Native Arts | Sandra Okuma

Sandra Okuma

By Dottie Indyke

Native American design motifs drive this veteran California-based artist

Although she doesn’t have a stitch of Prada or Chanel in her closet, Sandra Okuma is a fashion junkie. Contrary to 21st-century notions of that term, the objects of her desire show up on the powwow circuit, where hundreds of dancers make their grand entry decked out in handmade finery of leather, feathers, and beads. “You see the very traditional—clothing with handed-down designs or maybe even a family’s old regalia—and also the very innovative,” Okuma says of her avid participation in the California powwow scene. “Everyone is free to express themselves. I think that’s what attracts me.”

Not only does she appreciate these designs, but the California-based Okuma, who is of Shoshone-Bannock and Luiseno heritage, has spent decades creating them. Okuma’s paintings and beadwork are a platform for showcasing Native clothing and accessories. The paintings largely depict people, of all ages and tribal affiliations, who have donned their dance outfits. In one piece, a child in hide moccasins and a cape sewn with shell buttons contentedly sucks her baby bottle. In another, two young girls with beaded hairpieces and quilted shawls stand talking against a backdrop of towering conifers and a lawn of yellow wildflowers. Made in gouache, a close relative of watercolor, the paintings are luminous with light and color and are composed with scrupulous detail.

Likewise, Okuma’s beaded handbags speak to the blurred boundaries between contemporary and traditional that define many Native people’s lives. The list of inspirations for her bags includes antique Indian beadworking, contemporary powwow regalia, current-day ladies’ purses, and elements from nature.

“You can see many influences in the old-timers’ work … first and foremost, the natural world,” she notes. “You may see a floral [design] that looks Ojibwa but it’s actually Plains. Tribes traded ideas, materials, and techniques. I’m still doing that, though I’m influenced by a lot more than they were back then.”

Sandra OkumaOkuma, who lives on the La Jolla reservation of Luiseno Indians some 60 miles inland from San Diego, was born in Fallbrook, CA. She grew up traveling back and forth between La Jolla, where her Luiseno father was raised; Los Angeles, where he worked construction; and Fort Hall, ID, home of her mother’s Shoshone-Bannock relations.

From the time she was very young, she painted and drew, taught herself to bead, and sewed dance outfits for herself and her family. When it came time to select a career, she was torn between fashion and graphic design, but chose the latter. She got a rigorous education in commercial art at L.A. Tech that landed her a job at Universal Studios and MCA Records. “I had a blast,” she recalls of her years there. “Can you imagine? A record company in the ’70s? I did logo designs, billboards, ads, and album covers for The Who, Sonny and Cher, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and many others.”

In a karate class, Okuma met her husband, a Hawaii-born and -bred auto mechanic of Okinawan descent. Married for 30 years, the couple has raised one child, the acclaimed doll-maker Jamie Okuma. With Jamie’s birth, they returned to the reservation. “I wanted Jamie to know her heritage, to have the freedom of her land, and to be around relatives,” Okuma explains.

Okuma freelanced for awhile, but as the industry gradually computerized, she gravitated to full-time painting. When her daughter was small and she couldn’t travel, she’d send her canvases to fairs such as the Red Cloud Indian Art Show in Pine Ridge, SD, and the Lawrence Indian Art Show in Lawrence, KS. Later, she attended the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market with Jamie in tow. In 1998, mother and daughter showed at the Santa Fe Indian Market for the first time. Okuma’s entry won best of class, category, and division. Two years later her daughter, at 22, won the ultimate best of show ribbon.

Awesome clothing design, sewing, and beading are skills that mother passed on to daughter. But for most of her career, the elder Okuma has focused on painting. Four years ago, she happened on a cache of vintage beads at an estate sale in a California thrift shop. She considered it a sign and embarked once more on her on-again, off-again beading pursuit. It paid off: In 2005, she nabbed the Standards Award for beadwork and quillwork at Santa Fe Indian Market for her innovative use of traditional materials and techniques.

“I didn’t show Jamie how to bead,” Okuma says. “And it was the same with me. No one showed me; I just did it. It’s just a gift,” she adds. “Everyone’s given a gift, and that is ours.”

Okuma’s work can be seen at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market, Phoenix, AZ, and Santa Fe Indian Market.

Featured in “Native Arts” January 2006