A Little Known Zuni Art Form

Saturday, June 16, 2018 4:11 PM

A Little Known Zuni Art Form

During what I have dubbed the “Golden Age” in Zuni—the Forties and Fifties—there were many artists  who did it all, finally picking the talent most lucrative—usually jewelry work. Even then they often still had to have a “real” job to support their families.

         Teddy Weahkee is one artist in this group and Anthony (Tony) Edaaki is another.  Teddy was already doing renderings of Kokos (katsinas) in the early thirties and at that time it was still forbidden.  He got a lot of censure from the medicine men at the time.  He is probably best known for his paintings on hides, harking back to the time before Anglo influence 

Tony was born in 1927 and seems to have pursued all of his artistic skills until his passing in 1989.  Gregory Schaaf even gives him two biographical entries in American Indian Jewelry Vol.2.  One of his siblings is usually left out of his illustrious family, sister Lolepa (called Lolita) who was also and important jeweler.

Anthony Edaakie Collage

         Nobody knows which talent Anthony pursued first, but he worked in tempera, watercolor, acrylic and murals.  The latest word on his motel murals in Albuquerque—they will be destroyed when C. G. Wallace’s De Anza motel comes down.  He had a unique take on painting, creating what we call collages, but different from the works usually given this name.  On the painting he glued cloth, often padded, feathers, sticks and other things, but he also carved out wooden parts of the figure.  

These are more bas-relief than collage.  Call them high relief.  But both of those forms ordinarily use a single material, stone or metal.  Tony’s works are like a partial katsina carving glued to a board and then “dressed.”  Duane Dishta told me once that these pieces by Tony inspired him to become an artist.  Duane did the collage pictured here in 1965.

Edaaki favored the eagle dancer for his works, and there are still a number in Zuni.  His paintings of that Koko are found in several mediums.  It is possible he liked the eagle dancer because when they appear they come as a pair.  There are several examples of this katsina in Zuni including one very large pair framed together.  There is no evidence that he ever sold these pieces to the outside world, though some surely made it into collections.

Zuni Shalako Collage

Duane Dishta was another of the masters who worked in every medium.  The one collage of his I have seen is painting on board, decorated with feathers and felt with a minimum of wood.  In the sixties Duane was one of the best doll carvers in Zuni, and painted all the figures for the book on Zuni by Barton Wright. He had done the original paintings for a teacher in Zuni.  He said he only got a couple of bucks apiece.  They later sold to a high end collector and were given to the Southwest Museum in L. A. which led to the book.

I asked him once if the publishers paid him for using the paintings.  He thought for a minute and said, “They gave me six copies of the book.”

A little known artist in Zuni was the half-Hopi Courtney Mahkee.  He carved dolls to sell, but his eagle dancer collages are quite pleasing.  They face each other in two folk-art frames.  These pieces don’t have a lot of dressing, being painted wood half-dolls.

Another example by Edaaki

There are not many surviving examples of this Zuni art form and they have become treasured.  Most of these I know of were created in the fifties, and I have never seen one outside the village.  I’m sure some have gotten into Anglo collections, but I don’t know of a single example.  This seems to have been Zuni art for the Zunis.

Herding Horses

Saturday, June 16, 2018 3:10 PM

Herding Horses

       The horse is a very popular design in Zuni jewelry but they can be confusing if they are not cleanly signed.  Two types are especially difficult.       

       Overlay inlay—once called Zuni inlay because nobody else did it—would be difficult to attribute if they are not signed.

       The Simplicio brothers seem to make almost identical horse pieces, but they are different.  The pieces seen most often are the ones by Isabel and Chauncy, but some are signed by just Isabel.   The most obvious element of their horse is the nugget, or nuggets.  More importantly they don’t put a forelock on them.

Mike Simplicio horse

       The hair on the forehead belongs to Dan.  The forelock is very consistent so it is quite reliable.  Bracelets and buckles are more problematic.  Contrary to popular belief, stamps are not a good marker. Smiths shared tools all the time, and certain stamps that were popular were owned by many jewelers.

