Native Arts | Juanita Growing Thunder-Fogarty

By Dottie Indyke

A California beadwork artist keeps the family tradition flourishing

For Juanita Growing Thunder-Fogarty, August’s Santa Fe Indian Market is more akin to a religious calling than a business opportunity. The event consumes her year-round, whether she is preparing for the upcoming market or completing orders and commissions received the previous summer. Springtime often finds this artist of Sioux and Assiniboine heritage getting ready for the big show by rising at 3 a.m. and working until 9 p.m. Still, she might arrive in Santa Fe with only one or two beaded pieces available for purchase.

The value of this lifestyle has never been questioned since the Growing Thunder family’s first Indian Market 21 years ago, when Juanita’s mother, Joyce, also a beader, won best of show. It was milestone for them all: “Neither my mother nor any of our relatives—people who have done traditional arts for their lifetimes—had ever really gotten any recognition,” Growing Thunder-Fogarty says. “When we saw that my mother’s piece, an Assiniboine man’s outfit, had won the top award, we all started bawling.”

Growing Thunder-Fogarty, 37, began beading simple belts at age 10 and soon graduated to dolls, cradle boards, rifle scabbards, knife cases, and tobacco, pipe, and medicine bags adorned with beads, tassels, and quills modeled on those her nomadic Sioux and Assiniboine ancestors packed and carried across the Plains.

Honored four times at Santa Fe Indian Market herself with best of class ribbons, she is especially skilled at quillwork, which she characterizes as one of the first authentic Native art forms. Quills must be pulled from a freshly killed porcupine, washed to remove the oil, and dyed using a combination of synthetic and natural coloring from wolf moss, bloodroot, and blackberries. “What takes so long is the sorting,” the artist explains. “The quills are all different sizes. I sort by size and color, a little at a time. It would take a month if I picked them all at once for a single piece.” She softens the quills in warm water and flattens them using her teeth, then attaches them to deer or moose hide with applique or zigzag stitches. Often her bags are finished with quills wrapped around slatted rawhide to create complex patterns.

Quillwork has a deeply spiritual history: Legend has it that Blackfeet artists learn to quill in their dreams. The Dakota Sioux tell of an old lady making a quilled robe which, when finished, would signal the end of the world. As she sleeps each night, the dog at her feet tears out her day’s work. Each morning she must begin anew.

In her work, Growing Thunder-Fogarty favors both abstract and realistic designs focused on nature, mythology, and daily life that are interpretations of historical imagery and sometimes come to her in dreams.

In her rare off-time, she dances in powwows wearing a Sioux-style woman’s traditional outfit with solid-beaded yoke, large beaded purse, leggings, moccasins, belt, knife case, and fire bag. The regalia took seven years to construct and represents a crowning achievement in the annals of her family. Growing Thunder-Fogarty’s great-grandmother made 17 women’s outfits in her lifetime, all by kerosene lantern, and her mother, Joyce, is completing a woman’s outfit commissioned by the Smithsonian to be exhibited next year.

“I always felt I was kind of slacking, because by the time my mom was 22 she had made me a beaded cradle board, herself a women’s traditional outfit, and a beaded vest for my dad. In some ways I feel like I’m behind her all the time, but it’s good because I’m always striving to catch up,” says Growing Thunder-Fogarty.

Born in Castro Valley, CA, Growing Thunder-Fogarty had a childhood that explored her Indian and western heritage. Her father, Jim Fogarty, is a painter who would load his four kids and the dog into the Jeep each summer and head to Fort Peck, his wife’s reservation in northeastern Montana, and to powwows and art shows around the country. The western and Indian art they saw, and the museums and forts they visited, made a lasting impression on his young daughter.

Today, Growing Thunder-Fogarty resides in North San Juan, CA, a town of 125 people tucked into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Instead of hitting the open roads, these days her family works together around a large table. Three generations of Growing Thunder women—Joyce, Juanita, and Juanita’s 16-year-old daughter, Jessica—gossip, laugh, and swap stories as they bead and sew. Even Juanita’s 3-year-old daughter can wrangle a needle and thread, filling her mother with pride.

Despite the seeming ease with which she carries on her family’s work, Growing Thunder-Fogarty says, “This didn’t come naturally to me. I struggled to learn, and I’m still working hard at it. The way I judge my work is by my mother. If she’s impressed, I know I’ve done a good job.”

Growing Thunder-Fogarty’s work can be seen at Santa Fe Indian Market.

Featured in “Native Arts” August 2006