Above: Kaa Fowlell. Photographs by Ungelbah Dávila-Shivers.
A few months ago, my father, a cattleman and world-class observer of things, pointed out how much “Indian art” has changed during his lifetime. He had excitedly called me to say he saw a Native artist on TV who was showing his work in Paris, “just like Matisse and Picasso!” A few weeks later, Isleta Pueblo Chief Justice Verna Teller delivered her historic opening prayer on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
That’s when I started to take note of what I have instinctually felt building for many years—a renaissance, one in which we, as indigenous people, express ourselves on our own terms.
In 2019, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts generously awarded me its Discovery Fellowship to launch a photography project—Indigenous Masters—that would document and celebrate the artists and leaders who are changing how the dominant society sees us and how we see ourselves. But when I look back, I realize that I have been doing this most of my life. My natural curiosity drives me to collect stories and hoard moments. Though perhaps hoard is the wrong word, because the real pleasure comes when I share with others the moments and narratives that have enriched my existence. It’s what led me to build a career in photography and writing and, for a while, publishing. I believe that every time we share our experience with the world, we challenge humanity to evolve just a teeny bit more.
In working on this project, I am not just learning about generational techniques and cultural philosophies, but witnessing a rebirth of our truths as individuals, communities, and participants in a 500-year narrative of survival.
Had it not been for the inspiration of artists like Rose B. Simpson, Orlando White, and Sara Marie Ortiz, the angsty teenage me might have never imagined getting a degree from the Institute of American Indian Arts. If I had never met Virgil Ortiz at his studio and heard him joke about wigs and cats, I know that a piece of creative imagination would be missing from my soul. If, the month before she was elected to Congress, I had not gotten to witness Deb Haaland’s tears as she told me about growing up playing in the cornfields of Laguna Pueblo, I might not have the same understanding of faith and purpose that I do now. These are glimmers of the stories that have sculpted me, that I believe are valuable and worthy of lasting to inspire the future.
I am privileged to bear witness to these moments in our history and to visualize some of them here in the form of portraits: Kaa Folwell, Virgil Ortiz, Jody Naranjo, Jessa Rae Growing Thunder, and Rose B. Simpson. This is only the beginning of what I hope will be a lifelong project, pictures that are my gift to the grandchildren.
It’s August 2018, the time of year when clouds in northern New Mexico take on mythical proportions and the horizon turns watery like an eye brimming with tears. This is my first time meeting Kaa Folwell, who is radiant in maternal splendor in her Santa Clara Pueblo home studio. She has had her hands dipped in clay since babyhood, and she shares with me the legacy of pottery that is passed between the women in her family. It is here that the matriarchy of Pueblo potters starts to take shape for me. For the next year I will meet other powerful women who share stories that are more about strength and survival than about “art.”
On this day, our conversation veers away from Kaa’s relationship with clay to her ideas on cultural and linguistic permanence. For her senior project at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Kaa created molds of her and her relatives’ teeth to cast sterling-silver “grills” that highlight issues of language loss and recuperation in her community.
“The majority of fluent Tewa speakers are elderly,” she says. “The language isn’t being used on a day-to-day basis. Yes, it’s used during our feast days and ceremonies, but not everyone understands the importance and true meaning of what is being said in the prayers.”
A grill can be a permanent representation of someone’s teeth, but it will never be an organic part of the person wearing it, similar to a language that is written down but not spoken daily. “I really feel that with indigenous cultures our language is the main aspect of who we are as people. Without our language, kind of like our teeth, there can be a disconnect in identity.”
“Maybe we should put a cat on your head,” he says. It’s cold outside, February, and the sky in Cochiti is spitting down its version of snow. I am modeling some jewelry for Virgil Ortiz, and the air inside his studio is delightfully nostalgic as woodsmoke wafts off his potbelly stove. Even in the creative chaos of his big open adobe, he manages to keep everything on brand—black, red, and white surround us. Even his rugs and wrapping paper showcase his iconic designs.
“You have a cat?” I ask. An animal lover, I’m always thrilled to meet a new fur baby, but he explains that, after a long day of working with another model friend, he mistook a wig lying in the corner for a feline and the moniker stuck. He materializes some “cat” parts to beef up my coif, and I do my best to look cool and futuristic.
I met Virgil in 2013, when I was assigned to write about him for the Santa Fe Indian Market Guide. He recruited me as a fashion model—we made the cover that year—and I set about hanging on his every word. He has shown me that most of what we look to other people for, we can learn to do ourselves, a philosophy reflected in his endless list of skills and interests.
