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Orin Eriacho - Zuni Fetish Carver

Wednesday, June 12, 2019 1:31 PM

Orin Eriacho - Zuni Fetish Carver

      Orin Eriacho grew up in the big rock house south of the Zuni river built by Henry Gasper.  The home is most associated with the Tsabetsaye family, and linked to the Walelas.  Like most Zunis, Orin was surrounded by creativity and family celebrity, but his entry into the art world came out of his own interests.

In the sixth grade he did some carvings in what is called “Hopi” style.  They are basically sticks with heads carved and important features, but no feathers or dressing.  He thinks he did a dozen or so of these figures.  In Jr. High he started carving antler.

Orin began carving rock, using scraps from the artists around him.  The fetishes were tiny, but completely dressed.  He was mentored by Bob Walela and expanded his repertoire.  From the beginning he has carved rock found on the Zuni reservation.  He refuses to buy his stone.  Dealers began to criticize the use of what is known as “Zuni Rock” or “Leekya Stone” because it wasn’t colorful enough.


One dealer at least claims the rock only comes from land owned by the Leakya family and they are the only ones using it for carving.  Neither of those statements are correct.  And though the stone is usually thought of as the soft ochre yellow, it comes in a variety of colors from white to dark brown.  Some of it shows spots and stripes.  The mineral is travertine, and a number of Zuni carvers have their own quarries, which they guard.

In the 1880s Frank Cushing looked for a fabled turquoise mine in the Zuni Mountains.  In a terrible blizzard he lost his mule and his way, but he found an ancient digging with several copper minerals—malachite and azurite.  Orin’s uncle, Felino Eriacho has a source for that colorful mineral and carves it.

Other exotic stone is also found on the Mesas that surround the village.  Orin carves purple fluorite which should satisfy any demand for color.  Some of it is nearly transparent and the viewer sees into the body of the stone.  Orin says it seems to flame while grinding.  The fire closely resembles opal.

Flourite Bear

Many carvers get a feel for their stone and look for the animal inside.  One fluorite bear Orin carved is only half there.  He says that was the animal he saw, and the carving balances on one front paw.

Eriacho gives lie to the complaint about color in Zuni rock.  He carved a mountain lion two and a half feet long, crouching with an intense stare.  The coloring of the rock, with dark stripes like lighting, is perfect for the intense lion.  He entered it in a show in Dallas and it won Best of Division.  It sold on the spot.

Orin is a hard man to catch because he lives intensely, always busy with his art and other business.  He hauls wood for quick cash, but says he just loves being in the mountains, and he sees lots of wildlife.  Nature recharges his battery.

Claudia Peina

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 4:22 PM

Claudia Peina

               Claudia Peina comes from an illustrious family; both jewelry and especially fetishes.  The earlier generation concentrated mainly on stringing fetishes.   Kempsy Kushana, George Haloo, and Miguel and Rami Haloo who carved standing bears.  Early on she learned to carve frogs from her aunt Rosalia Quam.

               The late Colvin Peina, her older brother, was the inspiration for Claudia and her brother Troy.  Troy was first to carve the dancing bears, but the two of them refined the idea together to create the art they are famous for.  Claudia was about seventeen when she took up carving.  It was hard not to carve when most of the family members were doing it.

As good artists will do, she kept experimenting; Smiling bears, Laughing bears, Singing bears; but always bears expressing joy.  Claudia has tried stone carving, but is most comfortable and creative with elk antler which she buys at Joe Milo’s.  Today she carves a number of different figures, like the ones she calls Care-takers.


As she grows she has become more bold with materials and designs.  Lately she has been “dressing” her pieces.  She has them holding spears and shields, ornamentation in coral and turquoise set into the figures.  There is always something new out there.  Her latest idea is to take the butts of elk antler, called rosettes or burrs, and turn them into relief carvings; a carved concho belt.  She has accumulated a box of these rosettes discarded in favor of the antler itself.  She has some large ones that would make fine conchos.

She is constantly refining her angels and butterfly maidens. At first she created wings out of shell, then she tried silver plate, and today she dresses them in marvelous filigree.  For a time her husband Kall Kalestewa did her silver work, but when they separated she had to teach herself the skill.  One of her filigree-winged butterflies fills the eye-catching cover of Mark Bahti’s book Spirit in the Stone.

We talked a lot about the various outlets for Native art today, much better than for her grandfather and his brother.  She has a pile of ribbons, but that doesn’t dull the thrill of doing it over again.  She has been successful in, and prominent at shows like the Heard Museum, Flagstaff Museum, Ceremonial and Indian Market, with new venues appearing all the time. WARRIOR_MAIDENS._THE_ONES_WITH_THEIR_HAIR_ONLY_HALF_DONE_REPRESENT_THE_WARRIOR_WOMAN_OF_ZUNI_LORE.

