ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Our group of 28, including four tour staff members, assembled in Albuquerque at the Sheraton Old Town this past June. Artisans, teachers, a television producer, social worker, writer, musician, business executives and homemakers, we had come from communities as disparate as Rochester, N.Y., and Kodiak, Alaska, to join the Art and Archeology of the Southwest field seminar offered by Crow Canyon Archeological Research Center in Cortez, Colo.
I had become caught up in the explosion of interest in the native arts and cultures of the American Southwest and figured, where better to learn about them than on the reservations and in the pueblos and hill towns of the Four Corners region. Other participants had their own expectations: Some jokingly tagged the trip a "buying frenzy" and confessed to traveling single because their spouse "hates to shop."
The 10-day program took us into the homes and workshops of prominent Southwest Native American and Latino artists and craftspeople, the back rooms of fabled "real West" trading posts and the controlled confines of scholarly research institutions and knowledgeable dealers.
Marti Hopkins Struever, the seminar leader, was a dynamo who had achieved success as a dealer in Native American art. She had encouraged the careers of many leading artisans, and the seminar rested on her connections. She was warmly welcomed wherever we went, and the warmth enfolded us, too. At dinner the first evening, Marti provided an overview of the trip. Reading materials were handed out on the art forms we would study, a supplement to the hefty literature sent earlier to our homes.
The next day set the pattern for the trip. The morning began with a talk in a hotel meeting room by Dr. J. J. Brody, a University of New Mexico expert on the Anasazi, the "ancient ones," ancestors of most of today's Pueblos, and on Southwest pottery. On subsequent days, Jonathan Batkin, the director of Santa Fe's Wheelwright Museum, would speak on Pueblo and Navajo weaving; Charles Carillo, a Latino historian and santero (carver of saints and other folk figures), on Spanish colonial history and arts, and Gail Bird, a noted jewelry designer, on Southwest Native American jewelry.
Following each talk, we took to the road, crisscrossing the starkly beautiful high-desert region between New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona (which, with Utah, make up the Four Corners region) in comfortable, air-conditioned vans. Marti and Mel Monkelis, an exceptionally accommodating fellow with a terrific, if quirky, humor, and two energetic women from Crow Canyon's volunteer corps drove and provided a steady stream of commentary as we sped by crimson sandstone cliffs, cucumber-green stands of pinyon pine and juniper, bleached plateaus and places such as the Chuska Mountains, Shiprock and Abiquiu.
Our first stop was at the restored 18th-Century mission church in Zuni, largest of the Southwest's 19 pueblos, off New Mexico 53 in the state's remote west. We were greeted there by artist Alex Seowtewa, who, with his sons, has been painting murals of tribal kachinas (spirit figures) on the church walls for the last 17 years. As we sat in the pews, awed by the monumental figures emerging from all sides, the artist explained the Zuni mythology he has dedicated his life to depicting.
At once excited and sobered by our first experience, we moved on to the home of the Quandelacy family, some of the leading carvers of the animal fetishes (amulets) for which the Zuni are known.
In Gallup, 35 miles north via New Mexico 602, a homely town as weathered as a mystic cowboy, we entered the cool precincts of Richardson's Pawn and Trading, a leading trader to the Native American people. Sequestered behind the jam-packed showcases glittering with silver jewelry, belt buckles, bowls and dolls lies the pawn vault. For more than a century, pawn has been the Southwest Native Americans' credit and safe-deposit system, providing both needed funds and safe-keeping.
Window Rock, Ariz., seat of the Navajo Nation, is 30 minutes northwest of Gallup. After a night there, notable for a demonstration of the artistry of Navajo silversmith Norbert Peshlakai, we drove by the copper-hued monolith with the large doughnut hole that gives the town its name and headed for Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado. A National Historic Site, Hubbell's has encouraged Navajo weavers and sold quality rugs since 1876.
The Hopi Mesas, three sere, desolate fingers jutting out from Black Mesa over the vast surrounding Navajo Reservation, were our home base for two days. The Hopi Cultural Center satisfied our basic needs with a newly renovated motel and a restaurant. From there we drove down a series of unmarked dirt roads to the remote, Second Mesa homestead of Helen Naha, "Feather Woman," a renowned 70-year-old potter.