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wings of power

SANTA FE — According to myth, the thunderbird is an enormous creature that produces thunder, lightning and rain.

Originating in the Pacific Northwest, its image somehow migrated south, catching support from the tourist trade and the jewelry artists at Kewa Pueblo, formerly known as Santo Domingo.

“Supposedly the first thunderbird came off of cave paintings,” said folklorist Roddy Moore, a co-curator of a new show at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.

“It exploded when the railroad started using it and when (hotel owner Fred) Harvey copyrighted it,” continued Moore, the director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum in Ferrum, Va. “That same form is on American coinage — on some half-dollars. It’s on Mexican coinage. It’s on military insignia. It’s been in a lot of different places.”

Forged in an alchemy of shortage and tourism, the thunderbird necklaces made by Kewa artisans provided bread and butter to families during the Depression. The Wheelwright Museum pays tribute to that legacy with “Thunderbird Jewelry of Santo Domingo Pueblo.” The exhibit is co-curated by Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle of the Wheelwright.

The display showcases about 300 necklaces, earrings, pins and other items. A full-color catalog with essays by Moore and Falkenstien-Doyle is scheduled for release in August during the Santa Fe Indian Market.

Kewa artists had been known for their exquisite use of turquoise, shell and jet, pieced together in jigsaw mosaic for hundreds of years. But by the 1920s, these traditional materials had grown scarce. Motivated by circumstance, jewelers turned to a new medium: abandoned automobile battery casings.

Manufactured from hard rubber, discarded car batteries were a slick substitute for traditional jet, and with Route 66 and the railroad luring more and more tourists west, they were abundant. Pueblo families harvested the inky substance from scrap yards. Artists salvaged the colorful teeth from plastic combs and the tines of plastic forks, took apart colanders and strainers and removed the centers from buttons for tabs and bird’s heads.
For centuries, the Kewa people had used the Cerrillos mine as their primary turquoise source. But by the 1920s, American commercial use swallowed most of its production.

“So the mines were guarded,” Falkenstien-Doyle said. “They would sneak in at night anyway. They would jump the train at Santo Domingo and jump off at Cerrillos.”

By the 1930s, these artists had developed a unique style of folk-art jewelry. They turned to broken phonograph records to augment the battery templates and invented a style made entirely of recycled and found materials: sun-bleached animal bones, local gypsum, tiny chips of cast-off turquoise and modern plastics. Dismissed by the Santa Fe art community as “tourist junk,” the necklaces sold to eager visitors by the thousands for 50 cents to $1.

“Santo Domingo is close enough to the highway to see what’s going on,” Falkenstien-Doyle said. “They’re seeing what people are wearing. They’re seeing the advertising.”

Artists cut a basic template from the black battery, then decorated the bird in their own unique style, piecing together turquoise chips, plastic comb teeth and shell.

“The wings can be down, they can be up, they can sweep out,” Moore said. “Whether the head is to the left or the right was up to the individual artist.”

Moore stumbled upon the necklaces at a New York antique show. When he probed into their background, he discovered little or no information about them. He saw the thunderbird jewelry as classic American folk art.

“It was touristy, and it was plastic,” he said. But “it was probably one of the only art forms in jewelry that wasn’t influenced by Anglos. It came out of their homes. I thought, ‘Why isn’t anybody paying attention to it?’ ”

If you go
WHAT: “Thunderbird Jewelry of Santo Domingo Pueblo”
WHEN: Through April 15. Hours are 10  a.m.-5  p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 1-5  p.m. Sundays
WHERE: The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, 704 Camino Lejo, Museum Hill, Santa Fe
HOW MUCH: Free. Call 505-982-4636

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