Pablita Velarde’s Legacy: The Pueblo Artisans of the Southwest
A rare visit with Pueblo Indian artisans who are sustaining their culture's ancient crafts, often with age-old techniques. For some, their inspiration came from an iconic, early 20th-century painter who documented her people's rich traditions—and somewhat defied them.
Written by DANIEL GIBSON
Photography by KITTY LEAKEN
Pablita Velarde was born, in 1918, in a small village in New Mexico called Santa Clara Pueblo; one of the 19 Native American Pueblo communities that have survived in their traditional form in the “Land of Enchantment,” as this state is commonly called in the American Southwest. Santa Clara Pueblo was built of sun-dried adobe blocks on the banks of the Rio Grande, and its bosque (forest) of ancient cottonwoods—massive, twisting, and shady cool below—ran alongside great fields of corn watered by the Pueblos’ slow-moving, communal irrigation ditches called acequias.
Rising above the Pueblo were the Jemez Mountains, land of great pines, deep snow, and wild animals. All year long, the people of Velarde’s village held ceremonial dances to honor the great natural forces alive in this world, and practiced age-old crafts and lifeways that had sustained them for eons. Some 20 years later, Velarde, whose Tewa name was Tse Tsan, or Golden Dawn, became the first female professional visual artist from the Pueblo tribes to chronicle her people’s lives and culture. Over the decades, until her death in 2006, Velarde produced thousands of paintings, drawings, prints, and other graphic arts. A large number of these works were collected worldwide, making her the subject of numerous books and television documentaries.
Today, roughly a century after Velarde captured her people’s cultural traditions, many of those crafts and customs are still alive—due in some measure to Velarde’s work. These range from various dances, to the apparel worn by the dancers—including traditional Pueblo dresses woven from wool (called mantas), rain sashes, and moccasins—to handmade musical instruments, such as the drums and rattles used in ceremony; as well as pottery, jewelry, and myriad other arts still being produced by thousands of Pueblo artisans. In fact, it’s estimated that about half of the income of Pueblo people today derives from arts and craft production.
Some of those artisans have been Velarde’s direct descendants. Her daughter, Helen Hardin (1943-1984), was a highly esteemed painter and intaglio printmaker who resided in Santa Fe; her granddaughter, Margarete Bagshaw (1964-2015), was also a renowned Santa Fe painter; and her great-granddaughter, Helen K. Tindel (b. 1987), is a Santa Fe-based painter who works predominantly in acrylics, on birch plywood panels that are made by her father.
This story offers a variety of snapshots of those artists, and the work they do—sometimes with methods that haven’t changed for centuries; sometimes with more modern approaches. In both cases, many of these artists trace their inspiration, their determination, and their commitment to keeping their people’s creative traditions alive to one pioneer in particular: Pablita Velarde.
Brothers Carlos and Tomas Herrera, along with their father, Theodore “Arnold” Herrera, of Cochiti Pueblo, produce some of the most sought-after drums in the Native American craft world today. Drummers from all 19 of New Mexico’s Pueblo communities come to Cochiti to buy these drums, which are still made according to ancient practices. Over the years, the Herreras’ craft has taken them from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Washington, D.C., for the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival.
While Carlos, an environmental scientist, does drum-making in his free time, Tomas recently left the home construction business to focus full-time on making drums (along with traditional willow basketry, another Herrera specialty). To find the materials for the perfect drum, the brothers wander riverbanks looking for cottonwood boughs and trek into the mountains to collect recently dead aspen logs. Being a relatively soft wood, aspen is not only easier to hollow out, compared with other woods, it also emits a soft reverberation. Cottonwood, having similarly desirous properties, is often used for the large drums that the Herreras make for Plains Indian powwow groups.
While a drum has only a few parts, the process of making one is not simple. The multiple steps include aging the logs, cutting them to length, and removing the interior wood, a process for which the Herreras use homemade chisels culled from heavy metal scraps. Then, after making leather for the drum’s surface, a lengthy process in itself, the Herreras stretch the leather, secure it to the drum with sinew, and do whatever trimming is needed. These steps alone can take up to 16 hours, and that’s before they’ve gotten to painting the drum, or making the drumsticks.
