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.