“LDS Southwest Indian Art,” Ensign, Sept. 1982, 33
The Southwestern United States is one of the finest art-producing areas in the world, a beautiful, awesome land rich in creative traditions. Building on the best of their separate tribal and cultural heritages, Indian artists have created meticulously by hand an art that represents a direct link with the earth, its plants, and its animals, a tradition of family name and style. Among the Indian artists of the Southwestern United States, Latter-day Saint artists are some of the finest.
Their work is admired in museums, art galleries, and private collections throughout the United States and in Europe. Many of them have achieved national and international reputations.
As members of the Church in their areas, the Latter-day Saint artists featured in the following pages demonstrate with eloquence that LDS artists can enhance the best in traditional culture with works of beauty, excellence, and timeless, universal inspiration.
A few years ago while looking for LDS artists for the new Museum of Church History and Art scheduled to open in 1983 near Temple Square in Salt Lake City, I visited some of the Indian settlements in the American Southwest. I knew that missionary work had been done among these people for many years and that some had joined the Church. I expected to find pottery, basketry, jewelry making, rug weaving, and beadwork, but I was totally unprepared for what I found.
The LDS artists among these tribes are in many cases the finest artists of their people. Having seen their work in museums and galleries in Europe as well as in publications on contemporary Indian art, European art collectors come to the American Southwest to acquire pieces for their own art collections, often asking for works by a particular artist. Many of these artists are members of the Church.
One of the heaviest concentrations of LDS Indian artists in the Southwest is in the Hopi villages of First Mesa. Their LDS roots begin with the seven missionary expeditions of Jacob Hamblin to the Hopi from the 1850s through the 1870s. Although converts were few, a sense of trust developed between the Hopi and the missionaries. The isolated, peace-loving, agricultural Hopi villages were prime targets for their Navajo neighbors, a nomadic people who depended on the booty of their raids for survival. To provide protection, the Hopi invited Latter-day Saints to settle near their western-most summer village of Moencopi.
Soon Mormon pioneers founded the town of Tuba City, naming it after an early Hopi convert, Chief Tuba, whom Jacob Hamblin had once taken to Salt Lake to meet Brigham Young. The primary purpose of Tuba City, the first successful Latter-day Saint colony in the Southwest, was to carry the gospel to the Hopi and the Navajo. Many years later this town was declared part of the Navajo Reservation, and Church members had to move. But the LDS mark on the landscape continued. Today Hopi in nearby Moencopi still farm fields watered by some of the dams and irrigation canals built by early Mormon pioneers. Stone houses and an abandoned textile mill built by these missionaries still stand. Many of the Mormon settlers moved to towns near the Navajo Reservation, and their interaction with the Indians continued. Many have served as Church leaders on the reservation. Many have operated trading posts for several generations. Today some of them operate Indian Art galleries.
At the eastern-most Hopi settlement of First Mesa, another major Hopi leader, Tom Polacca, joined the Church during the early missionary period. A traditional leader in Hopi society, he championed progressive ideas such as the establishment of the first government school in the area. Around his trading post at the foot of the mesa grew a town named in his honor—Polacca, Arizona.
Several miles north of First Mesa is an area known as the Sand Hills, site of the Polacca family ranch. There even the landscape visually expresses the link between Anglo-Mormons and Hopi Mormons. The fields are planted with traditional Hopi corn, and traditional small flat-roofed stone homes are nestled among the ever-present Hopi peach trees. The rows of Lombardy poplars are the Mormon stamp on the landscape. Polacca family tradition credits early LDS missionaries as the source of the trees.
After Tom Polacca was converted, there was little contact between the eastern Hopi and the Church for many years. When Tom became an old man, he called his children around him and told them about the gospel and the Book of Mormon. He made his children promise that they would not join any other Christian church, because the “Mormon missionaries” would come again, and they would have the Book of Mormon. Many years later Elder Allen, a stake missionary from the Snowflake (Arizona) Stake, came to Polacca and First Mesa to share the gospel. One of Tom’s sons, Vinton, followed Elder Allen out of town to find out if he really was a Mormon missionary. Elder Allen was then invited to teach the gospel to Vinton, his family, and their relatives, many of whom joined the Church. Today a monument at the gravesite of Tom Polacca at the old Polacca ranch erected by the Snowflake Stake, tells much of the story of this man who kept the faith.