Today Virgil’s studio is strewn with human-body-size boxes, each one containing a life-size character from his epic story Revolt 1680/2180, a futuristic reimagining of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Virgil unpacks and dresses the mannequins, and before long Tahu, the blind archer, and members of her spirit army are lounging around the studio like they’re hosting a sleek post-apocalyptic cocktail party—the kind where you have to know a guy who knows a guy to get on the guest list. It is an exciting experience to finally meet Virgil’s old friends, whom I have heard so much about over the years, as they rest at home in Cochiti with their creator before continuing their Revolution: Rise Against the Invasion tour.
“Clay is the core of all my creations,” Virgil told me in 2013. “Water feeds the clay, the sun feeds the wild spinach plant. Fire awakens the wild spinach plant, binding it to the hardening clay. The sun unfurls the cloth, inspiring my fashions. My work gives voice to these elements.”
JESSA RAE GROWING THUNDER
I met Jessa Rae Growing Thunder my first year at Santa Fe Indian Market. She and her sister, Camryn, had a booth just down from me and had commandeered the sidewalk in front of the New Mexico History Museum to lay out a makeshift dressing room. I was immediately taken with their colorful and commanding presence and the at-home-anywhere vibe that Native women exude. The matriarchal magic.
Without knowing who they were—granddaughters of legendary bead/quillwork artist Joyce Growing Thunder—I wanted to be their friends. It wasn’t long before we connected over hair. “Traditionally, when we braid our hair, we paint our part red to symbolize walking on the Red Road, or the Canku Duta,” Jessa told me. “When I braid my hair, I always have my husband paint my hair for me because, as my partner, he helps me walk this life in a good way.”
Jessa, who is a PhD candidate in Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, is seeking to give Dakota/Nakoda women, like the generations of women in her family, “agency as historians, because they are beading histories.”
“You can read beadwork,” she says. “One of my favorite things about beadwork is its ability to record a story.”
At just 5 years old, Jessa began selling her beadwork at Indian Market. “My mother explained to me that we all carry a responsibility to these teachings. When we bead, quill, sew, dance, or sing—these little things that carry our culture—when we do them every day, it guarantees they survive for the next generation. She explained it is about making sure my grandchildren have these knowledges ... I strive to continue this every day.”
Jody Naranjo has what I call smiling hands. Whether they are mixing clay, polishing a pot, or etching a design, they carry her immense joy. They are hands that make beauty appear, hands that have raised daughters, hands that have created countless works of art.
On the day of our photo shoot at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, Jody and her daughters bubble out of her car like champagne, filling the parking lot—as they will later fill the canyon—with that strong feminine presence that I have come to love and expect from the artists I work with. “The park ranger reprimanded me for speeding,” she says, laughing, as they haul pottery, jewelry, blankets, and outfits into the late August heat.
“Pueblo women have to be strong,” Jody says as we stop to catch our breath on the trail. Inside a hole in the rock carved by wind and rain, we discover a mother hummingbird defending her nest of tiny chicks, as if to reassure us that the smallest beings carry the greatest strength.
Pueblo women’s minds and hearts are durable from generations of caregiving, innovating, and creating. Their bodies carry a deep muscular knowledge of harvesting and heaving the earth, coiling it into stories to be held by other smiling hands.
ROSE B. SIMPSON
I hadn’t seen Rose B. Simpson in at least seven years when I pulled up to her Santa Clara Pueblo studio and garage shop, but I instantly remembered why she has been one of my favorite people since I was 17. I was in high school the first time I saw her wearing a black hoodie with the word tewa hand-painted on the back in big white letters. Back then, her septum was pierced with a porcupine quill. Iconic. I was convinced she was the coolest person alive. I still am.
When we first met, it was over poetry, which evolved into my being the number-one fan of her band, Chocolate Helicopter. In college, I admired her autobiographical drawings and sculptures. Today, after reconnecting several years later, I’m also in awe of her power as a mother and as a mechanic who restores classic cars.
It’s a sunny November afternoon in the Río Grande Bosque, and Rose and her three-year-old daughter, Cedar (aka “Nugget”), have just returned from retrieving a 1963 Buick Riviera from Detroit. Rose’s lovely mother, Roxanne Swentzell, is also here, and it’s as if three sets of the same brilliant eyes are peering at my camera. “You wouldn’t believe how much my mom and I fight over tools,” Rose tells me, adding that her mother, a renowned sculptor, also works on vehicles. “Native women are just really capable.”
Working on classic cars is an extension of the idea that art is life. “Separating one from the other is a Western concept,” Rose says. Pottery is an example of this philosophy, but so is fixing up cars, especially in neighboring Española, often called the lowrider capital of the world.
The sun begins its wintry descent behind the cottonwood trees, each yellow leaf fiery and glowing like the sparks coming off Rose’s power sander. I feel nostalgic as the awareness of time’s passage strikes me—15 years have gone by since we first met.
“I don’t think we have much time left on the planet,” Rose says. “So every minute is a spectacular one, and an incredible opportunity to evolve.”