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Exhibit showcases Native children€™s book artists

Date February 5, 2009 at 11:00 PM

Categories Local News & Sports


Beginning in the 1920s, a quiet revolution stirred in Indian boarding schools. Native American students who had been forced to learn English through Dickand-Jane primers saw their own stories transformed into lavishly illustrated books brimming with the wildlife, weaving and herd ing scenes integral to their own culture.

€œNative American Picture Books of Change: The Art of Historic Children€™s Editions€ opens at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on Sunday, Feb. 15. The exhibition gathers together original works by Hopi, Navajo, Apache and Pueblo artists who illustrated children€™s books from the 1920s through today. Originating in Denver author Rebecca Benes€™ book of the same title, the show opened in a scaled-down version at the Governor€™s Gallery in 2005 before traveling across the United States. The expanded version includes original illustrations and books, plus two 6-foottall reproductions with stories opened to a page of bilingual text.

When author Elizabeth DeHuff asked Hopi artist Fred Kabotie to illustrate €œTaytay€™s Tales€ at the Santa Fe Indian School, she set him on a path to becoming one of the most important Native American painters of the century. Kabotie€™s stunning watercolors marked the beginning of a reversal of a legacy of failed attempts at stripping Indian children of their heritage. Written in the 1920s, €™30s and €™40s, these books marked an attempt at a kind of cultural sensitivity that had never existed. €œBack then the boarding schools were run like military camps,€ MIAC director Shelby Tisdale said. €œThey (students) were taken away from their lives. The whole attitude was to beat the Indian out of these kids.€

When DeHuff and husband John arrived in Santa Fe in 1918, they ushered in a brief era of tolerance for Native traditions. John DeHuff was the school€™s new superintendent.

€œThey had a very different attitude about educating the Native students,€ Tisdale said. €œThey encouraged Native traditions and Native arts. Elizabeth found the stories these kids were telling really interesting. She started collecting these stories.€

One of the first artists to emerge from the Santa Fe Indian School, Kabotie would illustrate four of DeHuff€™s books with bold images based on Pueblo folklore.

€œHe sold his paintings and he illustrated quite a number of books, and he was one of the first Indian artists to making a living from his artwork,€ Tisdale said. €œThere were a lot of beginnings. This has developed into a tradition of a lot of Native Americans writing books and illustrating books. And these stories are told from the Native American perspective.€

By 1926, the DeHuffs had transferred to a California school, the result of repeated clashes over their inclusive attitudes.

€œFrom our vantage point 90 years later, we are accustomed to seeing Native American art,€ Benes said. €œBut in the early beginnings of the 20th century, it was not commonplace. They were taught European art €“€“ like making doilies.€

In 1936, Tesuque Pueblo teacher Ann Nolan Clark asked her students to write about their home lives when she realized how much they hated boarding school. Continuously in print since 1941, €œIn My Mother€™s House€ grew out of her frustration with government-issued books that reflected nothing of Native life. The illustrations by Velino Herrera of Zia Pueblo won a prestigious Caldecott Honor from the American Library Association in 1942. Herrera€™s color plates of corn dancers, ditch-digging and grazing horses brim with respect for daily activities reflecting the rhythm of Pueblo life. By this time, Bureau of Indian Affairs director Willard Beatty envisioned a series of illustrated bilingual third-grade readers to teach both English and Native languages.

By the 1930s, Clark produced a series of bilingual €œLittle Herder€ books illustrated by Navajo artist Hoke Denetsosie. The government provided Clark and Denetsosie with a car to drive around the Navajo Reservation and follow the four seasons. Told in short sentences and strings of poetry, the lyrics reflect a Navajo child€™s daily life, from spinning and herding to jewelry-making. Denetsosie studied with the designer Lloyd Kiva New at the Phoenix Indian School.

By the 1950s and €™60s, the illustrations were driven by future stars such as Allan Houser and Pablita Velarde.

Now legendary for his sculptures, Houser illustrated seven children€™s books. The pages spill over with Southwestern landscapes and figures tending horses and crops. In €œBlue Canyon Horse,€ Clark describes a little horse who leaves her young Navajo master to follow her wild instinct, returning a year later with her foal. The late Houser€™s style is contemporary and increasingly sophisticated, delineating the canyon setting with shading and depth.

€œWe think it€™s Canyon de Chelly€ in northeastern Arizona, Benes said.

It was from there that Kit Carson rounded up some 9,000 Navajos, forcing them to march 350 miles to Bosque Redondo in southern New Mexico, where they were confined for four years. Fewer than half survived.

By 1959, Santa Clara Pueblo€™s Pablita Velarde was both writing and illustrating her own children€™s books. €œOld Father, the Story teller€ was one of the first Native American attempts at writing and painting their own culture. The Velarde portion shimmers with intricate detail from an original print from the 1960 book. The painting evokes traditional cosmology with its pueblo backdrop and trail of starry ancestors arcing across a twinkling sky.

The exhibit circles into the present day with the colorsaturated, abstracted work of the late Michael Lacapa (Hopi/Tewa and White Mountain Apache) and Jonathan Warm Day (Taos Pueblo). Organizers dedicated the show to Lacapa, who died in an automobile accident in 2005. Lacapa served on the advisory panel at MIAC. He produced and illustrated several books, including €œAntelope Woman: An Apache Folktale€ (1992) and €œThe Flute Player€ (1990).

Silver pieces, mostly spoons, that DeHuff commissioned each time she finished a book, gleam with the figures of a dog, a boy and a katsina. Organizers borrowed the objects, including a lemon squeezer and salt and pepper cellar, from her nieces. Silversmith Frank Patania, who owned the Thunderbird Shop in Santa Fe, was born in Sicily and mentored Native artists.

If You Go

WHAT: €œNative American Picture Books of Change: The Art of Historic Children€™s Editions€
WHERE: Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Museum Hill, Camino Lejo off Old Santa Fe Trail.
WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 15 with a free lecture by author Rebecca Benes.
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
COST: School groups free. Children 16 and under free. New Mexico residents with ID free Sundays. New Mexico resident seniors (60+) with ID free Wednesdays. Museum Foundation members free. New Mexico veterans with 50 percent or more disability free. Students with ID $1 discount. Single visit $9 nonstate residents, $6 New Mexico residents.
CONTACT: (505) 476-1269 or visit www.indianartsandculture.org