Vinton and his wife Fannie played a major role in Church growth among the Hopi, and many of Fannie’s immediate relatives became members. Descendants of her mother Nampeyo’s side of the family make up one of the most famous families of potters in the Southwest. By the late nineteenth century, Hopi pottery had departed from its own aesthetic roots. While aiding an archaeological team in their excavations of nearby Hopi ruins, Nampeyo’s husband, Lessu, brought her some of the pottery he discovered. She began incorporating many of the traditional shapes and decorative patterns of this early pottery into her own, sparking a great renaissance of Hopi pottery which continues today. There are now third- and fourth-generation potters in this family. Each generation has learned the art by watching older members of the family create pieces of pottery and then examining them closely. By means of this tradition, links of admiration and learning are built, and a strong sense of family tradition and excellence is developed. Members of the Nampeyo family (each generation of potters carries the name Nampeyo in honor of their esteemed ancestor) have had their work published widely and exhibited in the U.S. and other parts of the world. During the fall of 1981, for example, some of Fannie’s pottery traveled to China.
The LDS influence of the Polacca family soon spread beyond the villages of First Mesa and Polacca. One of Vinton Polacca’s brothers, Howella, married a Navajo woman named Ruth and lived with her at Crystal, New Mexico, on the Navajo reservation. Here they became a major missionary catalyst among both Hopi and Navajo. Their mountain ranch was a frequent site for mission conferences. During one of President Kimball’s illnesses while a new member of the Quorum of the Twelve, he chose their home as a place to recover his strength. The first permanent chapel built by the Church on the Indian reservations of the Southwest was built at Crystal, a fitting monument to the great work of Howella and Ruth Polacca. Ruth was a weaver and for many years demonstrated traditional Navajo weaving at Mesa Verde National Park. The rugs she wove found their way into many collections, among them the Rockefeller collection.
Since the Polaccas and many from Fannie’s pottery-making family have joined the Church, other leading potters in the area have also become members. Two prominent families are those of Feather Woman (Helen Naha) and Frog Woman (Joy Navasie). Carol Namoki, another potter, is also a member of the branch. Visiting a major museum that exhibits the best contemporary Hopi pottery is a little like looking at the membership roll of the Polacca Branch of the Church. The same is true when one looks at a list of the many books published on contemporary Hopi pottery.
The process of creation that results in the subtlety and richness so characteristic of a Hopi pot is perhaps the major reason why this art form has gained such worldwide attention. First, clay is carefully dug from certain places on the reservation, known by the potter and his or her family. Then it is pulverized, soaked, screened, and kneaded by hand. The Hopi fashion their pots without the use of a potter’s wheel, scrape them smooth with a piece of gourd, and then carefully polish them by using a smooth stone. With fiber from the leaves of the yucca plant as brushes, the artists paint ancient yet fresh patterns on their pots with glazes they make from local minerals ground up and juices extracted from local plants. Next they cover the pots with potsherds (pieces of broken pottery) and then cover these with bricks made from sheep dung, which they set on fire. Firing and cooling are critical steps. The Hopi never use a kiln, and if a cool breeze manages to penetrate the potsherds and cool a pot when it is still very hot, it will crack. Days and sometimes weeks of work can be destroyed.
The pottery tradition is a unified expression of hundreds of years of stylistic development of pattern, shape, and technique. Although a few potters are using more contemporary forms, most work with the traditional style, concentrating on a few simple elements intertwined and repeated. Both materials and techniques express the relationship between the people and the earth, the plants and the animals of Hopi land. Thus, Hopi pots put us in touch with a simpler, more direct life-style long since lost to most of us.
The shape of the pot and the application of the decoration is perfectly symmetrical. Painting is precise: lines do not waver and glazes do not flake off. Large pots are difficult to create and thus are a sign of great skill. Carving and incising are sharp, edges crisp.
Publications, exhibitions, and awards are additional ways of identifying quality, particularly if they are joint projects of museums. Because they constantly compare works of the present with the best available of the past, museums are in a unique position to make value judgments on quality. A piece chosen for exhibit in a museum has passed an important test. Major competitions for contemporary Indian art are held in Gallup, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and in Flagstaff and Phoenix, Arizona. Judges are museum curators, scholars, and many of the leading Indian artists themselves. A blue ribbon from such a competition is a much-sought-after award of excellence. The work of the Nampeyos, the Navasies, the Nahas, and others in the Polacca Branch often receives such an award.
