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What is a Hallmark?

Hallmarks identify the jewelry maker. Many times they are just simple letter stamps. They are not something new, but can be traced back to the 4th Century. Famous American metal smiths used them before we became a country. Paul Revere who warned the Colonial militia “the British are coming” during the American Revolution used a hallmark on his handmade silver pieces in the 1700s.>

Milford Nahohai

Tuesday, April 9, 2019 5:43 PM

Milford Nahohai

         All Zunis grow up surrounded by art, but Milford Nahohai has probably done better than most.  His family tree looks like more like a Christmas display.  Wherever the family name came from, as it is written today it is the Navajo word for rodeo [originally chicken pull] a rather exciting event.  Astonishingly, Milford’s paternal grandfather, Antone (Antonacio) Nahohai, was born in 1863 and his wife the same year.  That is a huge connection with the past. 

This is a century and a half in only three generations.  Milford heard older family members tell about the past and traditional beliefs.  His great uncle Lonkeena later recorded stories for posterity and Milford is listening to them.  I urge him to transcribe them.

Antone had two sons, Dalyupta, 1905, and Nat, 1906.  Dalyupta is one of the best kept secrets in Zuni history.  He was blind, but that didn’t keep him from doing more (and better) than most of his contemporaries.  He moved around the village without a cane, knew people by their footsteps, and was a seer in the Ancient Greek pattern.

Over the years dozens of people have told me their personal stories about this man.  It seemed he could read minds.  Blind people tend to sharpen other senses to get along, but Dalyupta could “see” things that never ceased to astonish folks.  Even if some of the stories are exaggerated, his actual accomplishments are dizzying.  He repaired furniture.  He dealt in jewelry raw materials.  One man swore Dalyupta had a still for bootleg liquor at one time.

I have seen a carved frog he made and it is very lifelike.  For silversmith Myrtle Naieshta he rebuilt a rolling mill that turns silver slugs into plate and wire.  The broken, heavy tool had been discarded.  Dalyupta’s brother was Milford’s dad, Nate.  Nate carved katsinas and fetishes.

Milford’s mother Josephine was orphaned at an early age and was raised in the Bowekaty family.  Needlepoint master Hugh was the baby of the group, but several others were jewelers.  His grandmother’s brother was Lonkeena who is given credit for taking his wife and several other ladies to the first Ceremonial and originating the so-called Olla Maidens.  He was a consummate storyteller and contributed to the Duke Oral History project in the late 60s.  Lonkeena made the old traditional “tab” turquoise necklaces.

Maternal grandma Lawatsa made pottery and was known as a weaver.  Nobody seems to know that Zunis wove blankets.  She steered Josephine away from weaving because she said she was often not paid.  Milford recalls Grandma Lawatsa didn’t make as much pottery as some of the ladies, but it was a skill she passed down.

Josephine was first married to another important silversmith, Jerry Shebala and together they produced jewelry legend Dixon Shebala who in turn was married to a Hustito.  Josephine, never associated with silverwork, won a blue ribbon at the first New Mexico State Fair where Native artists were allowed to enter their own work.  She traded a squash-blossom necklace for the land the Nahohai house stands on.

Milford told me that both he and brother Randy first learned to make jewelry.  Josephine switched them all to ceramics because the clay and other materials were free in nature.  Silver and turquoise were becoming too dear.

Over the years she won many awards for her pottery eventually being honored as a living legend.  Both Milford and Randy have also been stars in the world of Zuni pottery and a few years ago, not long before Randy’s sudden passing, the two brothers and their family were given extensive coverage in Ceramics in America 15, a hardcover annual devoted to the pottery arts.

Randy was married for years to Rowena Him, whose parents were both important jewelers.  Their son JC, who sometimes works parties as a DJ, is now taking over the mantle and winning awards at the big Indian art shows. He also spent time in Japan, studying Japanese pottery The family has pushed the boundaries of Zuni pottery into the 21st Century while keeping it grounded in tradition.

Milford got a big dose of Zuni art when he joined the Zuni Arts and Crafts enterprise, eventually managing the business.  This took Milford all over the country from folk gatherings in DC to their two shops on the West Coast; San Francisco and Venice.  There was talk at one time about opening a store in Paris, France.

