Catching the Indian Spirit With Pueblo Crafts

<i> Merin is a New York City free-lance writer</i> .

New Mexico is an ancient land. Spanish conquistadors traveling north from Mexico encountered communities of Native Americans who had lived for centuries in small, independent villages on the mesas and in the valleys near the Rio Grande.

The Spanish named these people Pueblo (meaning village) Indians. Spanish records indicate that there were 90 Pueblo Indian communities in the Rio Grande Valley during the mid-1500s. Over the years these villages consolidated to protect themselves and their traditions against Spanish domination and waves of Anglo-American settlers.

Nineteen pueblos remain: Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambe, Picuris, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Filipe, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Taos, Tesuque, Zia and Zuni. They maintain autonomous governments and protect their cultures and life styles.


The Pueblo Indian population is about 35,000. Pueblos throughout New Mexico vary from several hundred to several thousand inhabitants. Some have contemporary buildings; others use dwellings that are hundreds of years old and have no electricity.

Exquisite Work

Pueblos practice traditional arts and crafts: pottery, doll making, jewelry making, weaving, basketry. Some artisans have achieved international acclaim. In some pueblos, crafts are directly connected to ritual and religion; in others they are more decorative and/or functional, and more commercial.

For those who don’t have time to visit individual pueblos, the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center, 2401 12th St. N.W., Albuquerque, phone (505) 843-7270, is a delightful and informative alternative. About 300,000 tourists visit the center annually.

The Indian Pueblo Governing Council founded the center 11 years ago as an intercommunity meeting place and center of education for Pueblo culture. The center’s museum covers historical developments and exhibits artifacts from the 19 pueblos. A restaurant offers Pueblo Indian and Southwestern cuisine. Dance and craft workshops are attended by visitors from around the world. Children’s workshops are held during summer months.

The center’s Indian market sells collectors’ pieces and lesser souvenirs for the best prices in town. Merchandise includes pottery from all the pueblos, basketry, jewelry, sand paintings, storyteller dolls and kachinas (spirit dolls), sculpture and graphic arts, weavings and wearables. The 19 pueblos are represented; Hopi and Navaho crafts are also sold. The sales staff is well informed, and enjoy sharing their knowledge with buyers and browsers.

The vast selection of pottery ranges from simple earth-colored, two-spouted wedding vases ($24) to masterpiece bowls with intricately incised decorations ($1,000 and up).

Some pueblos have signature styles. Acoma, for example, makes white pottery with white-on-white geometric patterns etched into its thin walls, or with intricate patterns of black and/or burnt sienna fine lines and crisply defined shapes painted onto the surface.

An Acoma white-on-white wedding vase sells for about $300. Santa Clara and San Ildefonso are famous for black pottery. This ancient technique was revived in the 1920s by Maria Martinez, from San Ildefonso Pueblo, and ever since it has been popular with collectors. The style, with black matte areas etched into a glossy black surface, is exquisite. Prices for black pottery bowls and vases range from about $150 to several thousand dollars.

The center features the work of several well-known potters. Tom Tapia from San Juan Pueblo makes small pots on which intricate drawings with ritualistic themes are etched in red on a black background. Pieces sell for about $375 and up.

Rachel and Florence Aragon of Acoma Pueblo decorate their pots with intricate geometric designs. The walls of their pieces are so thin that they have a musical ring when tapped. A medium-size bowl sells for about $300.

Ceramic Artists

Other noted ceramic artists include Stella Chavarra, Linda Tafoya, Joseph Lonewolf and Grace Medicine Flower, whose works may sell for thousands of dollars.

Ceramic dolls are also popular. Cochiti Pueblo artisans make ceramic Nativity sets with Jesus in a cradle, Mary and Joseph, two angels, a burro and a bull. The sets ($300 and up) have a delightfully naive quality.

The Cochiti also make stylized storyteller dolls. This popular form of sculpture has ancient origins but was recently revived by Helen Cordero, who remembered her grandfather telling her tribal stories when she was a child.

Soon, Dorothy Trujillo began making the sculptures. In these delightful pieces, the grandfather or grandmother figure is surrounded by two to dozens of babies. The youngsters, much smaller in size, sit on the larger figure’s lap and perch on outstretched arms. The storyteller appears to be singing, and those who are listening have wide-eyed expressions.

These darling ceramic sculptures sell for $50 and up, depending on the complexity of the sculpting and the number of figures. Similar storytellers are made by artisans of Santo Domingo and other pueblos.

The center’s shop also sells charming miniature ceramics, including pots, animals, figurines and storytellers, for about $10 and up.

Wooden kachina dolls are colorful representations of spirits, animals, the elements, food and plants that affect daily life or religious ceremonies. Originally, the dolls were used to teach traditions to the young.

Commercial Versions

More commercial versions of the dolls are sold for $35 to $135. Some of the finest kachinas are made by the Hopi, whose kachina tradition is strong. Especially collectible are Brian and Ronald Honyouti’s subtly colored kachinas made from one piece of wood (from about $2,100) and Coolidge and Silas Roy’s small, vital kachinas (from about $500).

Small replicas of the sand paintings done on hogan floors for religious ceremonies are also sold. The original works are carefully disposed of after the ritual, intended to ward off evil and cure ills. The smaller replicas are equally beautiful, with stylized creatures and symbolic forms in turquoise, yellow, reds, black, white and earth-tones against a sand-colored base.

The center’s jewelry collection is superb. Most pieces are of Zuni and Navaho origin; each has a distinctive style. The Zuni use small pieces of turquoise and other semi-precious stones set into delicate patterns or inlaid. The Navaho work with rich chunks of turquoise and coral in heavy silver settings.

There are bracelets ($30 to $800 and up), rings ($24 to $100 and up), necklaces ($100 to $300 and up), a variety of belt buckles ($150 and up) and silver concho belts ($350 and up), bolo ties ($80 and up) and strung turquoise and other beads known as heishi ($50 and up). Quality and authenticity are guaranteed.

For more information on the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s marketplace, workshops and exhibitions, call (505) 843-7270.