       For Dan the best marker is his leaf.  Unfortunately he didn’t always make the same leaf, especially later in his career. But the leaf is certainly important. Recently a watchband made by Francis Leekya, very clean random inlay and the Leekya leaf, was attributed to Dan. That piece is pretty easy to identify and shouldn’t be misattributed.

       The forelock on his horses separates his pieces from Chauncy and Isabel.  Mike Simplicio is more difficult.  There is a buckle signed by him using the Chauncy horse and nuggets but adding Dan’s leaves.  Probably he just borrowed the stamp. His leaves are not cleanly stamped, but it is the Dan leaf.  Mike’s horse also has a rather chiseled muzzle.

       The Qualo horse is very similar to those of the Simplicios with a simple horsehead done in white shell. Qualos, Elliott and Effie, usually signed their work.  The family says that even though they have exactly the same pieces, they worked separately.

Effie Qualo Horse

       Elliott’s round pieces almost always have the same stamped border.  Effie’s border is similar, but she used a different stamp.  She didn’t always do exactly the same horse and there is one that has more engraving and an applique silver rein.  That same piece has been attributed to Elliott.

       Double attributions are not uncommon.  A Nora Leekity style horsehead had been attributed to her and Paul Luna.  Her horses have a multi-colored band at the base, usually three tufts of mane hair, and reins that are used for stabilizing the parts.  There is a very similar one without the rein attributed to Roberta Benketewa.

       Bobby Concho’s horses are extravagant and detailed, but his horsehead is well within the tradition, if somewhat better made than some.

Bobby Concho Horse

       The horse is a very popular image and many people at Zuni have tried it.


Carl Gorman: Artist & Navajo Statesman

Saturday, June 16, 2018 12:37 PM

Carl Gorman: Artist & Navajo Statesman

Early in life Carl Gorman did well as a bootlegger on the Reservation.  Then he was one of the few native traders. His father Nelson Gorman had a post near Chinle.  Carl’s language skills were obvious—during the infamous stock reduction, he was used as a Navajo translator for the government—and he was one of the first Code Talkers taken.  Born in 1907, he was older than most of the guys—he lied about his age to enlist—but he was needed to craft the original code.  I barely knew what a Code Talker was.

In the summer of 1971 I was working for the Duke Oral History Project under C. Gregory Crampton at the University of Utah.  I got a call from him saying, “Get your behind over to the Navajo Museum and take your tape recorder and plenty of blank tape.”  Over a three day period I taped a bunch of these amazing men. The only person I know who got multiple tapes was Carl Gorman.  After that I crossed paths with this amazing man rather often and I believe I can call him a friend.Donkeys by Carl Gorman

One of Carl’s stories that upset a lot of White folks was about his treatment while attending primary school.  For a personality like Gorman’s it was inevitable he would get in trouble.  He finished his education at the Albuquerque Indian School, and the policies there were not too different that what he had seen already.  Until 1970 the official BIA stand was to make little Christian White Men out of the kids. Carl’s diploma said he was “A competent farmer.”  At least he got to play football.

After the war Carl took advantage of the GI Bill to further his education on his own terms for once.  He had been drawing all his life, but now he got into the Otis Art Institute.   During that time he matured, both as an artist and as a genuine character.  At that time Art became his fortune.  For years he signed his work with his clan name, Kin-ya-onnie-beyeh.

He started a Navaho Club in Southern California, but he realized he could reach more of his people back on the Reservation.  In 1964, not long before I met him the first time, he became director of the Navajo Arts & Crafts Guild.

Apache Ghan Dancers by Carl Gorman

In the late Sixties things started to change for Indian tribes as they got more autonomy from the government and project money like the Office of Navajo Education Opportunity.  He had two projects during this time that were of great importance.  He created a travelling exhibit of traditional Navajo history with several original paintings.  He organized an effort to tape record as many Hatathli—medicine men—as possible before all their knowledge passed into the darkness.

Gorman, like many Indian artists, could work in a variety of mediums.

