Getting acquainted with American Indians

SEE A GUEST POST ON MY FAVORITE PLACE IN ARIZONA AT TOUR ABSURD. Charnell’s photos of Canyon de Chelly decorate the page.

Navajo Land-Canyon de Chelly
Navajo Land in Arizona


DESTINATION: American Indian Lands in the Southwestern United States


Maria the Potter of San Ildefonso (1948) by Alice Marriott

The Worlds of P’otsunu: Geronima Cruz Montoya of San Juan (1996) by Jeanne Shutes and Jill Mellick

The World of Flower Blue: Pop Chalee, an Artistic Biography (1997) by Margaret Cesa

I’ll Go and Do More: Annie Dodge Wauneka, Navajo Leader and Activist (2001) by Carolyn Niethammer

Reading biography can open a window into a culture and a time. That is why I’m recommending these four biographies of American Indian women from four different Southwestern tribes/nations. I want to tempt you to get to know the American Indian Cultures and to visit the Southwest.

Quincy Tahoma
Quincy Tahoma, courtesy of Roberta Anglen

I’m also recommending them because  Charnell Havens and I recently completed an American Indian biography of our own, Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. The women in these books come from areas that Quincy Tahoma was associated with. Although only one was Navajo, he knew three of them personally, and surely knew some of the members of the family, if not Annie Dodge Wauneka herself.

I read the story of Maria Martinez‘  life in 1971. She was still coming to Scottsdale from time to time and her glowing black pottery had taken the western art market by storm. I learned of her work at The House of the Six Directions, a small store on Scottsdale’s Fifth Avenue that was an agent for her work. The owner of the store, Paul Huldermann, first ignited my interest in American Indian Art.

Although it was many years before I went to San Ildefonso, Maria’s pueblo, and she had passed away by then, I got some of the most important information for the Quincy Tahoma biography from Ramos and Gerdie Sanchez of San Ildefonso.  Quincy had spent a great deal of time in both of their family homes before they were married, and then in their own home.

Maria and her husband were among the artists to represent American Indians at the San Francisco Golden Gate Exhibition in 1939. So was Quincy. One more thread of our research tied Quincy Tahoma to Maria Martinez. A newspaper article from October 1956 listed both of them as winners –painting and pottery–in the New Mexico State Fair. It was just two weeks before his death.

This biography is written by an ethnologist, but is far from being a dry scientific style. The conversations that are related tell us what life was like in the pueblo in the first half of the 20th century.

Painter and teacher Geronima Cruz Montoya came from the San Juan Pueblo, very near San Ildefonso (and childhood home of Gerdie Montoya Sanchez, mentioned above). Montoya attended the Santa Fe Indian School a few years ahead of Quincy Tahoma, and by the time he was in high school, she became the art teacher, replacing Dorothy Dunn who founded the Studio.

The co-authors of this biography, sought to tell it like a traditional Pueblo story. There is no attempt at strict chronology or cause and effect, rather things unfold as they are told. Again, we see the life of a pueblo, but we also learn more about Santa Fe Indian School and the life of a painter.

Pop Chalee
Pop Chalee with one of her fanciful paintings


Pop Chalee, from Taos Pueblo,  studied  art at Santa Fe Indian School long after she had left high school. American Indians with artistic talent were encouraged to go to Santa Fe to “the Studio” to study at any age. She was thirty and Tahoma in his late teens when they first met at the Indian School.  According to her biography, The World of Flower Blue, she greatly admired Tahoma. We know that Tahoma went to Scottsdale at least two winters in the early 1950s, and painted in Pop Chalee’s shop. He called Pop and her husband Ed Natay “cousins.”

Pop Chalee is the most urbanized of these four women.  She was a sophisticated, savvy painter who understood salesmanship and public relations. Pretty and lively, she attracted attention everywhere she went. I first saw her paintings in Scottsdale in the 60’s, and was not particularly drawn to them because they seem to be more driven by commerce than by art. But she was extremely popular, and her paintings are certainly charming.

