Saturday, June 20, 2020

The story of those who tell the story of the Storytellers

This time out we are talking about a modern day artifact – a Storyteller necklace - the third item that we are hoping to bring to Antiques Roadshow if it comes to Santa Fe. It had been originally slated for July of 2020, however... No announcement yet about future dates.
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But more than just that – we want to tell the story of those who tell the story of the Storytellers.

Several years back, while here for the Christmas holidays, we wandered into the Golden Dawn Gallery near the main Plaza – the sales venue for the work of three generations of Native American visual artists: Pablita Velarde (1918-2006) part of the first wave of painters who fueled a national demand for traditional Native art; her daughter, Helen Hardin (1943-1984) one of a second group of artists bridging traditional and contemporary art; and her granddaughter Margarete Bagshaw (1964-2015) a Modernist whose works sometimes were permeated with elements of Native iconography. 

Margarete’s husband Dan was the store manager. He was an absorbing conversationalist, proud of his in-law family’s history and their portfolio of work – and eager to share their story. We were interested listeners. So, while we browsed, he trailed along and told us about this remarkable trio of creative women. 

Although impressed by all of the works on display we were most attracted to those of the grandmother – and in particular to one print entitled “Old Father Story Teller.” 

 
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Born at Santa Clara Pueblo Pablita Velarde (Tewa name Tse Tsan, “Golden Dawn”) was the first full-time female student in Dorothy Dunn's “Studio School” art class at the Santa Fe Indian School. Contrary to what was being taught at other such institutions Dunn insisted that her students use Native American subjects and a flat-art style like that of the wall paintings and rock pictographs that had been created for millennia and are still visible throughout the Southwest. She believed that this yielded authentic representations of Indian culture (ceremonies, dancing and mythology) that were free of foreign influences, which may have been introduced by traders or outside training in art. After first working in watercolors, Velarde moved on to paints that she herself made from natural pigments (“fresco secco”), and with which she created what she called “earth paintings.”

“We’ve always given Dorothy Dunn credit for bringing in art at the Santa Fe Indian School in 1932,” said [Santa Fe’s Adobe] gallery’s Alexander E. Anthony Jr., “but before that, as early as 1900, the teacher at the San Ildefonso Day School, Esther Hoyt, encouraged her kids to paint whatever they wanted to paint. That was against government policy [which was] very strongly trying to downplay the paganism of the Indians and to get rid of their religion and voodoo kind of dancing.”  (Santa Fe New Mexican) 

In 1939 Pablita Velarde was commissioned by the National Park Service, under a Works Progress Administration (WPA) grant, to depict scenes of traditional Pueblo life for the Visitor Center at the Bandelier National Monument. She then went on to become one of the most accomplished Native American painters of her generation, with solo exhibitions throughout the United States as well as creating other murals under the auspices of the WPA. Her work at Bandelier was restored in 2006 as part of the monument's 90th anniversary celebration. Several of her murals also can be seen at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

In a 1979 interview she said, "Painting was not considered women's work in my time. A woman was supposed to be just a woman, like a housewife and a mother and chief cook. 

Those were things I wasn't interested in.

The piece that we gravitated to, “Old Father Story Teller,” turned out to be the cover and title-page of a book written and illustrated by Velarde – and is perhaps her best known work of art. In the picture, the tribal elder is shown telling people of the pueblo stories about the stars and constellations, which march in an arc across the sky. 

“I was one of the fortunate children of my generation who were probably the last to hear stories firsthand from Great-grandfather or Grandfather. I treasure that memory, and I have tried to preserve it in this book so that my children as well as other people may have a glimpse of what used to be.” The painting won the Grand Prize at the 1955 Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial. We left the store with a print and a copy of the book.

“Old Father Story Teller” was first published in 1960. Four years later in Cochiti Pueblo Helen Cordero created the first three-dimensional clay storyteller figure. 

In the late 1950s, at the age of forty-five with her six children grown, Cordero was doing beadwork and leatherwork with her husband Fred’s cousin, Juanita Arquero, to make a little extra money. Most of the profits, however, went to buy more materials. "Why don't you girls go back to the potteries?" Fred's aunt Juana asked. "You don't have to buy anything; Mother Earth gives it all to you."

Juanita had learned how to make earthenware pots and other functional objects as a child, and for six months Helen tried to learn the craft from her. But her bowls and jars “just kept coming out all crooked, and I was ready to quit." So Juanita suggested that she try making figures instead. And soon large numbers of small frogs, birds, animals and, "little people" (eight to nine inches high) came to life. "It was like a flower blooming," Cordero said.

