“Chris was surrounded by all this art as a boy and the Zuni creative impulse came over him at a young age.”
— Prize Winning Carver, Chris Waatsa Jr.
By Ernie Bulow
Many years ago I accidentally tormented an old man, the grandfather of one of my students, because I wanted him to tell me stories of the past. He was a living relic of the early days and had once herded sheep for the Navajo leader Chee Dodge. At a picnic one summer I pinned him down.
“I can’t tell you stories,” he said. “They are sacred.”
“Not religious stories,” I urged. “Just stories about your life.”
He looked at me a little disgusted. “All stories are sacred.”
In the Native American world all art has been held sacred, and many people still feel this way. I am fascinated by the Zuni word ‘kokshi’ which means obedient, beautiful and valuable, all at the same time. It illustrates a concept. Why did the Anasazi potters create such interesting shapes and paint their jars with fanciful, beautiful designs? The bowls would have been just as useful without all that artistic energy.
When I first visited Zuni almost fifty years ago I made the acquaintance of a doll carver named Nitcha Sheche. When I went to his house to pick up carvings he made me come after dark and put them in a plain brown paper bag. “I’m not supposed to do this,” he told me.
Years later I discovered he wasn’t exactly accurate, that there were half a dozen men who had made a large part of their living carving dolls at least since the 1930s. Ben Seciwa and Peter Neha were two men I bought dolls from back then. I currently know more than two dozen Zunis whose main occupation is katsina carving.
For better or worse “kachina” is the commonly used word in English for the spirit beings themselves, the dancers who impersonate them, and the dolls which represent them. Zunis use that word when talking to outsiders. Weehe (pl. weehewe) is the Zuni word and, like the Hopi term, it means “baby.” The dancers are called koko.
Selling any representation of the koko, in painting, carving and even jewelry, has been problematic since Anglos first came around. The more reluctant that Zunis have been to use these images, the more obsessed white people seem to become with them. Most of the old dolls left the village a hundred years ago and most of those are in museums in Europe. The French and Germans have long admired Native art.
And the dolls are truly art by any definition. The magnificent buffalo katsina stolen from the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos some years ago makes the short list of most dealers and collectors as one of the greatest single pieces of Native American art ever created.
Teddy Weahkee, painter, stone carver, jeweler, was accused widely of exploiting the Spirit Beings to make himself wealthy, though he actually made most of his money raising livestock. There is a persistent, and totally untrue, rumor that the artist Duane Dishta was ordered to leave the village of Zuni for a period of time because he portrayed the koko in dolls and paintings. A set of his early weehewe is on display at the Cultural Center in downtown Gallup.
While in high school, Duane did a set of paintings for a history teacher, which eventually found their way to the Southwest Museum where they became the basis for one of the two books on Zuni dolls. The group is far from complete.
Like all great artists, Duane, whose paintings are very naturalistic, had his own style when it came to the dolls. Like many dolls of the mid-century, Duane’s figures are very large (as much as two-and-a-half feet tall) and elongated. I have heard that Newman Lamy also made tall, thin dolls and some of them were articulated and animated as puppets.
In spite of resistance, many Zunis have found doll making a creative outlet and a source of income. Ironically, only a small number of carvers get good money for their creations, and these tend to be what Zunis call “Hopi” style dolls. Marlon Pinto (half Hopi/Tewa) has won many awards, fame and success with this style. The Modernist, or “Hopi” dolls, share some common elements.
In the first place they tend to be constructed of just wood, and detail elements are carved close to the trunk of the figure so there are few, if any, delicate pieces sticking out from the doll. They are often just stained, not painted, and a popular version is to take a twisting piece of cottonwood root (the traditional material) and just follow its natural shape rather than carving out arms and legs. Multiple faces can be found on the same piece.
Robert Winfield told me years ago he preferred to deal in these dolls for two reasons: They were much less likely to break during shipping, and they were rather more popular with Anglo buyers.
The distinctive style of traditional Zuni weehewe has always been in their dress. The old dolls are clad in buckskin and trade cloth, with hand-woven belts and bandoliers. There will be a lot of leather of different types including capes and tiny moccasins. They are covered with feathers that would make a federal agent swoon with joy. Most of the old dolls have actual miniature silver and turquoise jewelry, and real bead necklaces.
When possible, earth paints were used which give the carvings a softer patina and an older look. Horse hair was used for the beards and wigs. (Human hair is absolutely taboo.) Every detail of the rattles, tiny bows and arrows, turtle shell leg rattles, yucca whips, miniature bells, rabbit fur ruffs, are carefully crafted. A few people went so far as to sew pants and shirts on the small number of koko who wear them. In recent years the lack of response to this type of creativity has severely cut back on dolls like this being made.
Chris Waatsa Jr. inherits very strong artistic genes. His great-grandfather, Bryant Waatsa Sr., is given credit for developing modern Zuni needlepoint and is a well known jeweler, now in his nineties. Chris’s great uncle Fernando (Ferdy) Waatsa is one of the most beloved and prolific carvers ever, and many of his dolls are preserved in Zuni homes, which is unusual. Most dolls are eventually sold off, mainly to teachers and visitors, since the local traders don’t do much business in them.
Bryant and Ferdy both carved as part of their religious duties. Bryant said he once created a Shalako figure on a spring so it could bob forward, imitating the movements of the giant koko as it “plays” with the mudheads during the dance, snapping his long beak. It seems these two are encouraging Chris to follow in their footsteps.