Art forms other than pottery are also present among the Hopi. Each mesa has an art specialty. While First Mesa is known for its pottery, Second Mesa is known for its wicker baskets, trays, and silver work; and Third Mesa and Moencopi for their coiled baskets and trays. Members of the Church are among those active in carrying on these art traditions. Sister Mardel Shing, who lives in Moencopi, where her husband is a member of the high council of the Page Arizona Stake, creates exquisite coiled baskets and trays from dyed yucca fibers. These are traditionally distributed at weddings and given as gifts to children during Kachina dances.
In their silver work, Hopi jewelers seldom if ever use turquoise. They use two layers of silver, with the bottom layer oxidized on one side to turn it black. The top layer they cut with openwork patterns that allow the bottom layer of blackened silver to show through. The bottom layer is then bonded to the top, creating a strong pattern of black and silver. The late Wayne Sekaquaptewa developed improved techniques for bonding the silver and then texturizing the black patterns that show through the cutwork. Founder of a silver workshop named Hopi Craft, and editor of the Hopi newspaper The Eagle’s Cry, Wayne was a former branch president and a member of the Holbrook Arizona Stake high council. The present branch president of the Oraibi Branch, Glen Lucas, continues the tradition of finely crafted Hopi silver jewelry.
The major sculptural art of the Hopi are Kachina dolls. Carved from cottonwood roots, these small figures are used to teach children traditional Hopi history. During the last thirty years they have been sought by art collectors from around the world. Much of their broad public acceptance is based on the work of the late Emil Pooley, who served for many years as branch president of the Greasewood Branch. A former member of several religious societies of the Hopi, Brother Pooley joined the Church because of the many similarities between traditional Hopi religious beliefs and the restored gospel. His profound knowledge of Hopi culture served him well as a carver of Kachina dolls. Demonstrating his carving while chatting with people at fairs, galleries, and museums, he raised public awareness of the art. In handing on the art and skill of Kachina carving, he spent many hours with his sons carving Kachinas and talking about what it means to be a Hopi and a Latter-day Saint.
For Douglas Douma, carving Kachinas has helped him find a better way of life. After a long series of personal tragedies, and acknowledging his need to improve his life, Brother Douma returned home to care for his aged mother. With her encouragement he became active again in the Church and began carving Kachinas for a living. This means of supporting himself brought him a renewed sense of personal identity. Many years later, one of the most active members in the Polacca branch, Doug is still carving.
One of the most exciting young carvers among the Hopi is Lowell Talashoma of Second Mesa, who often starts with a twisted piece of cottonwood root and tries to see a figure in it. His sculpture takes on a sense of movement rarely seen in typical Kachinas. The extremely fine details of his carving show total mastery of technique. A former resident of North Logan and Salt Lake City, Lowell’s reputation is growing as one of the finest carvers among the Hopi.
In the high desert country south of the Grand Canyon live the Hualapai Tribe. Here the hills are covered with juniper, and here and there in the canyons and washes stand occasional cottonwood trees. Jacob Hamblin visited this tribe in 1863 en route to the Hopi Mesas. Today a small LDS chapel stands in Peach Springs, the tribal capital.
The major art form of the Hualapai is baskets. Materials for these—squaw bushes, devils claw, and other native plants—must be gathered during their prime. Preparation involves soaking the plant, splitting it, stripping the bark with the teeth and small knives, and then wrapping and sewing the fibers together with awls. It is a work demanding patience and an even hand. A good basket is always symmetrical, the top edge or lip uniform, the stitches evenly spaced. Because small errors turn into big ones as a basket gets bigger, large baskets are attempted only by master basket makers.
Sister Eleanor Mapatis, now nearly eighty years old, has been making prize-winning baskets for many years. She laments that too many young people no longer wish to take the time to continue this art form. For years baskets were sold as curios to passing tourists for a few dollars, which meant that the basket makers were receiving pennies per hour for their labor, and many of them stopped. Today Hualapai—baskets are recognized as a major art form in the Southwest, and museums and private art collectors are building collections from the works of the few master basket makers left. Unfortunately, however, once the chain of tradition has been broken in a family of basket makers, it is very difficult to mend.
