In the American Southwest, there are numerous cliff dwellings and other forms of archaeological evidence that the Ancestral Puebloans spread through the four corners region (the large Colorado Plateau, where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah come together). These were thriving communities as far back as fourteen or fifteen centuries ago. This group became in more current times known as the Anasazi; the current Hopi and some New Mexico pueblos trace their ancestry back to these peoples. Chaco Canyon, Taos Pueblo, and several other sites are designated as World Heritage sites because of this historic linkage.
Several of our Hopi artist friends, including painter David Dawangyumptewa and bronze sculptor Kim Seyesnam Obrzut, remain true to the culture and designs of their ancestors. A collaboration by Bobby Silas and Tim Edaakie (one Hopi, the other Zuni) painstakingly research and recreate old Anasazi designs in their traditional pottery.
Interestingly, the Anasazi peoples had an extensive trade network, stretching into Mexico, to what is now the California coast, and to the east as far as the Caddo Native American tribes in what is now eastern Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Many Anasazi pottery designs are borrowed from trade with the Caddo, and the same is true of many ancient Caddo designs.
The Caddo confederation of tribes were equal in size to the Anasazi, but left much less in terms of archaeological evidence, further reduced when their tribes were decimated and subsequently resettled by land-hungry Anglo immigrants steaming in from the nascent American states in the east. The major impacts occurred in the mid-1500s, when Spanish explorers brought smallpox and malaria to the Caddo peoples, who had no immunities. Today, the Caddo occupy a small area of land in central Oklahoma, with under 6,000 Caddo enrolled in the official tribal rolls.
One of our friends, Chase Kahwinhut Earles, is a master potter working to resurrect the elegant pottery designs once produced by the Caddo. Part of his challenge is that each of the Caddo confederation of tribes had their own designs and styles, so there is no single look that reflects all of the Caddo. We saw Chase at the Cherokee Art Market last year, and were struck by the similarity of designs to those of the Anasazi, and Chase patiently spent quite a bit of time educating us about their relationship with the Anasazi, and also pointed us to several excellent reference books (that are now part of our reference library, and listed on our website) that explored this subject in much more detail.
The Caddo were also known for intricate basketry, and there are a number of basket weavers working in the Caddo confederation today who are bringing back the old techniques, designs, and styles of the Caddo.
A common misperception is that the Navajo (Diné) peoples who currently occupy the Navajo Nation, the largest Federal district in the United States, and comprising over 350,000 Navajo on the official tribe rolls, were descended from the Anasazi. In fact, they were not, and were strong adversaries of the Anasazi in the four corners region. Though the Navajo are known for their incredibly soft textiles, their bold silversmith and gemstone jewelry, and their traditional pitch-coated pottery, their designs are still distinct and true to their cultural heritage. We recently spent some time with Dan Jackson, a renowned silversmith who creates stunning jewelry with a basket-weave pattern that honors his mother, who was an expert weaver, and his father, who was an expert silversmith.
And that is one of the things that makes my exploration of the American Southwest so interesting – learning about each of the individual groups of peoples, their cultures, and their heritage. Tracing the Hopi back to the Anasazi, and seeing designs that were brought over to them from the Caddo, and vice versa, really emphasizes that these individual groups have their own individual cultures, and looking at their artwork with a basic understanding of their culture really unlocks a wealth of hidden meanings that make the artwork so much more rich and evocative.
The art, particularly the styles and designs that reflect the historic heritage of each group, brings a depth of understanding and appreciation that I continue to try to absorb like a thirsty little sponge. The more that I learn, the more questions that pop up, and the more that I realize I still have yet to learn. And as I build relationships with Native American artists and their families, the happier I become that they tell me their stories and share their culture with me. When you have a chance to spend some time with an artist, ask about their designs and the stories behind them. The stories are fascinating.