Annie Dodge Wauneka is the only Navajo and only non-artist of these four women.  She was born into the family of the powerful Navajo leader Chee Dodge, and broke through the Navajo version of a glass ceiling to become the first female elected to the Navajo Tribal Council. She lobbied within the Navajo nation and in Washington D.C. for better health care for her people. Her accomplishments were rewarded with many commendations, including the Medal of Freedom from President John F. Kennedy. (Although it was presented after his assassination by his successor, Lyndon Johnson.)

Neithammer approached her biography in much the same way that we approached the biography of Quincy Tahoma–a great deal of document research combined with hours of interviews and visiting the scene of the subject’s life.  Her book is essential to understanding the great cultural changes that blew through the Navajo reservation in the 20th century, as well as painting a picture of a uniquely forceful Navajo woman.

Since our book became available in April, we have been touring to introduce people to Quincy Tahoma and the book.  This month, I am on a blog tour as well as making real-life appearances. ‘Why not visit A Traveler’s Library?’ I thought. You can see links to some of the other stops on the blog tour. Next Monday, I’ll be talking about a road trip on the Navajo reservation at Family Road Trips, and there are many more stops to come.

Have you traveled on Indian reservations and pueblos? Have you read Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

15 thoughts on “Getting acquainted with American Indians

  1. We have our own community of Native Americans here in Michigan, and I always enjoy reading about Natives in other locales. I’m really glad for your efforts to inform and educate, Vera.

  2. I’d like to read through some of these biographies too. Growing up, my dad often shared stories of Hopi Indians. He’d worked on a reservation early in his career and had received kachinas as thank-you gifts. As a kid I recall being both terrified and fascinated by some of them. Any Hopi biographies that you know of?

    1. Not exactly a biography, but I can recommend whole heartedly “Hopi Summer” which was chosen as the Arizona Reads book this year. I wrote about Hopi Summer and the author, Carolyn O’Bagy Davis over at Tahoma Blog. It is a memoir of visits by an eastern family to the Hopi reservation and particularly the family of one of the otters there. A bio I’ve heard of but not read, is Sun Chief, the Autobiography of a Hopi Indian. There is also an autobiography of Fred Kabotie, a very famous Hopi artist. Since you are interested in kachina dolls (now spelled katsina) you may already know about the book Hopi Kachina dolls and their Carvers.

  3. I do love biographies- and these four women sound intriguing and I am definitely being tempted to read their biographies.

  4. Pop Chalee… what a fantastic name. And from your description, she seems like she would have fit in well with Warhol and the other Pop artists of NYC as a very savvy businesswoman!

    1. Pop Chalee is her name in the Tiwa language and means Blue Flower. She chose to use that instead of her formal name of Merina Lujan. By the way, her mother was Swiss). Most Pueblo people have a name that is from the Spanish days, like Geronima Montoya, and also a native name.
      You’ve just given me an idea for a post over at Tahoma Blog. Thanks!

  5. I was always fascinated by the life of Sacajaweia (sp?) who accompanied Louse & Clark. I will look into these biographies. Thanks for recommending them.

    1. Hi Alexandra: Yes, Sacagawea (I had to look it up!) is a fascinating figure. Unfortunately, what we know about her is part myth and a little bit truth, and she lived in the past. All of these women are modern (20th century) and the books are actual accounts of their lives.

    1. Kris: I’m pretty sure that you meant to say Quincy Tahoma had connections with the subjects of these books rather than with the authors? If not, then I wasn’t clear and I need to clear that up. The books all happen to have been written by non-Natives. He knew the Navajo and Pueblo women.

  6. as I spent several winters in Taos, I know the work and lives of these women, though I’ve not read any of these books as yet. your research on Quincy Tahoma certainly led you down many paths.

    1. Kerry: Luck you to spend time in Taos. You’d particularly enjoy Pop Chalee’s book because of her marriage to the Navajo musician Ed Natay. Yes I love the way research takes you to unexpected places!

  7. I enjoyed this post of ATL very much. I am unfamiliar with all four of these people, and I enjoy reading biographies. Thank you for pointing me in a good direction. -r

    1. See, that’s why I wanted to talk about them. All very impressive people who have great accomplishments to show and very few people outside the Southwest and their own communities know about them! That’s why we wrote Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Although his art is still bought and sold (he died in 1956) nobody knows his inspiring, and sometimes tragic life story.

Comments are closed.