Thanks largely to grants, the Zuni Tribe created their own book imprint in the early Nineties and produced several volumes.  I have known Milford and his late brother for many years but it was the book Zuni: A Village of Silversmiths, 1996, that I particularly quizzed him about.  I hoped he could explain why there were so many errors in a book, issued in the name of the Zuni Tribe. 

Even though he is listed as co-author with James Ostler and Marian Rodee he says his involvement was primarily with the interviews, one between Ostler and him, the other a perceptive interview he conducted with the late Charles Hustito.

His interview with older ladies is the best discussion of Zuni aesthetics I have ever read, but he told me he never saw the rest of the text.  “They just copied stuff from books, like everyone does.”  That was a really unfortunate missed  opportunity.

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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.

Lewis Malie

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 4:14 PM

Lewis Malie

LEWIS_MALIE_CARVING_OUTSIDE_OF_HIS_CABIN_KEEPING_DOWN_THE_DUST       Lewis (Mertz) Malie is a nephew of Maxx and Pernell Laate and as he grew up he watched them work, picking up techniques and inspiration. Though Lewis Malie grew up in a family of carvers, he has developed a work style different than any fetish maker I know of.

He has never used a grinder as others do to rough out his pieces and do the basic shaping.  He carves his amazing fetishes using only a Dremel and at that uses only three bits. That minimalism of tools certainly doesn’t handicap him and undoubtedly enhances his super fine detail.THIS_IGUANA_WAS_CARVED_FROM_COW_BONE_A_MEDIA_SELDOM_USED_BY_ZUNI_CARVERS

Though his work is similar to his uncle Maxx and his cousin Esteban Najera his subjects and his style are his own.  Though they all carve stunning eagles, each of them manages to make their birds uniquely their own.  One eagle carving shows an eagle on the ground, wings outspread in a protective pose, but there is a large rattlesnake in the bird’s beak, revealed like a surprise.

Mertz also carves a lot of bats.  They are challenging because they don’t have the detailed feathers of birds. In an effort to keep interest among buyers and collectors, most Zuni fetish artists have ventured into a Noah’s Ark of animals.  One of Lewis’s most interesting pieces is an iguana climbing a branch.  The slitted eyes are inlayed with black stone.  That and the shape of the mouth make the lizard look somewhat sinister.

He once carved twenty eagles on a single piece. One of his signature pieces is a two-part antler pendant: an eagle head backed by a detailed feather. The two parts move separately.  Each one he does is a little different.


Juan De Dios

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 2:28 PM

Juan De Dios

The earliest Zuni maker of jewelry who can be identified with certainty is Juan De Dios, who taught his nephew Dan Simplicio Sr. and several other Zunis.  Juan remains mysterious but Lee Weebothe remembers him well and has told me some great stories.  There are two Juan De Dioses in the 1885 census, both born in 1876.  De Dios manages to avoid being listed in most of the later censuses. 

Nobody seems to know the origin of his Spanish name in Zuni—De Dios is not actually a surname, but part of his given name, “John of God”, like John the Baptist.  It was usually pronounced and sometimes spelled Didios.

His apprentices include Dan Simplicio, Frank Calavaza, Leslie Shebola, and Wilbur Weebothee among others. Wilbur’s son Lee would take the family horses to Juan’s well for water and he would talk to the old man.  Lee says Juan was an excellent herbalist and medicine man.


 It is generally accepted that Juan De Dios was doing tufa casting very early in the last century.  The often repeated story about Juan learning the casting process from a Navajo, but not noticing the step where the mold release was applied doesn’t have much credibility—either part of the story.

         When John Adair recounts the tale (1944:150) it leads into explaining that Juan prefers to use kerosene or machine oil as a mold release so the silver doesn’t stick to the stone. Every silver caster had his own favorite.  Many Navajos prefer smoke from pinon pitch.  Some use lampblack, charcoal, or most any carbon substance.  Horace Iule claimed to prefer smoke from peach pits.