Acrylics, drawings, watercolors and even ceramics were on his menu.   He was also a teacher.  He had a gig with U C Davis for several years.  It is hard to think of things Carl Gorman didn’t do.  I believe it is fair to say that his greatest accomplishment was the help he gave the Navajo people.  For years he signed his work with his clan name, Kin-ya-onnie-beyeh.

When Carl Gorman died in Gallup at the age of 90, the New York Times ran a generous obituary.  In the first sentence the writer says:  “Carl Gorman, a gentle Navajo artist who talked his way valiantly through some of the fiercest fighting of World War II…” had passed away.  The writer almost certainly did not realize how appropriate his statement was.  He was talking about the Navajo code that was never broken, not the silver-tongued storyteller.

I will never forget Carl Gorman the raconteur, teller of tales, Gorman the artist, the man who advanced the Navajo tribe in so many ways.

A young Carl Gorman

Stampede Strings & Bolo Ties

Thursday, May 24, 2018 12:15 PM

Stampede Strings & Bolo Ties

       The bolo tie has nothing to do with the Argentine throwing weapon that consists of three round stones tied together with leather thongs. With that thing around your neck you were in trouble.  It was also not invented by some fellow in Arizona with a good imagination in 1940 something.  In fact, the bolo tie has been around in some form for many years.

         For white consumption the original form was known as a stampede string.  In the 1850’s inmates in Deer Lodge Prison were braiding them out of horsehair.  It was time consuming, which was probably the idea.  The cord went around the crown of the hat and though the hat with two small holes.  The hanging cords were joined together with a slider, also made of hair.  The tips were two large fluffy tufts of hair hanging from the cord ends.

         In a stampede or a tornado the cord was snugged up under the chin with the slider.  It might not keep the hat on your head, but it did keep the darned thing on your person.  A similar cord—gold—went around the brim of the hat of a cavalry officer.


         The next development was also part of the cowboy’s dress.  The scarf—bandana, neckerchief and 17 others, some not fit to print—was a common item of dress.  It was pulled up over the face when riding drag, eating the dust of the herd.  Or robbing a bank if that was your thing.  The tie slide is faster to slip off.

         The Zuni version was pretty early.  Sheep vertebrae have a hole the right size for the purpose.  The earliest ones were painted, then came inlay, then beadwork.   Mid century Conrad Lessarly was selling a lot of them to the Boy Scouts.  Unfortunately they stimulated the Colorado Scouts to cobble up their own version of Zuni dances.


During the Thirties and Forties C. G Wallace encouraged the ladies of Zuni to switch from pottery—hard to ship—to beadwork.  He said once he took in as many as 500 a day.  The 1940 Census showed nearly 200 women claiming occupation—beadwork.  Roger Tsabetsaye told me he took several hundred of the cow slides to the United Nations and sold out.THESE_ARE_TYPICAL_OF_THE_MODERN_TIE_SLIDES

 It was natural to apply the sliding neckwear idea to jewelry.  There are many forms of homemade backs to hold the cords in place. Some of the bolo backs are very original.

         Many people think the ties can be dated by the by the common Bennet closer, but it really only dates the Bennet.  Knowing that Anglos like old, or the appearance of old, some makers today still use one of the old styles.  It was also sometimes difficult to drop in to the jeweler’s supply store.

         Probably the most common back was the three rings.  Two up top to separate the cords, a larger one below to clasp the cords.  Another was the M shape.  Cords went through the high spot at the sides, the middle of the M could be adjusted for tension.  I have seen a dozen other configurations.

         The tips can be cheap ones from a supply place or elaborate creations in their own right.  Tom Weahkee went all out on his.  They are art in and of themselves.  The function of the tips is to keep the cord from unraveling.   They are called aglets—the same as shoelace tips.


         Jack Mahkee got an idea from the old string ties and braided his own heavier cord with unusual tips.  He split a piece of leather into two lengths, and then braided them without cutting the strap.  The smaller eagles below are a great touch.

         Frank Vacit was amazingly creative and created a pair with turquoise set into the silver—true inlay.  The tips are crushed but there appears to be stamens in the blossoms.  I have only seen this on one other and it must have been very time consuming.