        Like most true artists she doesn’t like doing the same piece over and over again, the only thing lesser talents are forced to do.  All the same, one of her fetishes was included in the Southwest Indian Foundation’s catalog.  The strangest request came through one of her buyers who asked her to make bears for some “Bear Club.” It has become an annual thing for her, carving around fifty new bears every year.

In recent years she has been a buyer for Harold Finkelstein who wrote the pamphlet Zuni Fetish Carvings.  By doing that she is becoming familiar with the whole spectrum of Zuni art.  It doesn’t hurt that so many great artists are her close relatives.  Her only expense is time and money and she loves the search.  These days she’s contemplating a Zuni store of her own in the near future.

Maxx Laate

Saturday, February 16, 2019 3:40 PM

Maxx Laate

Maxx Laate comes from a family of famous Zunis.  Less well known is that many of the other top carvers are his brothers and nephews because they go by other surnames.  They have mostly lived near each other and Maxx’s brother Pernell has been an inspiration and teacher for many of them, though Zunis don’t teach in the way schools do. So, the family has been influential to other carvers.

         Pernell’s carving was amazing.  He mostly did animals and figures of cowboys and Indians that are incredibly intricate.  Pernell was the oldest of the Laate brothers and he inspired Maxx to do fetishes. Then they in turn inspired Lewis Malie (Mertz), Esteban Najera, and his brother Ruben, Florentine Martinez (Tino), and in-law Garrick Weeka, all of them master carvers today.


Maxx, like most Zuni artists, has tried many art forms: painting, pottery, wood whittling, katsinas and then silverwork.  He learned casting from his father and he remembers casting arrowheads in the round.

He and his brothers carved wood when they had to herd sheep, a really boring job.  Their grandfather Gus Laate did only the traditional style fetishes, but he was the motivation to begin fetish carving, picking a soft rock and using a knife and file. 

           His father Bennie Laate taught him to cast silver and he remembers casting a three-dimensional arrowhead piece.  But mostly they were self taught, as most Zunis are.  They took their creativity from the material and inventiveness they had from their own imagination.


Maxx soon added a Dremel to his tool box when the files he was using were too restrictive, both in the stone he could use, and the detail he wanted.  A Dremel is a hand-held variable speed rotary tool that takes all sorts of grinding and cutting bits, and that that allowed him to do the super fine carving.

         Maxx thinks he was the first to be inspired to carve the six directional animals together from a single stone.  Today he mostly carves antler, both elk and deer. His brother Willard used to spend a lot of time in the woods, hunting.  He would find shed antlers regularly but they are much scarcer these days. At one time he was able to get caribou antler and he carved an Eskimo sled with a string of dogs. He found that deer antlers were easier to use, because elk grows in layers like an onion but many carvers, including him, still use it.  MAXX_TAKES_A_FAMILIAR_IMAGE_AND_TWISTS_IT_A_BIT_TO_CREATE_SOMETHING_NEW

         He says the material dictates what he carves and how fast he works. Many sculptors say they carve what they see in the rock (and some Zuni pieces can’t be called any thing else).  The delightful thing about really good carver is their ability to keep their work tribal but create new variations.  Maxx has done some really original pieces like a man fighting a bear, a ring tailed cat and a plains chief holding and eagle.  At one time he did canoes with people, goods and dogs in them.

Recently I visited his workshop and he was finishing up a piece carved from an antler that stood by itself, covered with spiders. Both tines of the antler had dozens of spiders running down the sides.  The spider legs didn’t look any bigger than small twine, smaller than a toothpick, as small as  or a cactus needle, which made the carving stunning. Maxx is most famous for his intricate eagles and fine deer, but he does lizards and anything he can think of, even alligators.

HUMMINGBIRD_AND_BATS_ARE_FAVORITES A mark of his amazing skill is his fine detailing and his miniatures are amazing. But he has a sense of humor and originality as he carves buffalos with exaggerated humps, or an eagle with a rattlesnake in its mouth.  The work of his pupils, Lewis Malie and Ruben Najera also do excellent and finely detailed work.

Can Your Bear Dance?

Saturday, November 17, 2018 3:05 PM

Can Your Bear Dance?

Study shows French prehistoric paintings ‘oldest and most elaborate’

         "Remarkably, agreeing with the radiocarbon dates of the human and animal occupancy, this study confirms that the Chauvet cave paintings are the oldest and the most elaborate ever discovered, challenging our current

knowledge of human cognitive evolution”, said the study.


         Those folks did not think of bears as “happy” creatures, but the extinct cave bear was more than twice the size of our bears.  Strangely, there are no synonyms for bear in English— not counting the Latin, Ursa--the best we can do is growler, brute and other descriptive words. The word bear came from Proto-Germanic, but it’s meaning was “brown” or “shining”, “honey eater”, “shaggy coat.” In many cultures, bear, like coyote, was taboo to speak, so other names were made up.