If one were to designate the master of the Hualapai basket makers, it would be the late Tim McGee. Sister McGee also made large baskets, often decorating them with patterns of deer. The McGee family were tribal leaders, and one of the sons was a major force behind the construction of the LDS chapel on the Hualapai Reservation.
Seventy miles northeast of the Hualapai are their cultural and linguistic cousins, the Havasupai. They too were first visited by Jacob Hamblin in 1863. Even today, the only way into the village of Supai, a shangri-la valley in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, is down an eight-mile trail on foot or on horseback, or by flying in by helicopter. Through this valley surrounded by great red cliffs flows a clear stream tinted turquoise by the travertine stone over which it flows. This stream descends to the Colorado River over four spectacular falls just below the village. The art of the Havasupai is very similar to that of the Hualapai both emphasize basket making. Located deep in the Grand Canyon, however, the Supai settlement is at a much lower elevation than Peach Springs and it does not have all of the same plants. This is reflected, for example, in the Supai use of willows instead of squawberry in making their baskets.
Far to the south, the Maricopa live near Phoenix. Most of their artistic cultural heritage has been lost through their assimilation into the broader American society. Their one distinct remaining art form, however, is red pottery with black designs. One of the last potters of the Maricopa, the late Ida Redbird, had several major shows at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. Sister Redbird’s work is reproduced in most major books on Southwest Indian Pottery. After her death, a grade school in nearby Mesa was named in her honor.
The beautiful mountains of north central New Mexico are the home of the Jicarilla Apache. A nomadic people for centuries, the Apache were constantly on the move, and so they lavished their best craftsmanship and aesthetic ability on items easily transported and unbreakable: baskets, beadwork, and buckskin. Though today they live in small towns, the nomadic art forms continue. Sister Lassie DeDios of the Dulce Branch has been doing beautiful and intricate beadwork for years, in spite of arthritis which makes it difficult for her to sew beads onto thick buckskin.
South of the Jicarilla Apache live the Pueblos. When the first Spanish explorers came to the American Southwest, they found these Indians of the Rio Grande Valley living in permanent villages. Since this contrasted with the life-style of the many nomadic tribes, the explorers called the settled Indians Pueblos. (Pueblo is simply the Spanish word for town.) Over a dozen different Pueblo tribes live in the Rio Grande Valley in addition to the Laguna, Acoma, and Zuni Pueblos west of Albuquerque. Most of the Pueblos today bear the name of early Catholic saints, reflecting the long period of Spanish domination. The Pueblo Indians are most famous for their pottery and jewelry. Even Hopi pottery is made mostly by Tewa Pueblos, now known as Hopi/Tewa, who migrated from the Rio Grande Valley to the Hopi First Mesa almost three hundred years ago.
Thirty miles north of Santa Fe, near the town of Espanola, is the Santa Clara Pueblo. Eugene and Isabelle Naranjo have been faithful local leaders in the Church there for many years. Brother Naranjo served as a counselor in the mission presidency and as the local bishop before being called to the high council of the new Santa Fe New Mexico Stake. He was first introduced to the Church by a fellow worker while living and working in Tooele, Utah, during World War II. Many of their children have served missions, attended BYU, and married in the temple.
Like many women in Santa Clara, Sister Naranjo is a potter. Typical Santa Clara pottery is heavy, black, and carved. All the pots are made from locally dug clay and shaped without the aid of a potter’s wheel. After the thick clay pot is fashioned, it is frequently carved with strong, bold designs. Then it is carefully polished to a fine luster with smoothing stones, highly treasured tools passed from generation to generation. The black color is achieved by covering the fire, in which the pot is placed in its final stages, with powdered horse manure. This causes the oxygen in the clay to be displaced with carbon, and the final result is a pot that has the appearance of hand-rubbed ebony.
Pottery making around the Naranjo home is a family affair. While Sister Naranjo carefully prepares the clay herself, other members of the family often get involved in other stages of the pottery process. Last year her seven-year-old granddaughter made enough money from selling her own pots to pay for school clothes.
