John Gordon Leekity – The Most Famous Unknown Zuni
By Ernie Bulow
Forty years ago the aging trader and entrepreneur C. G. Wallace, based at the De Anza motel in Albuquerque, NM, decided to part with most of his beloved collection of Zuni jewelry. Half of it was given to the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona; the rest was sold at auction by Sotheby, Parke-Bernet.
The catalog from that sale has become the standard reference for Zuni silver and lapidary art. For many years it was taken as gospel but more and more questions about names and dates have come up over the years as collectors and dealers become better informed.
Sadly, once information is printed it seems to be graven in stone. It has been known for some time that the artist called John Gordon Leak by Wallace was probably John Leekity. All the same, people are reluctant to change anything.
Deborah Slaney has long been associated with Wallace’s collection and wrote a book for the Heard Museum called Blue Gem, White Metal (1998) in which she says, “Very little is known about John Gordon Leak, except that his mosaic work is superb.” She is right on both counts.
A new book on Zuni jewelry published this spring quotes Slaney’s assertion that Leak was unknown.
There is a simple explanation for the lack of information about Mr. Leak – he never existed. There has never been anyone on the Zuni tribal rolls named Leak.
John Leekity, on the other hand, was one of the best known Zunis of all time. His greatest moment of triumph came nearly a hundred years ago when he was one of three Zunis chosen for the American Olympic team. I have written about this elsewhere.
In the 1920s Leekity and his brother-in-law Andrew Chimoni made national news on several occasions. Chimoni is known for a one-hundred-mile race against a man on a horse in Pecos, Texas. I have recently learned from old newspapers that John ran the same race the following day.
For several years these Zunis were known as the fastest men alive in the field of distance running. Leekity never stopped running well into old age. By the thirties Leekity’s exploits on the road and race track had pretty much ended, but he became famous in the Gallup area for his participation in Zuni social dance groups.
He was a regular performer at Gallup Ceremonial, again well into advanced years, often posing with pretty girls. It is impossible that Wallace did not know the man’s real name. His jewelry was limited to lapidary work and he had a fairly small repertoire of designs. He did striking colored inlay in a background of black jet – often simple dragonflies, knifewings and stumpy arrows.
There are fewer arrows around today because his family says he was the only one doing them, unlike his other designs, which Wallace hired a number of artists to copy. In Zuni he is remembered for his signet rings, which have all been laid to rest over the years with their owners. These were simply letters inlayed into his signature black background. They are rarely seen today.
In the years since I first researched the life and exploits of John Gordon Leekity, whose Zuni name was Small Corn, I have discovered another interesting fact. He had three sons – William, Joe, and Dick – who did a little jewelry themselves, but their children would have made John proud.
William, who worked for many years for Vander Wagens at the Halona store, had quite a number of children and most of them were superb inlayers and some of them are still active today.
Since quite a few were daughters they are known by other famous names, like Ann Sheyka. With her husband, Porfilio, Ann became a blazing star, creating many famous designs of birds and animals. My personal favorite is a pouncing owl with outspread wings. Ann made pieces on her own as well as working with her husband.
William’s daughter Dinah did inlay for Joe Tanner before she married Peter Gasper and they became famous for their fetish work. Dinah is more associated with the Teddy Weahkee side of her family.
Curtis Leekity was once married to Corinne Lesanse and they did fabulous inlay work with a variety of animals and birds. She is still active producing jewelry today with her husband Bobby Shack.
Several family members carried on the popular horses created by their mother, Nora Sandy. Nora was also known for her placid Hereford bull heads. Winnie continued to work with her mother for years and carried on her mother’s style of inlay.
Son Edward also took the horse design and it was made even more popular by the work of his wife Carlene. Edward and Carlene made a variety of animals and birds but Edward wasn’t content with repeating a single hummingbird – he ended up making a whole flock of different designs.
Ella Gia, married to a son of Steven Gia, one of the early smiths, was also famous for her hummingbirds, crafting them into the so-called squash blossom necklace. Her children and grandchildren carry on the family tradition.
Evangeline – Eva Etsate, the youngest of the children, also makes a distinctive hummingbird figure.
Bernice Leekity, also known as Bernice Wyaco, has created a whole menagerie of creatures in outstanding inlay. These large, detailed works of art are often in the form of bolo ties and her best known pieces are grizzly bears and mountain lions. Her work is truly superb.
Paul Leekity, with his wife Nancy Shetima, is being discovered for some masterful cluster work finished with the virtuosity of the Weebothees and other masters. He told me that he started life with his maternal grandparents at the village of Tekapo, west of Zuni proper.
Early in the last century a dam was built on the Zuni River (which still had water in it at the time) and a small farming/ranching area was created. In time, Paul switched from sheep, which need a lot of tending, to cattle, which he still runs today.
He learned silversmithing and his bread and butter work were the well-known knifewing, rainbow man and thunderbird pieces. After some coaxing he showed me some pieces made for consumption in the village, not for sale outside. Like many Zunis he was a master of casting and incorporated it into his work.
For his personal ceremonial wear he crafted the popular giant nugget style work. Unlike many, he never resorted to block or inferior turquoise. His best pieces featured high grade Kingman and Kingman nuggets with the metallic matrix.
The massive necklace shown here is what he called his “medium size” as he created both larger and smaller versions. The bow guard has four cast elements for decoration. Paul deserves a much greater reputation.
Leekity sons Joe and Dick also had talented offspring and one of the best known is Joe’s son Olson. Olson and his wife are known for their charming silver figures that don’t represent anything specific but are like katsinas. Dick’s daughter Margaret was a jeweler for years.
It is time that the “unknown” Zuni lapidary, John Leekity, comes out of the dark and gets credit for his role in the great Zuni jewelry tradition.