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Silver: Coin, German & Otherwise

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 6:50 PM

Silver: Coin, German & Otherwise

        Up front, we are talking about three hundredths of one percent between sterling and coin.

         In her 1936 pamphlet on Navajo silver, Margery Bedinger gives three lengthy paragraphs—half a page—to explaining the difference between sterling silver and coin silver.  She states, “This difference is too small to greatly affect the properties of the alloy...” (1936:15) Having said that, she spends two and a half more paragraphs discussing the two different alloys.  But she asserts that the difference is “…a fact that becomes significant when one is trying to date an old piece of jewelry, for the two sorts of money have different colors and take on a different luster when made up and so can easily be distinguished by the expert.” (1936:16)

         John Adair, writing just a few years later, claims that the actual working of the silver, like annealing, will affect color.  He concludes, “Therefore, individual pieces can never be dated accurately on the basis of color.” (1944:29)

Edison Sandy Smith

        It is true, however, that silver and nickel oxidize differently.  Nickel turns skin green, silver turns black, and nickel seems to oxidize faster.  But immediately after buffing it is difficult to tell them apart.  I use the sound method—nickel has a tinny sound when dropped on a glass display case.

Most writers simply add to the confusion:  Mexican pesos were supposedly purer silver and thus easier to work. According to coin dealers this is not true:  Coin silver was almost the same in both countries (U.S. .900, Mexico .903) until the Mexican Revolution of 1910 when Mexican coins gradually contained less and less precious metal.  It is also known that Navajo smiths commonly added a few pennies to melted silver to stretch it out a little, which would turn sterling into coin silver or worse. Many dealers claim they can tell coin silver from sterling at a glance, but considering the diverse practices, and very small difference in purity of various coinages, this seems very unlikely.

Most people can’t tell nickel from silver and don’t know that German silver contains no silver at all.  None.   Nor does the deceptively named Nickel silver.  No silver.  

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Frank & Elizabeth Vacit

Thursday, May 3, 2018 5:56 PM

Frank & Elizabeth Vacit

        In the 1940 Federal census Frank Vacit (25) was living in the household of Old Man Leekya, married to his eldest daughter Elizabeth (21).   Leekya was the only member of the family listed as a silversmith.  Frank gave his occupation as “unpaid family farm worker” and his income for the year $180.  But under “other income” he checked “yes”.  There is no explanation.

         In the famous C. G. Wallace sale catalogue from 1975 there are only a couple of unremarkable pieces attributed to Frank.  This is likely because of the Vacit’s friendship with Shirley and Pat Kelsey.   At one time Shirley said they would sit at the kitchen table in the wee hours, discussing designs.  One of the most eccentric of these is the goblet and serving tray that was part of the Druckman collection.  The silver tubing used for the cups came from the Newcomb friend Gouverneur Morris.


Elizabeth Leekya Vacit never gets billing for the jewelry they made together, which is odd considering her family connection. Shirley Newcomb Kelsey knew them well and took a number of photos of them working at the same bench.  She said that the couple always worked together. Many wives got no credit.

         They made so many remarkable pieces it is hard to choose which ones to spotlight.  One of Shirley’s photos shows Frank holding a fancy inlaid bit.  This magnificent piece is pictured in color in the book,  Bridles of the Americas Vol I.  The Vacits probably used ancient pottery designs more than anyone else.

         Frank liked to work outside the box.  To make overlay inlay the artist has to saw out the design from a plate of silver.  Tiny holes are drilled to accommodate the saw blade.  Usually those holes are cut out with the design.  One buckle leaves the holes visible with an almost invisible trail to the cutout.


       Most dealers believe they can tell a Vacit piece at a glance, and that is probably more true than for any other Zuni jeweler.  Though they never repeat the exact same designs, unlike lesser artists, the Vacit stonework is striking.  They managed to get the reddest coral and the bluest turquoise of anyone, but it is a mystery where it came from.

         The very style is distinctive.  Not the designs, but the work itself.  They did some of the most elaborate inlay ever.  There is a chanelwork bow guard with two eagles that illustrates the point.  No other artist did such dazzling work.

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