The literature has several references to De Dios casting “in the round” using two tufa molds, one for each half, then casting them as a single piece.  Apparently most of these were small animals that resembled fetishes. Adair says, “There is one smith in the pueblo, Juan Deleosa, who makes these fetish animal forms in silver.  These are small in size, one figure being no more than one-half inches long, and delicately molded.” (1944:149) Again, Lee Weebothee verifies these castings.  Juan helped him cast a silver mouse but, sadly, Lee didn’t know what became of the little critter.

         The most spectacular piece is the famous crucifix.  Adair writes that Deleosa’s first crucifix was fabricated by hand and made for the new Catholic priest, Father Arnold.  He indicates this would have been about 1910.  Father Arnold was sent to Zuni in 1920 to re-establish the mission there        Marjery Bedinger puts the date of the first crucifix at 1908. (1973:150).  

The Wallace knifewing piece in the Heard collection is dated 1929. The first pieces were fabricated from thin silver ingots using a hammer, chisel and files, a method that is work intensive. Claims are made for either Juan De Dios in 1932 (Slaney p.33) with the inlaid version in 1934, or Horace Iule as the innovator (1928) but Adair, in a footnote (1944:140), admits that Margaret E. Lewis (daughter of Margaret A.) says the Navajo Ike Wilson made the first one in 1928 at the request of Charlie Kelsey.


Margaret helped many an ethnographer in Zuni, and by 1930 was an established silversmith herself.  It is likely she is correct on this.  Both Horace and Juan soon switched to cast silver versions (faster to produce) and then De Dios added stone inlay to his creations.   It has even been suggested that De Dios’ inlay in his knifewing was the first such work in modern times.  If Juan De Dios’ version of the knifewing wasn’t first, it was very early

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The L.L. Mare's Nest

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 2:10 PM

The L.L. Mare's Nest

       We complain all the time about so many silversmiths deliberately not signing their work well up into the Fifties and how nice it would be if everyone had marked their pieces, but that is not always correct. The signature of two letters LL has two or three takers at any moment, though the two most prominent ones are both gone.

         Lavonne Lalio, whose sister Arvella runs the Zuni jewelry co-op, has been the front runner for years.  But in fact, Lavonne did not make jewelry.  Years ago someone asked me to find information about the girl in the first Arizona Highways collector’s edition on Jewelry [ Jan. 1974 p.19.] More specifically the partly visible solid turquoise knifewing necklace she is wearing.


         Her name appears in the photo caption as Janice Bowekaty.  I thought finding her would be easy, but the necklace was almost certainly gone.  I was wrong on both accounts.  Esther Henderson took the picture in 1959 at Ceremonial.  Finding Janice was not difficult but she told me the image had come up many times over the years.  She was not the girl with all the jewelry on display.

         She said she had been in the dance group, but she couldn’t remember the girl’s name.  She thought the girl’s name was Lalio, but she couldn’t help me with her first name. I had something to go on at least. This was back when I had only started trying to run down early jewelers and I ran into the Zuni “wall of silence.”

         When I finally found out who it was and called on her she was surprised to see the picture.  Because of the wrong name, nobody had ever asked her about it.  When I said she probably didn’t know what became of it she disappeared into the house and came back with several of the pieces.  I kept it up and said I didn’t expect her to know who the maker was.  Wrong again. It was the creation of her grandfather Henry Caweyuka, a completely unknown jeweler. Lavonne let me photograph the pieces she had.

         What doesn’t follow is her name attached to an inlaid hoop dancer.  One dealer called him a rope dancer which is just as accurate.  In the curious way that things happen a dealer in New York said it was Larry Laate. He had once been married to my late sister-in-law. With a real name to go on I started running down folks who knew or were related to Larry.  He had once been with Janet Amesole who is best known for her eagles.


         When I found her I unexpectedly got the rest of the story. Janet is a daughter of Madeline Beyuka and grew up in that household.  Eddie had given her some designs and that particular one was stolen by Larry.  She had the pattern to prove it.  So the design went from Eddie Beyuka to Janet and then to Larry.  The reason for all the translations of LL is easy to explain. Honestly, Larry Laate is I minor artist from a famous family so it wasn’t a name known to many dealers.  And there has always been the impulse to put famous names on pieces to demand more money.  That still doesn’t explain how, or why, Lavonne Lalio got in the game.


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