Sister Teresita Naranjo is another Santa Clara potter. The daughter of the renowned potter Christina Naranjo, and the mother of several potters herself, Terisita is one of the finest potters of not only Santa Clara but all the Rio Grande Pueblos. Three times her pottery has been exhibited in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. It also has been featured in every publication on Pueblo pottery written in the last ten years. During President Nixon’s administration, Sister Naranjo (along with Joy Navasie) was honored at a White House reception as one of America’s leading Indian artists. Her work is highly symmetrical, carved with characteristic precision. She is able to construct and successfully fire large pieces of pottery, no mean feat for a potter who uses neither potter’s wheel nor kiln.
On the Laguna Reservation west of Albuquerque are rich deposits of uranium ore which provide employment for many Laguna Pueblos. Wage labor from mining has decreased the economic incentive to continue making pottery for sale, and mass-produced containers have eliminated the demand for local pottery for Indian use. As a result, the art of pottery here has almost died out. Helping to keep alive this major art form of her people is Sister Carolyn Browning, who learned Laguna pottery making from one of the last master potters of her native Pueblos. Digging the clay is the first step, and it is hard work, but the Laguna potter accepts this as part of the tradition. In order to dig clay from the special area of clay deposits under a large overhanging ledge, where there is an ever-present threat of cave-ins, Sister Browning first had to get special permission from the tribal leaders. Lagunas have a deep reverence for the earth because it shares its clay, and tiny pots are always left near the site from which the clay is dug as an “offering.” This feeling of sacredness about the earth, shared by many Lagunas, reflects their reverence for God’s creations.
A focal point of missionary work in the Southwest during the last quarter of the nineteenth century was Zuni Pueblo, located about thirty miles south of Gallup, New Mexico. Missionary work was considered so important that a small settlement named Ramah was established about fifteen miles east of Zuni. Here the missionaries brought their families and farmed while preaching the gospel. The earlier settlement of Tuba City was their model. The town of Ramah continues as a Mormon village, though the original missionary zeal lacks some of its earlier luster.
Zuni art fame in recent years has resulted from its excellent jewelry. The two major styles are inlay and petit point. Inlay jewelry employs mother-of-pearl, which is carefully shaped and set in a ring, a belt buckle, or a brooch. Using the mother-of-pearl as a background, the artist creates an intricate inlaid mosaic of turquoise, coral, and silver. A well-made Zuni petit point makes use of clusters of small turquoise stones placed in a large setting of silver usually formed by sand casting. President Bowman Paywa, the branch president of the Zuni Branch, has been making these two types of jewelry for over forty years.
Because of the popularity of Zuni jewelry-making, there are presently very few potters among the Zuni. One of the best of these is Brenda Paloma, a young woman in the Zuni Branch. While still in high school she exhibited her work in the Heard Museum in Phoenix, one of the most prestigious art galleries in the Southwest. Another is Daisey Hooee, a Hopi potter from the Nampeyo family who married a Zuni. As a young woman she studied art in Paris and toured the world. Now returned to her Hopi pottery, she is currently teaching traditional pottery to others.
While Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblos have for centuries practiced a sedentary life-style with small fields and gardens and compact villages, the Navajo have followed nomadic tradition like the Apache. The major art forms of the Navajo reflect their traditional occupation of sheep raising and their mobile life-style. Primarily they are weavers, jewelers, and silversmiths. Originally they learned weaving from the Pueblos, and silversmithing from the Mexicans. Although there are few weavers among the Pueblos today, there are many among the Navajo, a number of whom weave from wool that they have sheared from their own sheep, and cleaned, carded, and spun themselves. Almost all of the weaving is done by the women.
A high-quality Navajo rug can be identified by the following tests: straight edges that are parallel; corners that lie flat; weaving that is very tight; and a warp made of wool, not cotton. Except for Yei and Pictorial rugs, the pattern on the top half also must be a mirror image of the pattern on the bottom half, and the pattern on one side of the face must be a mirror image of that on the other side. The pattern should also be pleasing. There are nine major weaving styles among the Navajo: Storm Pattern, Raised Outline, Teec Nos Pos, Pictorial, Yei/Yeibechie, Two Grey Hills, Crystal, Wide Ruins, and Ganado Red. The styles more or less conform to geographical regions. Fine weavers of at least five styles are members of the Church.
