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.


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.)


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.


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.” 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.


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...
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.

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