While plenty of other Native Americans make drums, Carlos says that their use of ancient, traditional methods for turning an animal hide into a drum top “is something that sets us apart.” Today, he says, most drum makers use chemicals, which dry out the hides and make them brittle. The method the Herreras’ practice allows their hides to retain some of their original fat and oils, which Carlos says keeps them supple “for decades.”
To accomplish this feat, the Herreras bury their hides, which are sometimes made from elk skins but usually from cowhide, in damp earth for a week or two. (At which point, Carlos says, the hide is still hairy, “and extremely smelly.”) They then remove the hair, using old metal files, and degrease the inside, which will still be covered with a lot of fat. To finish the hide (and expel the stink), they never use salts, preservatives, or any other special treatment; by the time the hide is fully dry, it has been transformed into odor-free, resonant rawhide.
This whole process was passed onto the Herreras from their father, and their grandfather before him. “Even with the knowledge base we have, we struggle at times in getting the hides just right,” Carlos tells me, as I watch him work on a drum head. “There’s a lot we don’t have control over. Every hide is different, and this is one of the biggest challenges we face. The drying process [of the rawhide] is out of our control. We can do everything right—log selection, the carving, the hide preparation, and stretching it with the proper tension. Then maybe the humidity changes or the air pressure, and it loses its tone. At that point, the only option is to remove the leather and begin again with a new hide. We always have to wait until a drum is perfectly dry to find out if it works.”
“To try to ensure success, we always reach out to my grandpa’s spirit and ask him for his help,” Carlos says. “We say a little prayer to the spirits to help guide us.”
Aaron Cajero, 55, began making traditional, Pueblo-style moccasins while growing up at Jemez Pueblo, which lies in the foothills of the Jemez Mountains northwest of Albuquerque. He was in the seventh grade at the time. Today, his moccasins grace hundreds of feet on Pueblo dance plazas throughout New Mexico, and he usually has a backlog of orders—from a few to more than a dozen—which can take up to six months to fill.
Part of the delay in filling moccasin orders is caused by his polymathic life: Cajero is also a big game hunting guide, a potter, a traditional bow maker, and a teacher at the Jemez elementary school, where he instructs students in physical education along with history, language, and traditional Pueblo culture. His cultural studies range from the Pueblos’ historical forms of government to moccasin-making and spiritual practices. Cajero knows much of this terrain personally, having served as his tribe’s lieutenant governor three times, and as its overseer of traditional religious practices.
Before starting a new pair of moccasins, Cajero first traces the dancer’s feet on heavy paper, measures foot height, and notes any unusual pedestrian features. He then cuts into a thick piece of cowhide, creating a shape that’s slightly larger than his paper outline. After soaking the new sole in water to soften it, he turns up the outer edge—a surprisingly difficult task that has left Cajero with very strong hands.
For the moccasins’ upper wraps, which must be soft and pliable, Cajero prefers to use fine-grade deer hide or elk. “Getting quality supplies has been tough this past year,” he says. Sometimes, much like the Herreras with their drums, Cajero also makes his own leather—from the hides of deer or elk he hunts himself, or buys from other Pueblo hunters. “I want a thick hide so that [the moccasins] hold up over time,” he tells me. Even for the moccasin tops, if the leather is too thin it sags, creating bulges where the wraps overlap. “You want it to look nice and smooth,” he says.
To stitch the uppers to the sole, Cajero typically uses clear fishing line—because it’s lightweight, largely invisible, and relatively easy to work with. For a moccasin that is entirely authentic, however, he uses elk sinew, which must be kept wet during the stitching. Sinew is more difficult than a nylon line to thread through the leather’s holes, which he punches with a tool he made himself by embedding a heavy needle into a wooden handle. Cajero has found that sinew makes a tighter stitch, because it tightens itself as it dries, “but it takes more time.”