Sister Rose Kieth from Blanding is one of the best weavers of the Raised Outline style. She has sent two sons on missions, and her son Gil serves on the high council of the Blanding Stake.
A member of the Shiprock (New Mexico) Ward, Sister Ora Jim is one of the outstanding weavers of Yei style rugs. Representing the venerable experience of half a century of weaving, she has won many ribbons with her rugs featuring Yeis, mythological figures of healing and rain. Originally these figures were copied from sandpaintings.
Representative of the enthusiasm of the younger generation of Navajo weavers is Sister Lilly Tachane, whose weaving is a major creative outlet for her superb sense of design and skill. Sister Tachane serves as the Spiritual Living teacher in the Alma Branch Relief Society, Farmington New Mexico Stake. Her husband is the local missionary leader. Young weavers like Lilly ensure that this art form will continue at least one more generation. Though now living near Shiprock, an area most famous for Yei rugs, she grew up in the western part of the reservation that is the home of the Storm Pattern style which she weaves.
Near Dennehotso live two more fine LDS weavers, both young women whose husbands serve as branch president and counselor in the Dennehotso Branch. Sister Esther Haskins, Relief Society president, weaves her rugs in her mobile home, surrounded by her admiring young children. Sister Vida Jo weaves her prize-winning rugs in the family hogan under the tutelage of her experienced mother.
South of Monument Valley and Kayenta, in the heart of the Navajo Reservation, is the small village of Chilchinbito. Here lives the Kieth family, pillars of the Church among the Navajo people. Brother Kieth, now nearly eighty years old, served for many years as a branch president. Originally a Navajo medicine man, he joined the Church because of the many similarities between the doctrines and principles taught by the Book of Mormon and the restored gospel, and Navajo religious traditions. Most of the Kieth children have fulfilled missions and attended Brigham Young University. Hospitable and patient, quiet and genter Kieth dresses in the traditional Navajo women’s costume of satin blouse and long ruffled skirt with silver and turquoise jewelry, her long hair done up in the distinctive Navajo bun wrapped with colorful fabric. She speaks her traditional language and conveys the warmth of a personality at peace with herself. She frequently weaves in the Yei and Pictorial styles.
One of the major rug weaving areas among the Navajo is Two Grey Hills, halfway between Farmington and Gallup, New Mexico. From this dry, rocky hill country come the most expensive rugs woven in the entire Southwest. It is not unusual for a Two Grey Hills rug to sell for ten thousand dollars. No dyes of any kind are used in these rugs. Wool from white, brown, and black sheep is frequently blended in the spinning process to create a variety of natural grays and tans. The intricate patterns are woven as fine as one hundred and eighty strands to the inch. Because this extra fine yarn is spun on a simple hand spindle patiently rolled on the thigh, a single rug can take up to a year of meticulous work. A Two Grey Hills rug is an eloquent reminder of the patience, skill, tradition, and artistic insight needed to create a masterpiece. One of the finest weavers of this style is Sister Cora Curley, an active member of the Toadlena Branch.
The Crystal-style rug is characterized by bands of contrasting weaving as well as narrow wavy lines in some of the bands. The colors used tend to be browns and gold rather than reds or grays. Sister Ruth Polacca, mentioned earlier, has been an important weaver of the Crystal style. Some of her rugs have been acquired by worldwide collectors, including the Rockefellers.
Evaluations of rug weavers are based on their mastery of the very complicated process of rug weaving and on their aesthetic skill. Navajo weaving is done on what is known as a vertical loom. The warp (the vertical yarn) is attached between two parallel sticks or poles. Weaving takes place as the weft (the horizontal yarn) is passed back and forth through the warp yarns. After each passing of the weft yarn through the warp, the weft is beaten down tightly against the preceding weft. Tight weaving with wool is one of the reasons Navajo rugs are so strong and durable. As the rug is woven, the woven part is rolled up on the bottom stick of the loom. Except in the case of pictorials and Yei rugs, the top half is an exact duplicate of the bottom half. The patterns are usually extremely complex. Nevertheless, the weaver keeps the pattern firmly in her mind, even though weeks and sometimes months may lapse between the day she begins a rug and the day she finishes it, during which time the early woven part has been covered from her view. Except for replicas of museum pieces, no two rugs are exactly alike. The best rugs are evidence of excellent design, masterful craftsmanship, and a superb memory.
