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Cultural collaboration: Wheelwright Museum houses unique Native American works

The Case Trading Post features vintage and contemporary authentic Native American art.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Majestic beauty can be seen outside The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe.

Tucked into the mountains in Santa Fe, and a staple on Museum Hill, the private institution houses decades of American Indian history – and can be viewed daily.

The museum’s journey is one filled with stories.

It all starts with Mary Cabot Wheelwright, who was born into a wealthy Boston family. As she traveled around the world, she was interested in the study of religions.

She met Hastiin Klah, an esteemed and influential Navajo singer, or “medicine man.”

Klah was born in 1867, when most Navajo people were held as prisoners of war by the United States government.

Wheelwright and Klah were introduced in 1921, by Arthur and Frances Newcomb, who lived on the Navajo reservation, operating a trading post near Klah’s home, about 50 miles north of Gallup.

A total of six paintings from artists Pablita Velarde, Helen Hardin, and Margarete Bagshaw — three generations of artists from a family.

By 1921, Klah had witnessed decades of relentless efforts by the United States government and by missionaries to assimilate the Navajo people into mainstream society. Children were removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their language and forced to adopt Christianity.

To Klah, the future of traditional Navajo religious practice appeared bleak, and the opportunity to collaborate with a sympathetic outsider such as Wheelwright was appealing.

The Wheelwright Museum was founded in 1937.

With thousands of items on view, it’s easy to get lost in the art and stories – sometimes stand-out pieces with great history are overlooked.

C. L. Kieffer Nail, collections manager/registrar and Ken Williams, manager of the Case Trading Post, carefully pored through the Wheelwright’s campus to find five items that, though each is in plain view, can be missed.

Inside the museum is where Klah’s shell necklace is housed. It is located in the “Center for the Study of Southwestern Jewelry.”

Nail and Williams say Klah was instrumental in the founding of the Wheelwright Museum.

“Modern silver jewelry typically receives most of the attention in the exhibit, yet this multi-strand white shell necklace with intermittent beads of jet, brown stone, and turquoise would not be possible without painstakingly hours of grinding and drilling,” Nail says.

Inside the same section, sits the tools of Sikyatala, who is the first Hopi silversmith.

The oldest Concha Belts are referred to as First Phase and date to the late 1860s to the 1880s.

The Wheelwright is typically known for its jewelry collection, but the collection also includes the silversmithing tools.

“Bellows, numerous stamps, and pliers are included among his tools which were donated by a collector who obtained them directly from his family,” Nail says.

Inside the museum, the First Phase Concha Belts are also on display.

“The oldest Concha Belts are referred to as First Phase and date to the late-1860s to the 1880s,” Nail says. “Prior to Navajo silversmiths learning how to soldering techniques, they would stamp out slots on conchas for a leather belt to be woven through.”

The Wheelwright has two of these belts on display.

There are plenty of stories of generations passing down the history and craft.

In the permanent collection is the “Wall of Three Generations” which resides in “Conversations: Artworks in Dialogue.”

A total of six paintings from artists Pablita Velarde, Helen Hardin and Margarete Bagshaw – three generations of artists from a family, the mother, daughter and granddaughter.

Tools from Sikyatala, the first Hopi silversmith, are on display at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. (Courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian)

“When families produce multiple renowned artists, occasionally you can see influence between generations,” Nail says. “This family is no different. It is a rare moment to glimpse this many cross-generational works curated together.”

The trio are one of the most documented families in New Mexico.

Williams says the Case Trading Post, which is located downstairs, is often missed by visitors because it is on the ground floor.

The Wheelwright Museum’s Case Trading Post (CTP) features vintage and contemporary authentic Native American art by masters and emerging artists, including pottery, jewelry, textiles, baskets, fetishes, paintings, katsinam.

“The CTP hosts numerous special events annually including artist demonstrations, talks, book signings, and sales,” Williams says. “All purchases in the CTP are tax free because all proceeds go directly to supporting the museum.”

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