ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jessa Rae Growing Thunder attended her first Santa Fe Indian Market when she was 1 week old.
Born at the University of New Mexico Hospital, she traveled north to Santa Fe with her mother and grandmother.
She picked up her first beading needle at 3. She knew it would be her life at 6.
Now 30, the Assiniboine/Sioux bead artist will show her work at the Winter Indian Market at Santa Fe’s La Fonda on Saturday, Dec. 14, and Sunday, Dec. 15.
The market will span the Lumpkins Ballroom, the Santa Fe Room, the New Mexico Room and the hotel mezzanine with jewelry, pottery, textiles and ornaments. Participating artists include 2019 Best of Class jewelry winner Sarah Aragon and Best of Class textile winner Venancio Aragon, as well as past award winners Jody Naranjo, Benson Manygoats, Debra and Preston Duwyenie and more.
Growing Thunder spent her childhood on Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation, joining her mother, Juanita, and her grandmother, Joyce, and watching them bead. Joyce has won the prestigious Santa Fe Indian Market Best of Show award three times for her beaded dolls, just one of two artists to accomplish that feat.
“I come from a long lineage of bead workers,” Growing Thunder said. “By the time I was 5 years old, I was selling my work at Indian Market. My mom told me, ‘We bead every day to help it survive.’
“My grandmother and my mom bead every single day. They get up at 3 a.m., and they bead.”
Growing Thunder created a patriotic vest for her husband’s homecoming after he completed two tours each in Afghanistan and Iraq. She intricately embellished the red, white and blue garment with flags, stars, horse tracks and tepees in a galaxy of tiny glass beads.
The twin flags symbolize the tepees, while the stars beckon him home.
“He always talks about how different everything was except the stars, which reminded him of home,” she said.
Growing Thunder uses micro-glass seed beads, many of them from the Czech Republic, secured with nylon thread and hair-thin needles. She scours antique shops and bead shops for new finds. She especially treasures some “greasy gold” antique French beads housed in an old glass spaghetti sauce jar.
Two miniature cradleboards boast maps of beadwork with toggles. Each one tells a story. Jingling brass beads protect the child from predatory animals such as bears, she said. A red line signifies the red road, the act of moving throughout life in a good way.
When a boy is born, a beader places his cut umbilical cord in a small beaded lizard to protect him, she said. A girl’s is stuffed into a beaded turtle. These gender symbols dangle from their respective cradles.
“You’re giving them life,” Growing Thunder said of her beadwork. “You’re placing your saliva on the needle when you’re threading them. Any act of life is sacred.”
Growing Thunder often sits on the couch of her Sandia Park home watching Netflix as she creates earrings, bracelets and fully beaded dolls, often sketching the patterns on tracing paper placed on rawhide, buckskin or parfleche. She paints traditional designs on the earrings with pigment paints and beads the edges.
Between beading, Growing Thunder is finishing her dissertation on beadwork as written tribal history at the University of California, Davis. She hopes to work for a museum and eventually teach. She wants to establish oral history programs for Native American tribes.
This marks her first winter market.
“I think the hardest part is starting the piece,” she said. “I’m blessed because I was raised in a family of dreamers. A lot of times, I’ll dream a piece.”