The Legend of C.G. Wallace

Most of the public information dealing with C. G. Wallace seems to date from the article by Mike Tharp that appeared in the August 1974 issue of Arizona Highways.  The problem with that piece is that Wallace himself was the only source for the information there.  In the second paragraph Tharp states authoritatively, “During a colorful career that began in 1918, he established a rapport with the Zuni and Navajo achieved by few other white men.”  He adds the pronouncement, “An intensely private man, Mr. Wallace has repeatedly refused to allow publicity about his accomplishments.” 

         In truth, the legend of Charles Garrett Wallace, Zuni trader par excellence, was largely of his own creation.  While Wallace didn’t write about his major accomplishments, he bragged to anyone who would listen.  Only Wallace himself substantiates most of his claims, always in conversation with people who had only his interests at heart.

         Perhaps the most insulting and outrageous claim comes from Dexter Cerillo in 2008 writing “Leekya Deyuse…became famous under Wallace’s tutelage for his stylized rounded animal carvings that found their way into many jewelry forms.” Wallace may claim to have invented modern Zuni jewelry, but he can’t claim fetishes

It is a sad fact that Wallace was the most universally disliked individual in the history of White/Zuni relations.  Since I started my history of Zuni jewelry I have discovered that it is not possible to trust him about much of anything he said.

         Even the dates of his tenure in the village have been regularly misstated.  In Zuni: A Village of Silversmiths the authors write, “When the trader C. G. Wallace set up business in the pueblo in 1917, he said there were only five Zuni silversmiths there.” 

Wallace didn’t arrive in Zuni until late 1919 and for the next ten years he was merely a clerk for Charles Kelsey [the Ilfeld Co. was the actual owner, but Kelsey ran it], which gives the lie to quite a number of his pronouncements and claims.  There were certainly more than five smiths in Zuni by that time, and a growing market was being established for their work.  In 1920 there were fewer than 2,000 Zunis.

His friend Dale Stewart King (Indian Silver Vol Two, 1976) has real difficulty with Wallace’s dates, which are usually at odds with other “experts.”   One I particularly enjoy had to do with some writers claiming the first Zuni inlay was done in 1935.  Wallace complained to King, “I had sold more than a million dollars worth of it before then.”  King adds, “He also told me he had started Zunis inlaying silver before 1920. There’s that pesky date again. King addresses Wallace’s faulty dates half a dozen times before saying, “Mr. Wallace’s dates...pose some problems. I surely am not about to doubt his memory.”  Somebody should have.

It also seems he is the source of Dan Simplicio’s childhood jewelry making, telling King that Dideos “…helped to encouraged Dan to become a good craftsman. He taught Dan to make silver coins and to make leaves of different sizes.  This was in the middle ‘20’s.” [sic]  Simplicio was born in 1917 which would make him eight years old at that time.

Another ridiculous claim he made was his involvement in the invention of needlepoint and cluster.  He claimed when turquoise got scarce he took boxes of scrap and doled them out to his best artists, who then made cluster pieces.  This is totally impossible unless matching the stones didn’t matter. I told Bryant Waatsa about this claim and he snorted.

Joe Tanner told me once that when he got in a shipment of stone he would pick it for hours to find matching colors.  When Lee and Mary Weebothe got the rock they would pick again, and give half of it back.

One of the things that makes it appear he was an Indian trader earlier than he was is the application for a license to trade in 1920.  It was not a license to run a business, but merely to work in the Kelsey trading post.  They had to get such a clearance for every employee, even the Indians.

Wallace was very critical of the Zunis, saying they were poor (15 beds in the entire pueblo, for example) and lazy, sleeping and gambling their days away. Quoted by Tharp, he said, “When I came to Zuni they gambled, they played, and they didn’t do much work at all.” 

Debora Slaney wrote of Wallace, “During that first year, Wallace set out to become acquainted with the village of Zuni”…He “was also known as Mujugi (Night Owl) for his tendency to do business with jewelers in the evening.”  She quoted C. G. as her source for the claim: “As soon as I arrived in Zuni, I made it a point to get acquainted…As soon as we closed the Trading Post, I would select certain sections of the Village, and go visiting—“   

It is a stretch to believe that a clerk, fresh off the train, would be doing business directly with the people at all.  It is true the Zunis began to call him “Owl Man” but for very different reasons than he said.   Many Zunis have told me over the years that Wallace was called “Owl” because he prowled the streets in the middle of the night, looking for houses where no one was home, or slipping into kivas to see if there was anything valuable to take.  His brother Robert was called “Gomeh” which means crybaby, or whiner.

When various writers say Wallace was a consummate trader by 1919, they are missing the fact that he arrived in Zuni in October of that year.  He was certainly a fast study.

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