Friday, April 24, 2020

Marsha's Thunderbird

Although it is now postponed, Antiques Roadshow was scheduled to come to Santa Fe in June, 2020. We entered the online lottery, but we were not selected. However AR provides a Plan B for wannabe participants – a chance to win tickets through their “Knock Our Socks Off!” contest by telling “the story behind the object [including] at least one photograph.” Thus, the tale of Marsha’s Thunderbird necklace.


One of the nineteen Native American Pueblos of New Mexico – Santo Domingo Pueblo (“Kewa” to its 2,500 residents) lies along the Rio Grande between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. According to the American Museum of Natural History, the village "is admired for clinging strongly to its traditions. Its pride, conservatism, and relatively large size, have produced a solid core of traditionalists committed to maintaining the old ceremonies and beliefs.”

It also has a distinguished history of jewelry making – with a style very similar to that found in 1,000 year old digs at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. Ancient necklaces might contain thousands of beads. Each of which began its life as a rough fragment, then was drilled with a cactus needle and sanded along with hundreds of other fragments on a foot-powered stone wheel. 


Because of their proximity to the Cerrillos turquoise mines the Santo Domingos are perhaps best known for their small disc- or tube-shaped heishi beads ("hee shee") made from the semi-precious stones, or organic shells.

(Interestingly turquoise gets little note in the journals of the Spanish Colonials, Mexicans or U.S. Territorialists – all of whom considered it relatively worthless. 

Then in 1857 geologist William P Blake learned that the greenish-blue gems used in Navajo jewelry were not mined by that tribe but rather by Puebloans at Mount Chalchihuitl in the Cerrillos Hills – one of the most extensive prehistoric mining operations known on the American continent. "I was so much struck with the extent of this singular excavation that...I could [not] believe that it was the work of men alone [done] centuries ago.” )

At the time of Oñate’s 1598 colonizing expedition into New Mexico several Pueblo communities were located along the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro main travel route – including Santo Domingo, which became one of the headquarters of the colonial mission system in the newly established province. And later a major force of Pueblo resistance against the Spanish during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and 1692 Re-conquest. Oñate purportedly gave the pueblo its name because he arrived on “Holy Sunday.”

In 1607 head Friar Juan de Escalona, Franciscans and Indian laborers built what (ninety-three years later) became the “head office” of Spanish NM missions. The religious community was one of the largest in New Mexico, but the buildings were destroyed by a devastating flood from the Rio Grande in the late 1800s. The river continued to encroach on the heavily damaged adobe until its foundation finally crumbled in 1886.

After the Mexican-American War the Pueblo had to adapt to another foreign nation. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad reached New Mexico in the 1880s. The AT&SF promoted the Pueblos in its advertising, bringing attention to their arts, crafts and cultures. Trains let off passengers near Santo Domingo – which by the 1920s was a major tourist destination and as close to “Indian Country” as many sightseers could get.


Also, during the Pueblo’s traditional August 4th feast day, organizers of the annual Santa Fe Fiesta organized trips to Kewa. Crowds of tourists traveled by car. While trains called “Limited Pullman Specials,” dropped visitors off near the Pueblo for an hour of Native traditions and retail. The community soon began producing pottery and jewelry specifically for this new market – setting up stands at intervals along the nearby road from Albuquerque to Santa Fe.

Now, let’s jump forward in time – and the story of Marsha’s Thunderbird necklace.

In December 2013 we were in New Mexico to spend Christmas with Monica and Bram in Santa Fe. Two years earlier Marsha had serendipitously discovered that J, her Wethersfield High BFF, now lived in Albuquerque. (During the planning of their 50th reunion, one of the organizers had shared J’s email with Marsha. Neither went to the event.) Now we regularly dropped by to see her on our trips to NM.

On this visit J happened to be showing us some of her southwest folk art collection – including a necklace with a brightly colored bird pendant, which she said the parents of her late husband had purchased on a 1930s trip to the area.

