Honoring the Elders

Carol Pecos, photograph, southwest art.
Carol Pecos

By Michael Hice

In the decades since its inception in 1922, Indian Market has weathered a full spectrum of political, economic, and social events and climates—the stock market crash, the Great Depression, major wars, social unrest, political decline, and the meteoric rise of technology. Despite such volatile conditions, the market has continually fulfilled its basic mission: serving as the principle economic outlet for indigenous art produced on remote pueblos and reservations.

From the artistic perspective, the market has encouraged two vital trends. First, as a juried show with ever-increasing competition, it has raised the bar on quality and innovation, encouraging artists to do their best and to strive for originality. And second, for visitors from around the world, it has provided the assurance of high quality and authenticity. It bears remembering that, from the beginning, Indian Market’s worldwide reputation has been built on the quality of its artists. Here we honor seven senior artists who have been an integral part of the market for decades.

Jemez potter Carol Pecos, 66, creates storyteller figures that she hopes express kindness, togetherness, love, and caring. “I am expressing myself as a woman and create what I know about,” she says. “My mother was a potter. I learned at age 8 by watching her and grew up loving to work with clay. I feel good and energized by what I do. When I go into the clay world I just let go.”

Fortunate Eagle, photograph, southwest art.
Fortunate Eagle

She begins with no set plan but starts working with a piece of clay and follows where it leads. The large section of her storytellers is formed by the traditional coiling method and is hollow, making her pieces lighter than expected. The smaller figures are lumps of clay that she sculpts into the shapes she wants. She likes her storytellers to appear realistic, as if they could speak. One of her recent pieces is a turtle whose back is covered with children. One girl is holding a bowl, another a vase; a boy is cradling a dog. She may clothe her children traditionally but give them modern items such as basketballs.

Chippewa pipe maker fortunate Eagle, 71, is a Renaissance Indian one could write volumes about. In addition to his well-known activism for the Indian cause, which began in the early 1960s, he sculpts in stone, wood, and bone; writes novels and screenplays; and designs and constructs memorial and ceremonial structures. Since the early 1980s the audience at Indian Market has known Fortunate Eagle as the expert maker of two essential kinds of pipes: presentation and ceremonial. “A 4,000-year-old tradition, a presentation pipe is a symbol of peace and good will,” he explains. These pipes were presented to colonials during early contact. “I have presented pipes to dignitaries such as Gorbachev and the president of Italy.”

Edith Tsabetsaye, photograph, southwest art.
Edith Tsabetsaye

Fortunate Eagle also makes ceremonial pipes, which are central to most tribal rituals and requested by tribes across the country, and many participants carry personal pipes made by him. Pipes range from simple bowls to elaborately carved buffalo, eagle, and even human heads. “Today pipe makers are rare,” he says, “because digging pipe stone from beneath a 14-foot layer of quartzite is tough work. Not allowed explosives, pipe makers have to dig the stone out by hand, using crowbars, hammers, and chisels.”

In 1958, Zuni jeweler Edith Tsabetsaye decided to specialize in “needlepoint” jewelry characterized by tiny stones. Previously, she had produced jewelry with round and pear-shaped gems. She creates all her own designs in sterling silver, adding turquoise, coral, and since last year, lapis. Most of her pieces are one of a kind. “I use Lone Mountain turquoise, which is rare, and Sleeping Beauty, a common stone used by most jewelers,” she explains. Last year Tsabetsaye, 60, entered a lapis ring in Indian Market competition and took first place in the lapidary category.

Tsabetsaye began making jewelry at age 13, learning from her mother; she was also inspired by an older sister, Jane. “I love making jewelry,” she says. “It has supported my kids all these years.” In the past, Tsabetsaye traveled all over selling her work, but today she finds traveling too tiring and costly. Having made a name for herself, she now makes most pieces on commission and sells each year at Indian Market.Specializing in miniatures, Tesuque potter Terry Tapia covers her pieces with animals lizards, turtles, and birds. “The skunk is my best seller,” she says, leading to her nickname, “Skunk Lady.”

Terry Tapia, photograph, southwest art.
Terry Tapia

Tapia produces her small pots in the three traditional colors of Tesuque: white, red, and black. Not outlining designs, she draws black lines of whatever comes into her head, then fills in spaces with red. Her trademark design is the eagle feather, which represents good luck, thus providing the buyer good fortune.

Tapia speaks of giving herself over to “mother clay,” a phrase heard again and again among potters. When something goes wrong with a piece, she feels she is not submitting properly to the medium and rejects any pot with an imperfection. “When I am listening to mother clay,” she says, “I have a feeling of inner peace, and all my worries go away.” At 70 Tapia can still produce 100 pots a day, working at a table in the corner of her kitchen where a skylight provides enough light to create her intricate designs.

The drum is undoubtedly central to Indian life. “It is the heartbeat for Indians,” says Cochiti drum maker Gabe Yellowbird Trujillo, who didn’t start making drums until 1974. Today he creates them for various tribes, even in Brazil and Indonesia, to use in their traditional ceremonies. His drums are also played in orchestras in New York and Berlin.

Gabe Trujillo, photograph, southwest art.
Gabe Trujillo

Some drum makers use old wood, but Trujillo prefers green wood and dries it in the sun himself—a delicate part of the production. His favorite woods are aspen and pine. He hollows out the inside of the drum with chisels he makes from the springs of old cars—Volkswagens work best, he says. Trujillo then stretches cow or elk hides over the open end of the drum. First the hides must be soaked, buried beneath 4 inches of dirt so the hair falls off, and hung up to dry. The tone of the drum depends on the thickness of the hide and tightness of its stretch. The finished product ranges from earring size to 40 inches across.

Santa Clara potter Jane Baca, 79, is a true traditionalist. Working in familiar blacks and reds, she digs her own clay, mixes it with white sand, builds pots using the coil method, and fires her work outside behind her house using horse and cow dung. Baca was not handed a legacy of pottery making. “My mother died when I was a baby,” she says. “My sister Gloria made pots. I watched and began to make small things when I was about 10. That’s how I learned.”

Baca produces mostly bowls, wedding vases, and lots of animals. The water serpent, common in Santa Clara pottery, is one of her favorite design elements, though she also uses the abstracted symbol for clouds, which are often referred to as kiva steps. “The animals, especially the bear, are my favorite,” she says. “I haven’t seen all of them in the wild, but I know what they mean.” Pueblo mythology ascribes special powers to each animal.“I just love working with the clay and will make pots as long as I am alive,” Baca says with a chuckle.

Jane Baca, photograph, southwest art.
Jane Baca

When Hopi jeweler Bernard Dawahoya was 7, his grandfather and uncle made him watch their sheep while they did their silversmithing. “When they were gone, I would fool around with their tools and taught myself how to make jewelry,” he says. Now in his 60s, he still watches sheep while creating beautiful Hopi overlay—a style that layers one metal over another. He engraves Hopi designs into his gold, brass, and copper as well as the traditional silver. “It’s very tricky the right temperature for soldering,” Dawahoya says. “The first thing I learned was to cut, grind, and polish stones.” For years he only used Sleeping Beauty, Spider, and Kingman turquoise but today adds lapis, coral, and malachite to his combinations of metals, creating without a preconceived plan.

Offered a die-cut machine with which he could make $1,000 a day, he turned it down. “I didn’t want to cheat my customers,” he says. “Young jewelers are going up, and I’m going down, but I love to see them continue making handcrafted pieces. I believe in handmade work.”

Featured in August 2000

Bernard Dawahoya, photograph, southwest art.
Bernard Dawahoya