Did I meet my modern Native American artist?
About 15 to 20 minutes away from Sedona, if you drive down HWY 260, you'll see a badly posted sign that says "Tuzigoot" What is that?
Tuzigoot was an ancient Indian village or pueblo made by a culture known as Singua. They lived here in the Verde Valley for four hundred years, from AD 1000 to 1400 and then disappeared.
Today,as you follow the signs you find yourself driving up hill leaving a huge expanse of valley, and a thin silver line of a river called the Verde river snaking somewhere far away. You'll see some marsh land meandering lazily through the valley.
It was not like this when the Native American Singua people lived here. It was green with lush vegetation that provided habitat for many animals and birds, even parrots.
Now it is barren. As you park your car in front of the museum and climb up the stairs you reach at the roof top. It may seem like you are rather on top of a fort.
Spanning the valley you see the ruins of the old pueblo that consisted of more than hundred rooms made out of stones, and were two or three storied high.
You may feel any minute those people may return on their horse backs. Those people who were mainly farmers, knew very well how to use the irrigation from the Verde river water and cultivate corn, maize and so on.
They were great artisans. You have seen their pottery in the museum and the incredible tools they made, out of bones, to make shell jewelry. They had great trade relations with people hundreds of miles away. How can they be vanished just like that?
When they return what riches are they going to bring? What stories to tell?
Instead you hear a shrill cry of a bird - may be a blue heron or something. This place is an Audobon designated site today, for watching rare birds.
Where did those people go? Why?
May be they could not deal with the diseases that the European foreigners brought
May be it was the great drought of the late 13th century that dried up every thing and the people fled from here leaving their beloved home and village to an unknown territory. The 14th century was a time of great migration, conflict and ultimately amalgamation.
The Singua people merged with other tribes like the Hopi, Acoma and Zuni and became one of them. I read all these in the museum and other books.
When the Europeans met them in the 16th century they did not give much credit to these Indians or their art. I can visualize how the Spanish looked at their jewelry styles and workmanship- the smirks,the disparaging nods.
The Native American artists gulped it. And rather learned from the Spanish silversmiths and eventually created their unique style the squash blossom design.
The squash blossom design necklace
The Europeans decided to cultivate and educate these native people and take them to missionary schools ostracizing them from their own families and culture. When they fled the "Indian schools" they were penalized and punished.
Frustration set in. Alchohol soothed. Alchoholism broke the families.
When there was no money, no food in the house, these native artists took whatever they had, their precious jewelry to the pawn brokers which were never retrieved
These are good deals today if you can find an authentic one.
My heart feels heavy thinking why do these people always had to flee? It was theirs land to begin with, but what destiny... they had to give away their home, their art, their pride and run away to some where else.
This is when I met my modern Native American artist.
We had to stop at a rest area for a bath room break on our way to Phoenix airport.
Here, near the WOMEN sign I find a girl sitting on the floor with a rug stretched out with jewelry pieces.
I stoop down. They are made out of silver beads and semi precious stones like moon stone, turquoise chips, tiger eye, coral beads, hematite and agate.
"I use quality 49 strand silver beading thread Ma'm. Look at the clasps...This is a dream catcher and here this leaf is good luck - it chases away your bad dreams."
"Don't you go to Art Fairs? You don't belong here near the bathrooms. These are quality stuff and you have good workmanship." - I say.
Her face lit up. "I make them my self Ma'm. I can't afford the booth fees and... too expensive." She smiled sadly.
Her name is Bear. She is a Navajo. Bear has learned making jewelry from her mother, who had learned it from her mother. They were an artist family. "My great grand dad made great jewelry" she said.
In my mind's eye I could see a jewelry box that is kept high on a shelf in their home. In it lies a squash blossom necklace with sleeping beauty blue turquoise, bordered with tiny coral dots framed in beautiful silver.
That is saved for Bear's special day, when she'll be a bride. Bear's grand ma's grand ma had saved it.
When the pawn broker came in and asked -" What else do you have that is worthy? any jewelry?"- she nodded- No, Nothing. For years they remained hungry and had to put up with many hardships but she never let go of that squash blossom necklace.
Bear will give it to her daughter and it will always remain with them. It would never be sold.
I was startled - "Ma'm, please take this set. I'll make it $18 for you instead of $20."
I had seen the same design selling for $69 yesterday in a posh Sedona shop at Tlaquepaque with a big SALE sign.
"Do you take credit card or is there a ATM? I spent my last bill."
Bear's face dimmed.
Her mom came running. "The security is here, hurry baby"
Wait a minute. There is something like a crumpled piece of paper in my pocket. As I take it out and unfold - it is a $20 bill. Bear shines up.
"What would you like- the dream catcher or the dream chaser?"
Then she had to quickly roll up her rug and run to a bitten up car to flee somewhere again.