In the northeastern corner of the trading post stands a showcase housing numerous pieces of pottery representing the various Native American villages of the Four Corners region. In this display are vessels, bowls and plates from Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Jemez, San Juan, Acoma and Zia pueblos, and all of the Hopi mesas. Scattered among the “potteries” are several seated figures with clay children arrayed on their backs, over their shoulders and in their laps. These figures are commonly referred to as storytellers, and they represent the passage of a village’s oral traditions from one generation to another.
Although clay figures had been seen in Pueblo pottery traditions from ancient times, it was Cochiti artist Helen Cordero who gave them a contemporary twist and brought them into the mainstream. Apparently Helen was not accomplished at making the well known forms, and consequently turned her attention to figurative pieces. Upon seeing her “little people,” folk art collector Alexander Girard asked Helen to make a larger seated figure with children. From this simple request was born one of the most iconic and meaningful symbols of the Southwest.
Since no Southwest tribe had a written language, storytelling was indispensable to the transmission of legends and important tribal occurrences from one group to the next. When asked to make a seated figure with children, Helen used her grandfather as a model, because he was a great storyteller, and because his grandchildren often swarmed about him to hear his stories. Helen’s grandfather was also an important link between the pueblo and several generations of anthropologists and observers of Pueblo life. Through stories transmitted to these outsiders, he helped ensure that Pueblo values were accurately represented.
Native American Storytellers
Although many people focus on the strict cultural aspects of these clay figures, to me they represent a much larger principal. In them I see the sharing of ideas among cultures; the innovation which comes from honest and sincere dialogue; the preservation of traditional values through art; and direct but respectful openness. I have begun to understand that these small statues encapsulate the entire business philosophy of the trading post, one which is focused on an uncompromising respect for all cultures, an open sharing of ideas, innovation and preservation of traditional values.
From time to time we are confronted with comments about how Anglo culture has historically failed to add value to American Indian life, and how it detracts from, rather than enhances, their traditions. As Indian traders, we are especially susceptible to this accusation. In my opinion, Helen Cordero and Alexander Girard illustrate the immense benefit that comes from collaboration. One cannot say whether the storyteller tradition would have ever been born but for Helen and Alexander’s combined work, but it can certainly be said that by working together they improved each other’s daily existence.
This is, of course, but one small example of how distinct and diverse cultures can come together for their mutual benefit. At the trading post we strive for just such combinations. Over the thirty plus years we have been Indian traders, we have seen the flowering of many new traditions, and hope to witness many more before we pass from this stage. With luck, our children and grandchildren will continue to be part of these changes, as will countless others who love and enjoy the many and varied cultures of the Southwest.
With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.