Native Arts | Jamie Okuma

Blackfeet family by Jamie Okuma. southwest art.
Blackfeet family by Jamie Okuma

By Dottie Indyke

Jamie Okuma has shown her artwork for only four years and at only two venues: the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum in Phoenix. Yet at age 23, she’s on the road to an illustrious career, having won awards every time she’s exhibited. The latest, and most impressive, was a Best of Show ribbon at the 2000 Santa Fe Indian Market.

The adulation is over Okuma’s dolls, which replicate—down to the last moccasin bead—traditional Native clothing. Okuma’s Plateau-style man, for example, modeled on dress from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, possesses ermine tails hanging from his beaded war shirt, painted leather leggings, and beaded shoes. Each detail is in perfect miniature, from the tiny beaded bag to the sewn brass sequins. Okuma focuses on dress and accessories, leaving her dolls’ faces blank.

To lend authenticity to her creations, the artist makes an annual trek to the trading post at her grandmother’s home on the Shoshone and Bannock reservation near Fort Hall, ID, to buy antique beads. The diminutive Venetian beads come in “old-time colors,” Okuma says, that she can’t find anywhere else.

Her ideas are born as she pores through historical photographs of Native Americans and studies the clothing and beaded items. Among Okuma’s favorites are the Blackfeet people, whose dress she describes as simple yet stunning in design and color. A few years ago, the artist’s interpretation of a Blackfeet family—father, mother, and baby in a cradleboard—won second place in its division at Indian Market.

Okuma grew up in Southern California. Her mother, who is part Luiseno (a tribe of Mission Indians based in San Diego County) and part Shoshone Bannock, is also an artist; her mechanic father arrived in California by way of Okinawa and Hawaii. The couple met, Okuma reveals with a smile, while clubbing in Los Angeles. When Okuma was born, her mother worked as a graphic designer for MCA Records, but four years later the family returned to the Luiseno reservation, where they live today.

Guided by her mother, Okuma’s natural talent for painting, drawing, and sewing emerged early. “I’ve been beading since I was 5. I kind of picked it up on my own,” she says. “I still have my very first beaded piece—a little rosette. For a 5 year old, it was pretty good.”

In high school, Okuma blew through the few art classes offered. When the principal learned of her talent and interest, she created a special class in which Okuma was the lone student. Her teacher’s encouragement and critiques, Okuma says, improved her beadwork and made her a more disciplined artist.

Ceremonial clothing has always been Okuma’s love, perhaps ignited by a dance outfit her mother made for her toddler daughter. On family visits to Fort Hall, Okuma would participate in powwows and mastered Northern traditional and jingle-dress dancing. At 16, she began making beadwork for other dancers’ costumes and constructed her first doll just for fun. “Each got better and better,” she says today. “I’d go to shows and be motivated by the beadwork there. I thought that I could do it, too. I’d see other people’s dolls and think ‘Mine are good enough to show.’”

Her initial entry was exhibited alongside her mother’s paintings at the Heard Museum market, where Okuma’s Southern traditional doll with a skirt of ribbons, beadwork, crown, and hair ties won best of class.

During the summer of 2000, Okuma made up her mind to pursue art. She signed up at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, the laboratory for nearly every major Native artist in the United States and the college her mother had longed to attend when she was a girl. There, Okuma takes classes in piano, Native American history, drawing, three-dimensional work, and jewelry—the last to improve the hairpieces, cuffs, and other metal work that adorn her dolls.

As soon as classes let out, Okuma goes home to make dolls. Each doll takes months to create, and she has so many ideas—such as a mounted rider and horse in complete regalia—that there’s no time to waste.

No question, this delicately beautiful young woman with big talent is off to an auspicious start.

Okuma’s work can be seen at the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum Indian Fair and Market in Phoenix.

Featured in “Native Arts” May 2001