When Helen showed her new creations at a Santo Domingo Pueblo feast day, Santa Fe folk art collector Alexander Girard bought all of them, requested that she make some larger figures, and commissioned a 250-piece Nativity set.

Then in 1964 he “asked Helen to make an even larger seated figure with children. Perhaps he was thinking of the ‘Singing Mothers’ – figures of women holding or carrying a child or two that several Cochiti potters were making. Helen went home and thought about Girard's request. ‘I kept seeing my grandfather (Santiago Quintana)...he was a really good storyteller, and there were always lots of us grandchildren around him.’ [He] was also a leading member of one of the clown societies...who wanted his traditions preserved and maintained’” (The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos.)
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Dr. Eric Blinman, head of the State of New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies says to think of the Pueblo Indian belief system as like an onion with the immutable core beliefs in the center and additional layers added as new rituals and beliefs were adopted and adapted. The core for most tribes is the Clown Society. These ostensibly comic entertainers play a crucial role in ceremonies where they may mimic strangers and members of other tribes and reverse the normal order of things.  Their purpose however is not just to get laughs – but rather to reinforce and teach the tribe’s behavioral norms. In order to perform meaningful social commentary their identity is usually concealed. Those of the Pueblo people disguise themselves with body paint and head dresses, rather than masks.

“Generally, Pueblo clowning may include acts of gluttony, including eating the inedible; simulating sexual activities; begging; joking; burlesquing ritual and ceremony; performing skits which satirize individuals or elements of their own [or] other societies (other pueblos, Navajos, and especially European-Americans); acting and speaking in opposites; inverse or backwards behavior; and doing virtually anything to make people laugh.
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The clowns represent mankind in a pre-moral state. Among the Hopi [e.g.], this is a state where the basic tribal values of self-control in eating, decorous and respectful interpersonal relations, nonaggression, non-acquisitiveness, non-inquisitiveness, sexual modesty, etc. are overturned, reversed, and burlesqued in the typical fashion of inversionary ritual. This serves to remind people of the importance of these values.” nativeamericannetroots.net) Some clown societies also function as healers, for example, the Zuni Ne' wekwe is a highly regarded medicine society.

When Helen remembered her grandfather's voice and shaped that earliest image of him telling stories to five grandchildren, she made two significant modifications to the Singing Mother tradition. (1) She showed the primary figure as male, since men were traditionally the storytellers in her tribe, and (2) she placed an unrealistic number of children with him (one of that initial quintet was the artist herself as a young girl.) Subsequent Cordero storytellers had as many as thirty.
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This “First Storyteller” is now part of the Alexander Girard Collection in the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. 

Seeing Cordero’s success, other artists started making storyteller dolls, each with its own unique style incorporating their creator’s beliefs based on their heritage. Today, the term storyteller refers to any open-mouthed human or animal surrounded by children, animals, or both, that listen to the stories.

And, in response to the desire of us non-Native Americans to have some sort of Indian folk art to display or wear, new representations of the subject emerged including bracelets (esp. among the Navajo), and necklaces such as our aspiring Antiques Roadshow item – which Marsha purchased at a silent auction held by the Friends of Archaeology (FoA) at its annual luncheon/fundraiser. 

The Museum of New Mexico Foundation (MNMF) was founded in 1962 as a vehicle for providing private support for the state run Office of Archaeological Studies, New Mexico Historic Sites and the four state museums in Santa Fe (Art, International Folk Art, History, Indian Art) – and is home to special “Friends” groups which dedicate themselves to fundraising and advocacy, as well as presenting lectures, trips, classes and exhibit-opening receptions. The necklace was donated by another FoA, but there was no accompanying information – nor was the donor identified.

As we have with several other folk art “finds” that we have acquired since moving to Santa Fe we brought our purchase to the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture’s monthly “Let's Take A Look with MIAC Curators.” The figures in the necklace are barely one inch tall. Aided by a strong magnifying glass, and insider knowledge of possible names to look for, the artifact analysts were able decipher the minuscule signature and attribute the artist. Like Marsha’s Thunderbird necklace, this piece is also from Santo Domingo (“Kewa”) Pueblo. 

Long before people wrote books and saved documents to a computer, the legends, myths and cultural values of a society were passed down orally from generation to generation by its storytellers – revered and almost mystical tribal figures. The tales they held in their minds were sacred – a means of preserving the thoughts and experiences of an entire culture.

