By Antonio Lopez
As a youngster, Kiowa artist Teri Greeves worked in her mom’s Wyoming trading post far from her Oklahoma roots, learning the ins and outs of beadworking. Raised on the Wind River Reservation among the Shoshone and Northern Arapaho, Greeves had learned from her adopted aunt how to bead traditional moccasins by age 8. But it was working in the store—learning how to explain to customers the intricacies of styles from different bead traditional moccasins by age 8. But it was working in the store learning how to explain to customers the intricacies of styles from different Indian nations and regions in the country that truly educated her in both traditional and contemporary native beadwork.
The main thing advancing her knowledge, says Greeves, was “my mother’s influence in the store—her exposing me to so much exquisite beadwork and telling me everything she knows about beadwork. She’s a walking Native beadwork encyclopedia. Having to sell to tourists, I had to know about the work.”
Greeves is known for seeking out unusual surfaces for her beadwork. Last year she won Best of Show at Indian Market for Indian Parade Umbrella. Drawing on memories of childhood Indian parades, Greeves re-created their imagery, beading it into a brain-tanned deer hide umbrella. In the piece Greeves makes subtle social commentary. Although many of Greeves pieces are for adornment (necklaces, bracelets, pipe bags, buckles, etc.), essentially, she says, “I bead contemporary Native life.”
In a sense, trade beads by nature have always represented Native adaptability, not only because they provoke interaction and cultural exchange but also because they were originally introduced by Europeans. With her highly popular beaded tennis shoes, Greeves contemporizes the tradition of beading moccasins. She also takes inspiration from varied places, such as the fancy dancer she saw at a Taos powwow who had beaded the Chicago Bulls’ logo into her cape. “I don’t say that I am the great genius who came up with this,” Greeves says. “It’s the evolution of the Native mind in the year 2000.”
Still in 11th grade, Navajo weaver Melissa Cody has already racked up numerous awards for her weaving, continuing a family tradition that dates bak to her great-grandmother. The young artists had a head start: She began weaving runs at 5, under the tutelage of her mother. Cody is one of nearly a dozen female weavers in her family. Last year at Indian Market, there were nine women weavers in the booth representing her immediate clan. Several other aunts and cousins also weave.
You’d think that the artist would be content with so many accolades and so much talent around her, but Cody remains unsure of Navajo weaving’s future. She fears the art form is in decline due to lack of interest among young people. Already the artist envisions herself extending her knowledge to future generations, continuing the weaving tradition through education. “Right now there are very few people who actually do weaving, and it’s mostly older people,” Cody says. “A lot of the tradition is dying off.”
Cody says that because her family has so many female weavers, clan gatherings tend to be bonding experiences. Consequently, weaving has given her a link to the past, imparting to her a sense of heritage that many of her peers don’t possess. “Weaving educates you about how things were done in the past the time it takes to complete things, having patience,” Cody says.
Typically it takes Cody more than three months to complete a rug. She works with a vertical floor loom built by her carpenter father. Unlike many weavers, she usually doesn’t draw her designs before beginning. Combining traditional and contemporary geometric patterns, Cody infuses her pieces with intense, modern color.
Not only did Cody have a head start in learning her craft, she’s already training to be an educator. She currently helps her mother, Lola, teach an elementary school class. Meanwhile, she continues to receive awards, recently winning a prize at the Heard Museum’s youth exhibit.
Upon his return to New Mexico, Nez decided to continue his art education. His friends encouraged him to carve, and soon Nez was zooming through workshops and human anatomy classes. The educational process also brought him closer to his roots as he researched Navajo history, in particular the Long Walk. “I really enjoyed a lot of the stories from our local community,” Nez says. “They inspired me to try harder, to tell stories in stone and develop original art pieces from there.”
For 13 years Nez has honed his stone-carving skills, working in alabaster, limestone, and marble. Currently he’s exploring the creation of monumental bronze pieces. What’s stirring about Nez’s sculpture is his ability to work as a kind of journalist in stone. At times he says he “dances” with the stone, allowing its own storytelling properties to emerge. “Art makes me proud of where I come from,” he says. “I’m in touch with my own people. I admire them a lot for their courage and all that they have been through.”
Nez gets inspiration from attending Navajo art fairs, where he observes the colorful dress of attendees. He also is active in his community, participating in sweat lodges and ceremonies where he attentively records, in memory, the stories of the elders. Consequently, Nez is adamant about giving back to his people the hard lessons he’s learned as a seasoned artist.
“We are losing our heritage,” Nez laments. “Elders are a walking treasure. That is something we need to capture. Even the language is slowly deteriorating. The language needs to be taught and spoken at the dinner table.” He adds, “While looking back, we can look forward at what we can do.”
Rickie Nez is represented by Ray Tracey Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, and Scottsdale, AZ, and Toh-Atin Gallery, Durango, CO.
Featured in “Portfolio: Focus on Native Artists” August 2000