On tribal lands, a time to make art for solace and survival

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On tribal lands, a time to make art for solace and survival
Artist Keri Ataumbi's current work, a beaded mask, in Santa Fe, N.M., May 27, 2020. The coronavirus outbreak has had a devastating impact on the livelihoods of Native American artists, but they are responding with a creative resolve born from centuries of adversity. Ramsay de Give/The New York Times.

by Patricia Leigh Brown

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- For over 30 years, Marvin and Frances Martinez have risen with the sun to drive from their home at the San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico to the centuries-old Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe. They arrive early to snag a prime spot beneath the rough-hewed wooden beams of the portal, a colonnade where they sell pottery blackened by blue smoke that recalls the legacy of Maria Martinez, the grande dame of Native American pottery and Marvin Martinez’s great-grandmother.

They are among the 70 or so Native American artisans gathering here to earn a living, artfully arranging their silver and turquoise jewelry, polychrome pots, ubiquitous feathered dreamcatchers and other items on Pendleton blankets. This living museum of craftspeople, a program of the New Mexico History Museum, is a Santa Fe institution that draws 300 to 1,000 tourists a day. That was before the yellow caution tape went up and downtown Santa Fe became a ghost town.

“Our great-grand folks went through the Great Depression,” said Marvin Martinez, whose kitchen windows look out onto mountains sacred to his people. “Now I feel like I’m reliving my ancestors.”

As the pandemic wreaks havoc on millions of lives, it has had a devastating impact on the livelihoods of Native American artists and artisans, who are collectively responding with a creative resolve born from centuries of adversity. New Mexico’s 23 tribal communities make up almost 60% of reported cases and half the deaths, although they comprise just 11% of the state’s population. The Navajo Nation has one of the country’s highest per capita rates of coronavirus cases — 4,689, with 156 deaths and still surging. Many tribal communities have mandated curfews and lockdowns.

The portal in Santa Fe, now forlorn, reflects a deep cultural tradition in which the vast majority of artists rely on communal, up-close-and-personal Indian markets to sell their work.

Last month, Indian Market in Santa Fe, the country’s oldest and most competitive market, announced that it would be going virtual this August, spawning ripples of anxiety among artists untutored in e-commerce or living in isolated areas with little or no internet connectivity. “Most Native artists rely heavily on the principal markets as an economic lifeline,” said W. Richard West, Jr., president and chief executive of the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. “To have it all come crashing down is really tough.” Along with the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, the Autry hosts a major market, still scheduled for November.

For jewelry makers like Reyes and Farrell Pacheco, residents of Tewa Pueblo (Santo Domingo) between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, internet connectivity is “a 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. thing. ” In this place of red earth and blue sky, the couple make the intricate mosaic inlay jewelry for which their pueblo is justly famous. They depend on Indian Market for half their income: Lately they have been bartering jewelry for potatoes, flour and even livestock. They spend much of the year crafting inventory, reserving their finest turquoise, coral, silver and spiny oyster shells. “We don’t invest in stocks,” Farrell Pacheco explained. “Our stocks are our supplies.”

Karen Abeita, a celebrated potter on the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona, primarily sells her work at the Santa Fe and Heard Museum Indian markets and makes about 25 pots a year. She gathers her materials by hand, always tasting the clay to make sure there is no salt in it, which can cause spidery fissures. Her paints come from mustard seed plants outside her door boiled to a tarlike thickness. The firing — wood and sheep manure chips heated into white-hot coals — is always the trickiest part of the process, the time she prays “to the Man Above,” as she put it. “I always tell my pots — I’ll see you when you come out,” she said. “Show us your beauty from the earth.”

Abeita supplements her income fighting forest fires during the summer and has always had a waiting list for her pots. But clients who regularly trekked to the Hopi reservation to select works are not traveling. “Everybody’s pretty much struggling,” she said. “There’s no income. It’s a scary and sad time.”

Mark Bahti, who owns galleries in Tucson and Santa Fe, noted that many artists come from large extended families. “When people support an artist, they are supporting a community,” he said.

At Zuni Pueblo (pop. 7,600), in a hard-hit part of New Mexico, some 77% of households have at least one self-identified artist at home. A young cooperative called ARTZ — for Ancestral Rich Treasures of Zuni — includes Zuni fetish carvers, who sculpt small animals and other spirit world figures from alabaster and other stones. But the tour buses and visitors stopped coming after the virus outbreak.

Even before the pandemic, more than one-third of Zuni residents lived below the federal poverty level, and the fetish carver Jeff Shetima, 42, a ceremonial leader, recently steeled himself to apply for food stamps.