But storytellers do not talk about themselves. You need someone outside that group to tell their story. Narrators who may communicate in a different manner, such as painting or pottery. And they in turn...
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Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS) was established by The Federal Government in 1890 to educate Native American children from tribes throughout the Southwestern United States. It was one of one hundred fifty such institutions (five in New Mexico) whose purpose was to assimilate the Native American children into the wider United States culture and economy by eliminating their traditional ways of life and replacing them with those of mainstream America. The students were stripped of all traces of what their culture was, such as their long hair, their clothing, and their native language. “Wretched students snatched from their culture to die of homesickness.” (Miriam Sagan)

In the 1920s, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work, authorized an investigation into the conditions at these Indian Boarding Schools. The resulting Meriam Report highlighted the failures of the system – and a shift in Federal Native American policy began when President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Indian New Deal, with its centerpiece Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. 

In 1975, the All Indian Pueblo Council (AIPC) was formed in New Mexico – the first Indian organization to utilize the existing laws to establish an education system for their children. With the passing of the SFIS Act in 2001, the school took complete control of its educational curriculum, and ownership of the land under a trust held by the nineteen Pueblo Governors of New Mexico. In 2008 SFIS razed eighteen of the original buildings, with the courts ruling that the Pueblo’s sovereignty overruled the State’s Historic Preservation Acts. Today the institution serves 700 Native American students in grades 7 – 12. The undersized SFIS boys basketball team – playing the up-tempo, aggressive defense, quick shooting style known as “Rez Ball” – made the finals in the 2019 New Mexico Class 3A state tournament, finishing as the reserve champion.  

SFIS however was not Santa Fe’s only “Indian School.”  Established in 1894 and financed by Katharine Drexel, a wealthy Philadelphia heiress later canonized a saint, Saint Catherine’s Industrial Indian School was the first in a nationwide system of what we would today call NGO schools for the education of Native Americans and African Americans.  More on “Saint Kate’s” in a future posting.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Not a bad day in Santa Fe

“What better way to open a festive concert against the backdrop of the New Mexican night sky than with a poetic reflection on the beauty of music by night?” asks the program notes for “Renee Fleming with the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra."

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Perhaps with a raging thunder storm accompanied by a driving rain windblown into the unprotected sections of the Santa Fe Opera Theatre causing the temporary evacuation of the occupants of those seats as well as the instrumentalists warming up on stage. Followed by a concert-long lightning show – and a chorus of nearby thunder with a scaled down version of the earlier storm to accompany Ms. Fleming’s closing pieces, which she sung calmly while her shoulder-length blonde hair, and sea-foam colored gown ruffled in the sirocco of the late night monsoon.

But first we started our Saturday by unintentionally alpine scrambling (for the first time ever) up a basalt rock cliff within which lies one of the largest collections of Native rock art (“glyphs”) in the American West.  

It was the kind of day that Santa Fe tourism loves to highlight – outdoor recreation in the morning, arts & culture in the evening.

Our a.m. scramble took place at the La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site during “a moderate hike on rough terrain” conducted by a local “walking collaborative.”
 

According to the Atlas Obscura website, “a 1991 archeological survey [of the site] recorded over 4,400 images within less than a mile. Bird figures are a common motif, accounting for almost a third of the glyphs. Some of the panels are thought to go back to the Archaic Period (that’s around 8000 to 2000 BCE), and there are some modern glyphs (that’s archeology-speak for graffiti) as well, but most of the images are Pueblo and date to between the 13th and 17th century.” The site also contains a portion of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the 17th through 19th century trade route from Mexico City to Santa Fe.

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A gathering of forty or so assembled in the site’s parking area – including a half dozen wearing the organizing group’s tee shirts, and one woman originally from Tolland, CT some of whose home-state family members are running the Heirloom Market & Cafe at Comstock Ferre in our old home town of Wethersfield. Small world.

After a brief intro during which we were told to expect a short walk on a flat dirt trail followed by a “quick scamper” to the mesa the group (some like us unwitting) set off. We had also been instructed that this was “not a race.” And it wasn’t – until we reached the end of the pathway and began to ascend the rocky cliff upon which it turned out the glyphs resided. The way forward was not marked. 

Within the first minute at least half of the group swept by us – return visitors, experienced scramblers, those too young to know better, and a few with mountain goat somewhere in their family lineage. The rest of us kept our eyes down searching for openings between the stones wherein we could put our feet and objects to pull ourselves up with and/or hang onto as we crept along. And stopping to figure out where out next move was – since the power climbers among us were no longer in sight and the tee-shirted volunteers who had hung back with our group also seemed to not have a sense of our route to the top.

At some point we realized that we were in the midst of the artwork and began to intentionally pause to admire that which some of us had come there to see. 

