I was a part-time tour guide for twenty years. Often when I lead my various southwestern forays for Pima College I found that many of the people who accompanied me were interested in Native American art. I would try to maximize opportunities for my participants to buy pieces directly from the artists. My adopted mom, Mary S. Southern, was a buyer of katsinas, fetishes and especially the pottery of Gilbert Lalio, a Shiwi (Zuni) artist. Before leaving on a trip such as Hopi or Zuni, I would alert certain people that I was coming. In addition to Gilbert or Ken Seowtewa in Halona I might call the ladies of Ponsi Hall at First Mesa or my friends the Days at Tsakurshovi Trading Post at Second Mesa. All this was to maximize the opportunities for people to sell and my tour participants to buy.
While on tour though we were always on the look out for possible opportunities for buying along the way. Some of the best buys have been made right from the van alongside the road or in the parking lot. My own personal favorite is an exquisite miniature rug loom that I bought for my wife in the Bashas parking lot in Chinle.
That being said I actually rarely bought items as this was my second job and if I spent all my money on artwork, no matter how lovely, it sort of defeated the purpose of working a second job in the first place.
Despite the fact that I was rarely a buyer people on tour with me always asked me questions about their potential buys and I rarely said more that this basic advice: “Buy what you like. If it talks to you then where else are you going to see one like that?” If they asked me about price I would respond with “Make them an offer, they can always say ‘no’.”
Even though I was no expert (my friend Joseph Day would say, “I’m no expert but for a white guy I know quite a bit.”) one question that always came up over and over again with katsinas was, “Is that carved from one piece of wood?” A series of postings by Hopi Artist Alfred Lomahquahu demonstrate the height of katsina carving skill and answer the question once and for all time.
I suffer from a common malady that infects many of us in the anthropological field. As a bahana (white person) I am always nervous when discussing someone else’s beliefs but as an anthropologist I have the opposite problem: I don’t know when to stop talking about such things, so here goes. For those bahanas who do not already know, a katsina (also called kachina) is a representation of a spirit that is called upon to bring rain by supplicants who dance in a ceremonial fashion. Authentic traditional katsinas are made by both Hopi and Zuni carvers. Katsina dolls are carved from the roots of the cottonwood tree. There are certain specific features of each representation that is adhered to but within those parameters the artist has some leeway.
Originally katsina dolls were made to be given as gifts to young girls. The boys often received miniature bows and arrows. With the coming of the railroad visitors saw the dolls as representative of some of the richness of the pueblo culture and with the resulting boom in Native American arts a demand for katsinas to be sold to tourists and collectors developed; an industry was born.
The arrival of trading posts offered an outlet for crafts in exchange for goods that the bahana produced which native peoples wanted. Blankets, tools, cooking utensils and new food items were suddenly very accessible to the industrious carvers, weavers and artists in villages across the southwest. Since the late nineteenth century the art form has evolved in many ways and developed into a recognized art form on many levels. Old style katsinas are still made and given to little girls, cottage industries have produced many beautiful pieces for tourists and visitors to the southwest and many artists have taken their work to the level of fine art and achieving recognition at fairs and galleries around the world.
In the interest of education and art appreciation I asked Alfred if I could document his year long progress on a prize winning piece of traditional Hopi art. He graciously consented and so I present to one and all the answer to the eternal question: “Is that all one piece of wood?” “Yes it most certainly is, and what a piece of wood!”