         Taboos involving bears are widespread.  I collected a dozen of them from the Navajos—including “don’t step on a bear track” and “don’t put your shoes on the wrong feet”.  Zunis are forbidden to kill bears, but members of a certain medicine group may do it.  Of course none will eat bear meat, which is really delicious.


         In general most societies have given bears a wide birth because of the threat they are.  But for reasons I can’t find, they were tamed and forced to dance for people in the dim past. Their training has been described as “unimaginable cruelty”.  In Nepal the last dancing sloth bear was only recued in July of this year. Many eastern European countries only stopped recently and in Pakistan the practice continues.

         I think the underlying reason for dancing bears came out of fear.  If you can make a ferocious animal perform for people, then you might be able to control all forms of danger and evil. The same thing is part of the appeal of lion tamers and dancing elephants.  Control in a world that has never seemed to have much of it.

I remember seeing an old print that hung in a friend’s home, showing two young bears dancing. There was also a print of a huge stag, and one showing dogs playing poker.  I thought they were humorous but not significant in any way.  A much less funny print from 1620 shows a handler with his two bears.  They don’t look happy at all.

         I was only recently educated on the subject when I tried to find the origin of the Zuni carved dancing bears, originated by Claudia Peina.  Now her half-brother and a few others are making them. But when I started looking I discovered some Artic tribes have been carving dancing bears for a long time and they keep pushing the envelope.  They are the ones who give life to the dancing bear, believing it is joyous, and brings happiness, prosperity, and good things to the people.  I believe they have it right. 

Freddie & Enrique Leekya

Saturday, November 17, 2018 10:59 AM

Freddie & Enrique Leekya

        In the recent book Leekya: Master Carver of Zuni Puebloby Deborah Slaney, Leekya’s grandchildren don’t get much attention.  Of course the book is about Old Man Leekya but the examples of work by the grandsons are not very representative of their extraordinary work.

         In the second generation only Sarah, Alice and Francis seem to be fetish carvers and Francis only turned to carving in his advanced years, after he had a stroke.  He carved left-handed.  Among his sons Freddie, Hayes & Delvin are master carvers. 

Though all of Leekya’s descendants have carved Leekya’s grinning bears--plump, happy, and charming—none actually copy his work.  Hayes can do stringing fetishes; especially the distinctive bears that look a great deal like the Old Man’s work.  Dealers have sometimes banked on this resemblance.

Like most Zunis, Freddie began working at a young age, educating himself by observing his father and grandfather.  But Freddie carries the tradition to produce new, very original, and surprising carvings.  His mini-sculptures have moved into a fanciful world of dancing or playful frogs, gorillas and other exotic creatures, howling coyotes, Zuni dancers and men on horseback.  One fat pig seems to be puckering up for a kiss.THIS_LOVABLE_PIG_SEEMS_TO_PUCKER_UP_FOR_A_KISS

His frogs run the gamut of possibilities.  They are seldom just water animals and even when they look just like frogs, they are presented in an original way, like the small frog riding a large one.   He has made frog Boy Scouts, frog hikers, frog people holding coffee mugs, books, a flower, and a sandwich.ONE_OF_FREDDIES_STRANGE_HUMAN_-LIKE_FROGS._

He also does familiar animals like bobcats, beavers, some charming raccoons, bulls, horses and wonderful buffalo.  Like other carvers in his class he works at his art every day

 Freddie married April Unkestine at a young age and they have been together ever since. April inherited an original sunface design that she has modified with ever-tinier stonework.  Recently she made a concho belt that takes the breath away with its color and design.

   It is not surprising that son Enrique carries on a tradition of excellence, imagination and originality.  Though he does familiar animals, he often puts a twist on them, like his Valentine raccoons.  But he also ventures into the exotic with tropical fish, African lions, a marvelous hippo, and a ferocious looking boar.THE_UNCONVENTIONAL_HIPPO_ILLUSTRATES_ENRIQUE_S_TALENT.

In order to solve the problem of the fragility of his fanciful pieces, he has developed removable parts, mainly allowing him to do exaggerated horns on some of his carvings, longhorns, moose, and elk.  Recently he carved the local rodent, the kangaroo rat.  They are mice, not rats, and they can be seen at night hopping in great leaps, trailing a long tail.  Enrique creates these horns and tails out of carved cedar, and they are removable.  Some dealers and collectors pass on pieces of great fragility: problem solved.THESE_AMAZING_ELK_ILLUSTRATE_ENRIQUE_S_REMOVABLE_ANTLERS

They still make involved figures with some extras.  Freddy puts necklaces on many of his carvings and objects in their hands, like the chief who plays flute or carries a peace pipe.  Enrique has done some hunters that have great detail, like a dear over the shoulder with white shell antlers.  The man carries a knife on his belt.

Oversized, expressive eyes are a mark of their work, as well as jet hooves, added noses, and other touches.  They are also pricing their work in a range that keeps them very collectable.


Both Freddy and Enrique have done Old Man Leekya proud.

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