The piece was a Santo Domingo Pueblo “Thunderbird” necklace, and was made out of materials like plastic and car-batteries because traditional ones were not available in the ‘30s. It was a beautiful piece of jewelry, which evidently made a strong impression on Marsha. But the conversation moved on to other things.

Several days later we were in Santa Fe and browsing in the flea market at the Railyard while waiting to meet Monica, Bram & some of their friends for Sunday Brunch at a nearby restaurant. And in a glass case Marsha recognized a similar-but-different version of J’s necklace. She inquired. The price was right – but Marsha was concerned if her high school BFF would be upset at her “stealing her thunder,” so to speak. 

After pondering the issue over breakfast, and deciding, “if it was still there, then it was meant to be,” we went back and bought it. She was cautioned by the vendor that the cotton thread holding the piece together was stretching, and should be replaced before it was worn. 

J was pleased when she heard about the purchase – and happened to know someone at Santo Domingo who could repair it properly. (Her grandmother had made some of the original ones.) We left the Thunderbird with Monica & Bram in Santa Fe, who got it to J in ABQ, who got it to her contact at Kewa, who restrung it and mailed it to us in CT. Good as new, but in a traditional way.

J followed up by sending an article from the Albuquerque Journal about a Thunderbird necklace exhibition “Ingenuity in Adornment” at that city’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. The show ended before we got back to NM, so we were not able to see it. But the newspaper piece did tell us more of the necklace’s history, and is one of the sources for the rest of our story.

For which we leave Marsha wearing her necklace, and jump back in time to the 1930s.

Traditional materials such as turquoise, shell and jet had grown scarce. But plastic and rubber were becoming more common. So jewelers began harvesting their materials from abandoned automobile battery casings (which at the time came in a rainbow of colors, including red, blue and yellow), tire tubes, discarded toothbrushes, broken 78 rpm records, hair combs, kitchenware – and, most popularly, red Woolworth’s plastic dinnerware or (in the 1940s) Dairy Queen spoons of the same color. As well as sun-bleached animal bones – and incorporating previously unusable tiny chips of turquoise for inlay.


Why a “Thunderbird?” In Pacific Northwest Native cultures the thunderbird is an enormous creature that produces thunder, lightning and rain. But not among the Kewa. IPCC exhibit curator Deborah Jojola said, “’[in most tribes] birds are the spiritual carriers of prayers,’ but the Pueblo people ‘never gave us an exact meaning of the thunderbird.’”

As the economy improved, materials such as turquoise, coral, spiny oyster, mother-of-coral, jet and pipestone were added to the mix. And adhesives progressed from pine sap to cement.

Today, Kewa artists are making contemporary variations of the classic thunderbird style that their grandmothers once made. But now, “black onyx stands in for the phonograph records; natural apple coral instead of red coral, and all the materials are composed in a stunning, modern design.”

Fortunately for us Santa Fe already had its own small scale version of Antiques Roadshow. Once a month the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture (MIAC) holds “Let's Take A Look with MIAC Curators,” who will “attempt to identify and explain any artifact or historic object presented to them [but] Federal and State regulations prohibit the curators from appraising any artifact.”

While Monica and Bram were holding the necklace pending its re-stringing, she brought it in for them to “take a look.”
The results.

(1) It is an authentic Depression Thunderbird. (Whew!) 

(2) As to the materials: the heishi were most likely dog bones; red pieces came from plastic combs, black from 78 rpm records; and some kind of small bones outlined the T-bird head, which itself is made from a battery. Plus tiny turquoise chips.


El Palacio magazine says the Thunderbird, “was born of...a community cleverness about resources and materials during financially challenging times, and [a] shared knowledge about how to best to work those new materials – invention integrating the past. Its vision and creativity elevate it to another level from curio shop silver jewelry.”

In their day they sold for 50 cents to $4.00. Today they are collector’s items – with a provenance that has to be seen, to be believed.

So look for us in 2021 on Antiques Roadshow. We figure that’s got to be the next thing in the string of fortunate coincidences that brought this unusual and beautiful piece of New Mexican folk art into our home.

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