Roger Tsabetsaye: Daring to Be Different
By Ernie Bulow
Roger Tsabetsaye was born October 29, 1941, just a month before Pearl Harbor, son of Joe and Susan Tsabetsaye. At that time, Zuni numbered less than three thousand people and clung to its historically traditional ways. Tsabetsaye’s family was still making a living with their livestock and fields, but they made jewelry on the side. Pretty much a profile of a typical Zuni household of the time.
Roger was not destined to be typical. It is impossible to pin down why he was so driven, though the talent part is easy to explain. Zunis are extraordinarily gifted in the arts department and Roger was descended from Unaiede, some say the first silversmith in Zuni.
He tells the story of where the family name came from. His grandfather, as a small child, followed his own father like a shadow. A Navajo came to visit and noticed how the little boy was always right behind his dad. The family clan was eagle so the Navajo laughed and said Tsabetsaye, “Eagle’s Tail” and the name stuck. On his early paintings Roger signed himself Eagle Tail.
By the time Roger was in high school the world had changed. The backward village of Zuni had gotten electricity, running water, the telephone, and a paved road to Gallup. When Roger ran out of grades in Zuni he went to the Indian School in Albuquerque, where he got his diploma, then on to Santa Fe. In the summers he had already participated in Indian Arts Workshops at the U of A in Tucson, Arizona.
He was in the first class at the newly created Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, studying sculpture, textile design and metalsmithing. He also had some published poetry if that wasn’t enough. For the next few years he received many letters of commendation for his work and a scholarship at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. The Santa Fe staff at that time included Lloyd New, James McGrath, Charles Loloma and my old friend Jimmy Yazzie, to name a few.
By then Roger had already undergone a major transformation. Though the newly minted art school in Santa Fe would promote a variety of Native arts and expressions, Tsabetsaye had grown up with the notion that there was an “appropriate” style and medium for Indian artists. This partly came out of the Dorothy Dunn School, but also fit with bureaucratic thinking of the time.
“I was really sick of white people telling me what I was supposed to like, what I was supposed to think, and what I was supposed to create. I had my own aesthetic, my own path to travel.” Roger had already shown his proficiency at “Indian” art with his hide painting, his watercolors and the like. He wanted to go his own way.
Several of his early paintings have a curious déjà vu quality. A number of contemporary artists including Tony Abeita have painted the generic, slightly abstracted katsina faces that are familiar to current art collectors, but Roger was painting in that style in the early sixties.
One of those paintings was included in Clara Lee Tanner’s book on Indian painting. In the text she praises Tsabetsaye’s ability to transform and move the viewer’s vision into another world. That had been Roger’s aim all along – to bridge the two worlds of Zuni and Anglo sensibility.
His most remarkable work came from his stint in New York. He began to create ultra-modern hollowware somewhat reminiscent of the great Georg Jensen, father of Danish Modern. Though Jensen was considered Art Nouveau, his vision is still modern today.
Though Roger didn’t hear of Georg until later, his pitchers and other hollowware are even more futuristic as he worked in copper and silver embellished with rosewood and a touch of petrified wood. His teacher wanted him to use pure silver, but he pointed out that some katsinas originated in the Petrified Forest. Nothing in Roger’s work could be further from an “Indian” aesthetic or Zuni style. This work was an instant success and won him many awards.
Tsabetsaye is rueful when questioned about abandoning what appeared to be a career that would have taken him to fame and riches and the upper stratosphere of the art world. Why did he quit?
“I already had a wife and kids in Zuni,” he relates. “As much as I was enjoying myself I wanted to come home. There was no way I could continue to finance that kind of work. You have to have big sheets of silver and lots of tools. Also there was no market in the Southwest. To continue on that path I would have had to stay in New York. Or maybe Scandinavia or somewhere. I couldn’t do it.”
But he did have a one-man show in Dusseldorf, Germany, where there was an exclusively Zuni shop at the time.
Once back home he was still the transformed Roger. He and his sister Edith got their own booth at Ceremonial in Gallup the summer of 1963. Their success continued. With her fabulous cluster work Edith won so many awards over the years they are uncountable. Her many Best-in-Show and Best-in-Class Awards in Gallup alone are breathtaking.
Roger also took Best-in-Class in 1963 for his coffee set – pot, creamer and sugar bowl – in a swooping, ultra-modern style that must have shocked the exhibit hall, but it didn’t change Roger’s career. Today that set is in the Smithsonian.
Some of his fabric designs that came out of a workshop in Santa Fe had been made into clothing and they were also an instant sell-out. He is wearing one of the shirts in his photo with friend Rosco Paquin. The walls of the booth were covered with Tsabetsaye’s paintings and they also did well.
His sisters Mary Eriacho and Jane Beselente have also had great careers in the Zuni jewelry business. It is really hard to calculate what influence Roger’s ideas have had. He and his father executed one of his more modern cluster work designs and several people have copied it over the years. The sincerest form of flattery, they call that.
The high fashion clothing and fancy silverwork weren’t taking Roger anywhere so he refined his jewelry technique – keeping it original, but sellable in local markets, somewhat anticipating Charles Loloma. His travels and honors had already distanced him from his home pueblo, but he wasn’t done yet.
Besides showing his own work at shows around the Southwest from California to Texas, Roger got involved with the budding arts and crafts co-operative at Zuni. From 1965 to 1968 Roger was a Master Craftsman instructor for the co-op. He also initiated classes in contemporary pottery as part of the new enterprise.
Tsabetsaye ran up against stiff opposition. Daisy Hooee and her followers were appalled that the co-op would even consider using green ware and modern kilns to turn out a cheaper line of ceramics, even if that kept the art alive and made money for people in the village. Sixty years later those things are common, but there is no credit for Roger’s contribution.
He discovered he liked selling and from 1970 to 1988, under the umbrella of Tsabetsaye Enterprises, he opened an Indian arts and crafts shop, a service station, and a grocery story. He also got involved in Zuni politics and spent four years as a Zuni councilman under Governor Lewis.
Today Roger is still active in trying to carefully modernize the village of Zuni. One of his major concerns is revising the tribal constitution which is too outdated for him – having been imposed from the outside, as so many things have. Roger would like to see a Zuni constitution by and for Zunis, rather than one that suits the white government and the businesses that prey on Zunis.
“The main thing that needs to be addressed is the ongoing power struggle between the secular government and the religious leaders. This leads to unproductive squabbles and internal strife.”
When Roger came back to Zuni he had to reinvent himself and he set about challenging the idea that old designs were best and the only ones that had a ready market with whites. He designed cluster jewelry that incorporated traditional forms with freer, more modern feeling.
Like most artists, Roger balks at the question, “Where did your idea come from?” He did tell me one thing about his amazing hollowware. “It really comes from dance,” he said. “The sensuous motion of a woman’s arms when she moves. That’s where it came from.”
He might be pulling our legs, but his few pitchers and bowls certainly have a sensuous movement to them, even more than other modernists like Georg Jensen. And his jewelry, after all these years, is still original and breathtaking. He might be “un-Zuni,” but he is all artist.