Perhaps the most innovative development to take place in Navajo pottery comes from a young Navajo mother in the Bluff (Utah) Ward—Lucy McKelvey—who uses Hopi fabrication techniques in her pottery. The designs she paints on the pots during the glazing process are purely Navajo however: Yei figures, geometric patterns from Navajo rugs, and corn plants. Some of her pottery she even decorates with miniature Navajo wedding baskets. Both she and her husband are presently school teachers, but Lucy hopes to retire from teaching soon so that she can spend more time making pottery. Already her work is avidly sought by serious collectors of Southwest Indian art.
Jimmy Abeita, a young artist living in Crown Point, New Mexico, is one of the best oil painters of the Navajo. A graduate of Highland High School in Salt Lake City on the Indian Placement Program, Jimmie has won numerous awards. His biography has been published, and his work is in many collections, including one owned by Johnny Cash. Jimmy studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago. He paints scenes on the reservation and portraits of his people with a rich, glowing impressionist style.
While Navajo women excel in weaving and pottery, the men excel in jewelry making. Lee Yazzie is considered by leading collectors and art dealers to be one of the best living Navajo silversmiths and jewelers. Still in his twenties, he has won blue ribbons at every major Indian art competition in the Southwest and has been featured in leading books and magazines on Southwest Indian art. A former BYU student, Lee’s real start in jewelry making came from two sources: his family, and a close friend, Joe Tanner, a descendant of early missionary settlers sent to Tuba City by Brigham Young. Today Brother Tanner operates several Indian art galleries. He has done much to increase public awareness of Southwest Indian art.
Although traditional Indian art is flourishing in some areas and in some mediums, such is not the case universally. Passing on the cultural framework, teaching the skills, building public acceptance, finding a need for the art, and selling it are all necessary if artists are to continue the traditions. In Peach Springs, for example, an entire generation had virtually lost its cultural artistic roots until two young women from the Peach Springs Branch, Lucille Watahomigie and Malinda Powsky, assembled a local archive on Hualapai culture. Now they have introduced such classes as ethno-botany into the local school, teaching the children which local plants have nutritional value, which can be used for making baskets, where the plants grow, how to identify them, and the Hualapai name of each. These women have brought older members of the tribe such as Sister Mapatis into the classroom to share traditional stories and teach the children how to make baskets. They have also used the talents of Brother and Sister Wauneka, who teach a complete range of skills such as beadwork, jewelry making, basketry, and pottery.
Others who have helped keep alive the traditional art forms of the American Southwest include the following:
Wilbert Hunt, an Acoma Pueblo now living in Albuquerque, was one of the first silversmiths among his people. He has traveled throughout Europe demonstrating his art. Several years ago he was called on a Church mission to teach traditional arts among the Indians of the Southwest.
Paul Enciso, an Apache/ Pueblo who is a seminary teacher in New Mexico, is a gifted weaver, potter, and silversmith. He has taught traditional Indian art classes in government schools on the reservations, classes that have started new artists on careers and built much good will for the Church.
A Navajo weaver from the Tuba City Ward, Sister Tiana Bighorse has demonstrated and lectured at museums and universities throughout the United States. Her work has done much to increase understanding and appreciation of Navajo weaving. She has also authored a book on how to weave a Navajo rug.
Sister Agnes Dill from the Isleta Pueblo near Albuquerque has been one of the leaders in the creation and operation of the Pueblo Cultural Center, a major gallery of Indian art in the Southwest. She has also been appointed and elected to state, regional, and national organizations that have fostered Indian arts.
Numerous descendants of early missionary families have remained in the Southwest. Today many of them run trading posts and Indian art galleries that make the final link between many Indian artists and the public.
Understanding the visual arts of another culture is like understanding poetry in another language. One must first understand the general structure of the language, then the unique meaning and context of the words, and finally the flow and sound of the words as they are spoken. To have even a small understanding of the traditional Indian art of the Southwest is to recognize that this part of the United States is one of the finest art-producing areas in the world. Many years ago the Indians here used the art they created themselves. Now they create these masterful works for art collectors and museums throughout the world. Among the finest of these artists are Latter-day Saints who, with characteristic modest eloquence, demonstrate how members of the Church can make major contributions to the artistic heritage of their cultures.