’t get along.

She explained that the Zuni tribe was one of the few Indian nations not greatly affected by the American ‘kill the Indian, save the man’ movement. The Zuni people were kept isolated and therefore preserved their culture and religion better than other tribes that were forced to conform to English-based rules of society.

“Indians are very spiritual,” Vita said about most of the Zuni people she encountered on the reservation.

The spirituality of Indian culture is not just tradition, it’s religion.

“To the Zuni, they aren’t wearing a costume. In their religion, they truly believe they become that spirit. It’s very serious to them,” said Vita when describing the ritualistic holidays of the Zuni tribe.

Vita holding a piece of Zuni artwork. Photo courtesy of Lauren Ressler

Vita said one of the holidays that the Zuni people take most seriously is the Indian New Year. During this time, a member of the ceremony puts on a very tall, heavy headdress to represent a spirit named, the Shalako. This costume makes it very hard to balance, and the Zuni believe that when it falls, everyone must be whipped with Yucka tree branches to ‘whip the evil out.’

“I had my running shoes on, ready to book it,” said Vita with a laugh.

Vita also said Indian people are very spiritual about air.

“If I would throw out a plastic water bottle away with the cap on, they would tell me I’m wasting my life because I left my air inside the bottle.”

Coupled with their strong sense of spirituality, Vita said she learned from the potent sense of humor present on the reservation.

“People that live in poverty are different than people that have things,” she noted about the Zuni people’s ability to laugh about everyday situations.

Vita said her experience on the Zuni reservation changed her outlook on life. Maybe it is important to experience something similar ourselves, something that brings us a little closer to earth and inner-peace instead of materialistic views.