The Zuni way of life is an intricate weave of religious and cultural rituals and extended family ties. “Social distancing doesn’t translate into Zuni language or lifeways, and graphs from the CDC aren’t always the most effective messaging for indigenous people,” said Joseph Claunch, executive director of the nonprofit Zuni Youth Enrichment Project. He recruited an artist, Robin Lasiloo, instead. Lasiloo created a poster promoting fitness for kids stuck at home using clan figures — among them a buff coyote demonstrating a forearm plank.

On Highway 160 on the Navajo reservation, where jewelry vendors once set up stalls, a black and white mural by the street artist jetsonorama uses the haunting image of a masked Indian in a headdress to underscore, in both Dine’ and English, the urgency of following public health protocols. Here as elsewhere, grassroots groups have flourished to deliver water, food, firewood and other supplies to elders in remote areas.

The pandemic has also disrupted the ceremonial calendar of dances dedicated to abundant corn and other crops as well as summer powwows and feast days upon which artists — not to mention those selling mutton stew and Kool-Aid pickles — depend. “Within the art world, money often is a taboo subject, with an artists’ need for sales implying their intentions are not ‘pure,’” said America Meredith (Cherokee Nation), curator, artist and editor of First America Art Magazine. “But for Native Americans, art is survival and putting food on the table for your children.”

Even an internationally known painter like Dyani White Hawk has had a major residency, speaking engagements and a solo exhibition canceled or postponed. White Hawk lives in Minneapolis with her mother and stepfather, who have health issues, so she has not ventured to her studio in a shared building for months. “It’s hard not to be making,” she said. “In a lot of ways, my practice is my grounding, my sanity, where I feel best.”

The economic importance of traditional cultural practices extends to regions not widely associated with the arts. A market study of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota by the First Peoples Fund, a nonprofit that supports Native artists and culture bearers, found that 79% of home-based businesses were in traditional arts like beadwork and quillwork. A solution was Rolling Rez Arts, a roving arts studio, credit union, internet hot spot and mini-trading post on wheels that until the virus struck fanned out across 11,000 square miles to reach artists in far-flung settings. Buyers from the Red Cloud Heritage Center gift shop board the bus once a month to purchase works from local Lakota artists, saving wear and tear and gas money.

The fund, based in Rapid City, is among the organizations stepping up to provide financial relief for Native artists in 25 states, who have reported losses ranging from $150 to $38,000 since March 1.

Yet the currents of ingenuity and resilience run deep in Indian country. Jaunty new institutions are springing up around the clock, from the Social Distance Powwow Marketplace Facebook page, which posts works for sale, to curbside silver pickup for artisans at the Iskasoktu Gallery on the Hopi reservation.

The Poeh Cultural Center in Pojoaque, outside Santa Fe, has started its own Facebook marketplace and peppered its website with COVID-19 support, including “Talking Circles” for artists and videos on marketing basics, “Artist Product Photography 101” and the like — a foreshadowing, perhaps, of virtual markets still to come.

The unwitting virtual pioneer is The Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine, which pivoted to digital after making the difficult decision to cancel its third annual market in mid-May. Among the artists on Facebook Live was Penobscot basketmaker Theresa Secord, an NEA National Heritage fellow and founding director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance. She set up “a little Indian Market booth” in a spare bedroom, she said. She has been teaching her 28-year-old son Caleb how to use tools and basket forms passed down from her great-grandmother. “It’s my responsibility as a culture bearer,” said Secord, who is 62. “What if something happens to me?”

Rapheal Begay, a Navajo artist and public information officer, said that it should be up to Native artists, rather than outsiders, to interpret the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the community. “It’s about aesthetic and visual sovereignty,” he said. “How will Native artists define this moment?”

One response comes from Carly Tex, a Western Mono basketweaver in Fresno, California, who may well be the Julia Child of acorns. She demonstrated her techniques in a recent video for the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, comparing the “old way” of grinding acorns with a mortar and pestle to her Ninja blender and sifting the flour in a tamoya basket she had woven.

Being ready for times of scarcity, be it storing acorns, dried beans or basket materials, “is innately present in our culture,” she said. As food hoarders descended on supermarkets, she realized she had a lot of acorn stored if the household ran out of food. “In a way,” she said, “it felt like we were preparing for this all along.”

Masks, an essential element of ceremonial regalia for millenniums, are also being redefined anew. First American Magazine recently published “Masked Heroes: Facial Coverings by Native Artists.” Brent Learned, a South Cheyenne/Arapaho in Oklahoma City, was inspired to create a painting of a masked chief after losing two friends to the virus. Keri Ataumbi, an acclaimed Kiowa Nation jeweler, made a mask out of brain-tanned buckskin adorned with celestial bodies, its interior lined with red and blue trade cloth and a beaded turtle.

Her mask connects to centuries of medicine men and women. “You’re breathing through your ancestors,” she said.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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