Chris Jr. is both unusual and part of a small but growing trend in Zuni. Only in his early twenties, Chris was initiated at the age of six. He has taken part ever since then and, more importantly, has taken an interest in the historic elements of his religion. He asks questions, studies books, talks to old timers and enjoys the revival of some of the kokos that had been discontinued.
A few years ago the horse katsina was revived. Some say it hadn’t appeared for half a century and Bryant Waatsa was an important source in recreating this interesting dancer. Not surprisingly, there was a mixed reaction to his appearance. Many people were delighted to see a figure that had been almost forgotten – others took the attitude that once a koko has been abandoned it should not be brought back. The cow katsina group once appeared by themselves and horses and domestic sheep were part of the set. Now cows appear as part of the mixed group in the summer dances.
Whenever an old koko (or variations on a known one) appears, Chris likes to record it as a doll. So far he has done more than two dozen dolls that do not appear in the earlier books. He credits his interest in tradition and nearly forgotten Zuni lore to his paternal great-grandmother, Myrtle Penketewa who, as he says “grew him up.” Myrtle and her husband Ben were well-known jewelers and Myrtle’s two daughter, Odell and Lela have carried on the tradition.
Ben’s half brother was Andrew Chimoni the famous marathon runner. He is also related to another jeweler, Tony Ohmsattie. Chris was surrounded by all this art as a boy and the Zuni creative impulse came over him at a young age. He started out with drawing, and by mid-school he was painting, preferring acrylics. He remembers going to the store once with his uncle who told him to choose a toy. Chris asked for a paint set, much to his uncle’s surprise.
For awhile he tried beadwork of the kind worn by the dancers – flat strips in geometric designs – but felt it took too much time and effort for the return. He really found his artistic home with ceramics, in which he is largely self taught.
Because he was something of a troublemaker he went to Twin Buttes High School where he kept taking art classes. He was very adept at picking up technique wherever he encountered it. When the school got a pottery wheel he was the first student to try it out.
In 2007 several students were entered in the student art show at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. He recalls entering three pieces. One was a traditional canteen, hand built with Zuni clay. He also created a Kolowisi (the plumed serpent in Zuni lore) as a stand-alone piece, and he entered a traditional cornmeal bowl. “That wasn’t an ordinary bowl,” he says. “I really went all out with the painting. Besides the traditional frogs and dragonflies I tried some unusual things, like spraying tiny dots of color on parts of the bowl.” That cornmeal vase won Best in Show honors.
He also had a joint piece with Alex Jamon. He created a ceramic turtle and Jamon did a fancy hammered metal lid that completed the turtle’s shell. It was a hit. One of his pieces sold for a high price at the silent auction. Winning awards has a way of stimulating the creative juices and he came home full of ideas.
At Twin Buttes he had met Elaine Tucson, daughter of Everett Tucson who comes from another highly creative and successful family. E. T. as he is known, introduced Chris to greenware. It takes a lot of time and effort to create a pot with the traditional coiled technique while greenware provides a ready-made casting. The artist just finishes it and paints it, glazing it after firing if appropriate.
“I don’t apologize for going that route. There is a constant demand for ollas and dough bowls for use in various religious events. Greenware keeps things affordable in a normal budget.” There is plenty of demand for a good painter.
Elaine pointed out that a student doesn’t have to be a juvenile delinquent to attend the alternative school provided by Twin Buttes. “My sisters all went there too. There are smaller classes and more individual instruction,” she said. She and Chris married and have two little boys, Alec and Caedon. Elaine is currently working toward a nursing degree.
In high school Chris started spending time with Bryant and Ferdy after classes and that inspired him to try carving. He got a good response to his dolls, but was only selling them locally and to family members. I came along and helped him enter pieces in the Northern Arizona Museum and Ceremonial shows, and he won first place both times.
Now Chris Waatsa Jr. is looking to revive the classic dolls of the past and hopes to find a new audience for creations that take more time and effort and reflect the Zuni tradition and the excellence of an earlier time.
A Fearsome Ogre With a Purpose
The Weehoho barely makes an appearance in Barton Wright’s Kachinas of the Zunis, but he can be the high point of one of the summer dances when he appears with his retinue of Heyheyas. The smaller attendants have the role of controlling this scary personage. This Koko is one of the proprietary dancers, meaning it belongs to a family and not to the kiva and the performance is handed down from father to son. In his basket he carries specially blessed weehewe, which he gives to barren women so they will conceive. At first glance the Heyheyas seem too small and the dolls in the basket too large, but this indicates their relative importance.
Weehoho carries a bloody sword and a complex cane and his arms are covered with bear skin, complete with claws. There are a number of symbols on his head including the Kolowisi (serpent), clouds and lightning. His shoulders and the basket he carries are festooned with a particular moss that is quite rare and associated with water. His rare appearances are a delight to the audience.
This set won a first place ribbon at Ceremonial last year.
Back in the earliest times, when the People were still searching for the middle place, Kiaklo wandered far to the north where he was severely injured and became snow-blind. He was barely able to talk and his croaking voice drew the duck to investigate. She, with the help of Rainbow, brought Kiaklo back to the People. He is wise and keeps all the People’s history. This koko rarely appears, but he always carries the duck, which acts as his eyes.