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November 17, 2011

American Indian Heritage & StoryCorps 2011: Identity and Art

Each December, the museum is honored to host traditional artists from across North and South America for our annual Art Market. But the artwork is not only prized for its beauty and craftsmanship. For many of the Native artists who created them, these objects represent a tangible link to their community’s ancient traditions.

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Katsina carvings by Hopi artist Gerry Quotskuyva.

“The artwork itself is kind of a cultural responsibility,” said Gerry Quotskuyva, (Hopi) an artisan who creates Katsina dolls and bronze sculptures. “I’ve always said if you’re born Hopi, you’re born with a paintbrush in your hand.”

The traditional version of these dolls, which have been used for centuries to teach Hopi children about the tribe’s spiritual beliefs, are meticulously carved using cottonwood roots, natural earth pigments and feathers. “Katsina dolls represent our friends”—spirits who act as messengers— “and the children are taught that when they come to visit, they bring song and dance and prayer for many things, including bringing rain for our corn to grow tall and healthy.” Quotskuyva's dolls reflect a contemporary, sculptural style that incorporates acrylic paint, wood-burning tools and hand-carved feathers.

Pahponee fired pottery smooth gourd shape_Bronze and clay artwork by Pahponee (Kansas Kickapoo)

For artist Pahponee (Kickapoo and Potawatomi), her calling as an artist literally came to her in a dream. She had just visited a ranch with her friend, a medicine woman, to behold a rare white buffalo and her newborn white calf—creatures that are considered sacred among tribes like the Lakota because, according to legend, a holy woman once appeared as a white buffalo during a time of famine, bringing with her relief and song. Pahponee says the sight of the white buffalo left her with a memory so profound she started dreaming of white buffalo vases. “The vision haunted me for a year and a half before I realized I needed to do something about it,” she says. “And that’s what got my pottery career started.”

“I’m the only living member of my tribe to do the work that I do, so I feel an obligation, a responsibility,” Pahponee said. “I always call it my assignment: To tell my world through my eyes and my hands. I try to speak through the clay.”

Melvin Cornshucker (Cherokee) grew up surrounded by art, which has always been part of his family. One of his grandfathers was a rug weaver, the other was a stonemason, his father was a silver smith and his cousins are basket weavers. He began taking pottery classes in college, but he never thought it would become his career. That is, until he realized how much fun – and fulfilling – it was. “This is all I’ve ever done,” he says. “I've been throwing pots ever since.”

-Shotridge Jewelry by Tlingit artist Israel Shotridge.

Israel Shotridge (Tlingit) grew up in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, which gets its name from Shotridge’s tribal ancestors, the Tongass Tribe (Taantakwaan), or the Sea Lion people. For more than 25 years, Shotridge has created traditional and contemporary Tlingit art, from totem poles, canoes, masks to bentwood boxes, bowls and engraved jewelry, that have been displayed all over the world. But he has also kept his work close to home by offering workshops and apprenticeships to younger generations. "It is not enough to merely create masterpieces for the sake of aesthetics,” Shotridge says. “Leaving a legacy of work behind for the next generation to be inspired by is a lifetime goal.”

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A coral and turquoise bracelet by Diné artist Tonya June Rafael.

This year’s Art Market in Washington, D.C. and New York will be held Saturday, Dec. 3 and Sunday, Dec. 4 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Museum members in Washington, D.C. are invited to a private preview Saturday, Dec. 3 from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.



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