Eventually with some physical help from the volunteers and each other, we reached the summit having covered the rocky one mile distance in about fifty minutes.
 

Although Cieneguilla is not translatable in any of the online tools we looked at, a cienega is a swamp or wetland – and the truth of that name could be readily seen in the landscape that was presented to us from the mesa top. Because of its readily available water, the land was also the site of at least a dozen small Native Pueblos during the time when the petroglyphs were created, in addition to serving as the route for a portion of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro – some of which we walked upon as we crossed the flat-topped hill before taking a much easier and quicker route back to our car.

Fortunately we are familiar with southwestern Native American rock art having seen and studied it as part of an Elderhostel (now Road Scholar) program in Big Bend National Park in West Texas – as well as having hiked several times in Petroglyph National Monument, a volcanic basalt escarpment that stretches seventeen (largely flat) miles along Albuquerque, New Mexico's West Mesa. (We would recommend the ABQ site to any visitors to NM with an interest in viewing the ancient rock carvings without having to constantly worry about maintaining their balance.) 

So when it quickly became apparent that this trek, while not a race, was more about the hiking than the glyph-viewing (there was no art work at the summit) we pointed our eyes down and carried on because (a) we started on it and damn it we were going to finish; and (b) we had to escape injury in order to be in good enough condition for Santa Fe Opera’s presentation of Renee Fleming performing “Letters from Georgia [Okeeffe],” which we were attending that evening with Santa Fe friends F and D.

We are not big opera lovers. Since moving out here we have seen “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” and “Doctor Atomic” at SF Opera – both in English, both short, both atonal (aka non musical), both of which we enjoyed, and both probably not “real” operas. But we do like Renee Fleming having seen her singing “Danny Boy” at the funeral of Senator John McCain as well as on other televised events.

We know much more about, and enjoy the paintings of Georgia Okeeffe. So when Santa Fe Opera announced its 2019 one-night performance of the famous female opera singer performing lyrics taken from the letters of the unorthodox and independent-minded painter, it took no longer than one of us saying “we’re going” to decide to get tickets. We asked authentic opera fans F & D to join us – and opted for close to the best seats in the house. Which it turned out went (in descending order) to the mega-donors, really big donors, big donors, subscribers, and the rest of us.

So, with our bodies intact – and following a relaxing dinner with our companions at a favorite Pan-Asian restaurant after which we were presented with a full-sky rainbow, which D suggested might have “ended at Shirley McClain’s house” – we arrived at the opera about forty minutes before the 8:00 performance. 

The arch of colors was still on display to the southeast, but closer to the performance venue the sky was darkening and the sound of thunder was approaching. So we decided to forgo the spectacular view of the EspaƱola valley landscape from the elevated site, opt for safety, and settle into our seats.

Good thing!

Some of the architectural features of Santa Fe Opera Theatre that make the building as spectacular as its physical setting and its productions are a partial opening of the roof towards the middle of the orchestra section with permanent open sides in the same area – and a sliding door at the rear of the stage that often is left open until after sunset.

The design provides spectacular Westward views for the entire audience– as well as giving some centrally located attendees a view of the night sky. Our spot in the seat picking pecking order placed us on the center main floor behind the orchestra section, under the overhang and well within the shelter of the side walls.

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The monsoon that arrived at 7:40 took advantage of all the entry points.

The auditorium was about two-thirds filled when the storm struck. Spectators who were outside hurried in. Those already at their seats in the orchestra section opened umbrellas, which were immediately disassembled by the gusting wind that was pushing a sideways wall of rain into the venue. The orchestra, which had been tuning up, grabbed their instruments (if they could) and abandoned the stage. And lightning crackled in the background as thunder boomed overhead.

Then, just as quickly, it stopped. All but the high voltage light show, which continued to illuminate the sky throughout the one hour forty-five minute performance consisting of “Serenade to Music” by Ralph Vaughn Williams sung by the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Singer Ensemble; and five “Letters from Georgia” by Kevin Puts, and “Vier letzte Lieder” (“Four Last Songs”) by Richard Strauss both performed by Ms. Fleming.

To our untrained ears it was very enjoyable musical evening (even though only seventy-five percent in English) that was enhanced even more by the background pyrotechnics.  (Here is what the local opera critic thought.)

Fortunately the second storm ended before we made our way to our car.

Not falling off the cliff and breaking our legs while alpine scrambling through 13th and 17th century Native American pictographs. Not being struck by lightning while listening to one of opera’s living legends interpret in song the written words of one of art’s all-time greats. Not a bad day in Santa Fe.