This means that a pair of moccasins—when made with sinew, and leather that Cajero has tanned himself—runs about $1,000, more than twice the price of a standard pair. “I tell buyers, ‘If you want to do it all the old way, we can do that, but it will cost you.’” Of course, Cajero’s personal moccasins, the ones he dances in, are “the old style.”
Pottery, the most widely pursued of the Pueblo arts today, is being made by thousands of Native clay artists, many of whom still dig, clean, and age their own clay; hand-shape and coil-build pottery without the use of a potter’s wheel; decorate their works with mineral and clay slips they prepare themselves, or by carving into the clay; then fire outdoors in the open air, rather than in a kiln.
This is the process followed by Jody Naranjo, one of the more renowned Pueblo potters working today. Like Velarde, Naranjo grew up at Santa Clara Pueblo, but moved to Albuquerque years ago to pursue a career as a professional artist. She still returns to the Pueblo for ceremonies and to fire her distinctive pottery. Naranjo’s work is characterized by intricately etched surfaces, portraying everything from fine geometric patterns to whimsical scenes of people and Pueblo life, as well as a menagerie of animals, birds, and fish.
In her pottery, which is always unglazed, Naranjo aims for a natural color that she describes as “rich chocolate brown.” To get that tone, she encloses the pots in thin sheets of metal before firing the pottery on a brick. “Some people even use old metal cafeteria trays, or put the work inside metal milk crates,” she says. Then she surrounds her pots with chunks of cedar, and sets the whole thing afire. “It burns hot and fast,” she notes.
Most modern pottery is made from very different clay that requires overnight firings in intensely hot gas or electric kilns, but Naranjo’s firings take no more than 30 to 45 minutes. “I have no idea of the temperature, because we don’t use thermometers, but I’ve learned to judge the heat by observation,” she says. About 5 to 10 minutes before the pots are done, she covers them with cow manure, which has been dried until it’s fluffy.
“Some people use shredded newspaper,” she says, “some horsehair.” The manure blanket cuts off the fire’s oxygen supply, a step that darkens the pots. If she lets this stage go too far, the pots turn black, a distinct style in itself that some buyers prefer. If the goal is to retain the natural reds in the clay that Pueblo potters traditionally use, this step is skipped entirely, but if you’re aiming for some combination—for example, swirls of black on a red pot—Naranjo says, “you put a whole cow pie against the pot.”
The process isn’t foolproof, however. Because these firings are done outdoors over a wood fire, without the controlled conditions inside a kiln, wind and humidity levels can wreak havoc, causing the pottery to crack or explode. To avoid such catastrophes, Naranjo tries to fire in either the mornings or evenings, which are the calmest times of day in her area. But even that’s not always enough. “I’ve often waited a week or more to fire,” she says. “It’s so tricky. All your work can be gone in a minute!” While studying her craft, Naranjo says, she had her grandmother “giving me advice at every step. Still, I’ve made mistakes and heard the pots exploding in the fire. Then I just cry.”
Second in number to potters in the world of Pueblo artisans are the jewelry makers. Over the generations, this craft has taken on numerous forms. On the meticulous end of the spectrum, there are those who make tiny beads, called heishi, first produced at today’s Santo Domingo (Kewa) Pueblo in prehistoric times, with hand-pump drills and stone drill bits, and then strung as necklaces. From there, Pueblo jewelry runs from semi-precious stones set in silver to contemporary works, made with gold and precious gemstones. In between are tufa-castings (a process using a carved volcanic stone as a mold for molten silver or gold); hammered metal; handmade silver beads; choruses of tiny bird effigies carved from stone and strung; classic concho belts; large seashells covered in mosaic stonework; and some of the most prized lapidary work in the world, famously done by Zuni Pueblo artists. There are works in stainless steel cut to a fine edge, “shadow boxes” (where a design is cut out of a sheet of burnished silver, which is then affixed to an underlying piece of blackened silver, thereby creating an image in negative space), as well as bracelets, rings, bolo ties, and belt buckles, all worn today by design-savvy buyers from around the world.
