Shaping a New Way 4


In the arts and crafts movement, Indian women became powerful symbols of white women's competing visions of women's place in modern America. Only rarely, however, did Indian women's views of their own participation in the movement surface in the historical record. Even when they did, their actions are still often filtered through white women's words. It is nevertheless possible from these sparse and fragmented instances to piece together how Indian women may have interpreted white women's efforts to promote Indian arts and crafts. Indian women artists often seem to have catered to their white patrons on the surface, but resented and sometimes ridiculed white women's assumptions behind their backs.

Fig. 6: Maria Martinez, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, n.d.
Photo by Regina Tatum Cooke,
Courtesy Harwood Museum
of the University of New Mexico

Maria Martinez found a way to both accommodate and mock the value preservationists placed on authenticity and tradition. The black-on-black pottery that came to be identified as the authentic, traditional style of Maria Martinez and the San Ildefonso Indians originated in a disaster for Maria and her husband Julian. Maria told interviewer Alice Marriott that one day Julian put too much manure on the open fire where they fired their pottery. All the pots turned black. Disappointed that they had expended all this effort and ruined every pot, Julian and Maria stored the pots away. Soon, a trader came by desiring more pots. Maria and Julian had not produced any new ones. When the trader persisted, Julian told him they did have some stored in the back, but they were very special. Maria added that they cost more. The trader liked the pottery, sold it immediately, and asked for more. Thereafter, Maria and Julian produced almost exclusively their black-on-black ware. Soon, the Martinez's taught other San Ildefonso potters their secret. As revealed in the following conversation between Julian, Maria, and Maria's father, the Martinez's manipulated preservationists' desires for authenticity. Maria told Julian she wanted to make some "new kind of bowls." He replied, "You mean the old kind." Maria's father quipped, "The new old kind." Maria concluded, "The kind the white people want."

Elizabeth DeHuff recounted an incident that illustrates Indian women's overt conformity but covert defiance of white women's promotion of arts and crafts. One summer, a young white woman who had studied ceramics in the east came to live in a Pueblo village. She intended to teach Pueblo women how to make pots that would hold water without seepage. All summer long, she gathered together the potters of the pueblo and taught them how to glaze their pots. According to DeHuff, "the Indian women watched, followed instructions and made the glazed pottery." When the young ceramic artist left at the end of the summer, she congratulated herself on her "successful philanthropy." But "the Indian women -- one and all -- walked to the edge of the mesa and, with a cluck of disgust, hurled all of the glazed pots they had made over the precipice, breaking them into bits."
(25) While outwardly seeming to accommodate the white woman, Indian women actually deeply resented the white woman's assumptions that she knew better than they how to make pots. Some women artists were more blatant in their objection to white women's assumptions. DeHuff quoted a Pueblo woman as exclaiming, "I do not need nobody to teach me about pottery! . . . My grandmother teach me long ago!"(26)

Indian women seem also to have rejected the view of both uplifters and preservationists that Indian women artists represented either pioneering women who willingly embraced assimilation or the most traditional members of their villages. Maria Martinez shaped a middle way between these two stark visions. When she and her husband Julian bought a Dodge sedan, Julian painted Indian pottery designs on it. Maria told one of her interviewers, "That was the first car in the pueblo! . . . It was a black car, all black. I can see the designs Julian put on that car. He painted it all around just like pots. You be surprised what I do with that car. We take everybody who is sick. And we get food. We help everybody with that car."
(27) Martinez acquired the ultimate symbol of modern America, but rather than conveying modernity and individual achievement with their new car, she and her husband instead imbued the vehicle with values more associated with their pueblo.

Despite Indian women's attempts to subtly and sometimes more overtly challenge white women's assumptions, white women more often than not clung to their over-simplified visions of Indian women artists. The imagery of feminist preservationist women has remained particularly potent. When I mention the topic of my research, most people conjure up images of quiet, peaceful women sitting in traditional dress in their sparsely furnished adobe homes, sculpting a pot with one hand, tending the baby with the other. Rarely, I believe, do they imagine a scene of uppity women hurling pottery over cliffs.

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All text © Margaret D. Jacobs