Steve LaRance, of Hopi and Assiniboine heritage, gets his tufa on the Hopi Reservation, from deposits created by the San Francisco Peaks. To gather what he needs, he has to drive a four-wheel drive pickup, find an isolated spot, and spend a day digging with shovels and picks. The tufa comes out in chunks, in sizes that range from bowling ball to suitcase. This will generally provide enough raw material for a year’s work.I first met Steve and his wife and jewelry-making partner, Marian Denipah, in 2003, when I served as editor of Native Peoples magazine, and I’ve followed their constantly evolving lives ever since. They moved from Arizona some years back to Marian’s homelands, just a stone’s throw from the lazy Rio Grande on Ohkay Owingeh land in northern New Mexico. In addition to their various lines of jewelry, they have also produced a batch of children and grandchildren that have made marks of their own. One daughter is a physician; another, along with her brother, spent a decade as principal dancers for Cirque du Soleil. Today, Steve and Marian oversee a Native youth dance troupe called the Lightning Boy Foundation, which travels the world in an effort to spread Pueblo values and skills, no doubt in ways that would have made Velarde proud.
Rituals and ceremony are still an integral part of Pueblo life, and central to communal events is the wearing of specific regalia or embroidered clothing, such as short kilts for the men, mantas (or dresses) for the women, as well as sashes and colorful belts. One of the most respected makers of such wares is 73-year-old Isabel Gonzales, from San Ildefonso Pueblo.
Gonzales specializes in hand embroidery done with a simple needle and thread, mostly on raw white cotton cloth that’s produced by a woman in Bernalillo, New Mexico. “My designs are all traditional—it all depends on what comes into my head. I don’t work from a pattern.” Gonzales also makes ornate wall hangings, table runners, and tablecloths. And she makes her own yarn, which she re-spins from commercial yarn with a drop spindle. The process stretches and rewinds the threads into a tighter, thinner but stronger form.
Gonzales spent many years teaching her craft at the Poeh Cultural Center, a facility owned and operated by Pojoaque Pueblo about 15 miles north of Santa Fe. “I taught so many people, but only a few have taken it up. It’s hard! It takes time! You have to sit down and do it. This is my livelihood and I do it all right here, on this couch.”
Change comes slowly to the Pueblos of New Mexico. The villages’ traditional buildings—constructed centuries ago from adobe (sun-dried bricks made of mud and straw), with wooden door frames and windows painted blue—look as though they belong to another time. Woodsmoke rises from chimneys most months of the year. Dogs run about freely, and kids play in mud puddles and on the edge of fields. But change is gradually overtaking the region’s First Americans. Some of those changes are internal and social, others are inextricably tied to the larger world.
“Because of forest closures due to fire danger, we can’t go out and collect our logs for making drums,” drum-maker Carlos Herrera told me, when we spoke back in May, 2022. “Streams are drying up and willow is dying out, which we use for basket making. Our kids are disappearing into a digital divide. Keeping our connections to the land is key. We hope we can maintain these practices, but frankly, who knows?”
The living Pueblo artisans noted in this article can be contacted as follows:
- Helen K. Tindel: represented by Blue Rain Gallery, Santa Fe
- The Herrera Family: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Carlos at 505-231-4860
- Aaron Cajero: 505-280-9822 or email@example.com
- Jody Naranjo: represented by Blue Rain Gallery, Santa Fe
- Isabel Gonzales: 19 Tunyo Po, Santa Fe, NM 87506, or via her son Ryan at 505-470-6543
- Stetson Honyumptewa: 505-310-2152 or Rt. 42, Box 80, Santa Fe, NM 87501
- Michelle Tsosie Sisneros: P.O. Box 873, Espanola, NM 87532, M2MSisneros@gmail.com
- Steve LaRance & Marian Denipah: firstname.lastname@example.org, text (505) 901-0328