SANTA FE, N.M. — Iva Honyestewa has been working in a Santa Fe studio for almost three months, weaving willow and yucca into new basketry whose forms she has had tucked away in her mind for years.
Now, a little more than two weeks before returning home to Soongopavi on Second Mesa in Arizona’s Hopi country, she is curious about what the elders will think.
“I’m going way out of the box,” she said, creating something new by combining two traditional basketry forms: the flat plaque weaving as a bottom joined to the curved sifter basket above.
“My mom likes it … I put photos on Facebook and all the young people really like it.”
Honyestewa (Hopi/Navajo), who started March 1 as the School for Advanced Research’s Eric and Barbara Dobkin Native Artist Fellow, will give a talk at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the SAR boardroom about her work and the projects she focused on during her time there.
One project involved combining the basket styles, which she calls pootsaya, a term she coined by joining portions of the Hopi words for the plaque weaving and the sifter basket.
The other was to create flat weavings of symbols for the six Hopi clans: lizard, water, tobacco, badger, fire and sun – Honyestewa said she’s of the sun clan, which played an important role in the Hopi migration.
“I wanted my sons to remember it,” she said, adding that she has three adult sons and her 8-year-old, Richard.
At first she thought of putting all the symbols in one weaving, but that proved cumbersome, so she put three symbols each into two different weavings. Originally, she thought she’d frame them, but now she says she likes the effect of the raw edges at the sides.
Still, thinking the symbols might appear a little crowded, she’s considering doing a separate weaving for each symbol, hanging all six in a row from a long willow branch.
Jewelry to baskets
Honyestewa didn’t start her art career as a basketweaver. Instead, she created jewelry, but she found that, while the products sold pretty well, she wasn’t winning many awards for her work.
Then, one day in 1997, her mother said she planned to contribute sifter baskets for a ceremony in which gifts are thrown into the air for people to catch. She commented that she didn’t know how to make them, so she might have to buy them. But a cousin said she’d teach Honyestewa how to make them and together they’d make sifter baskets for her mother to use.
Traditionally, the first design taught is a traditional diamond pattern, with a symbol at the middle for the belly button, where the umbilical cord detaches and life begins, Honyestewa said. Instead, her cousin started her with a kachina design, which is much harder.
“I had a hard time with it,” she said. “She really challenged me in a sense. I’m glad she did … . It (basketry) is what I became known for.”
She said she recalls her grandmother teaching her how to make a coil basket when she was around 10 years old or so. To get really good, the grandmother told her, she needed to stop just short of finishing a work, set it in a prayer spot and pray really hard, and then run a set number of times around a tree. Honyestewa said she went through the ritual but didn’t continue with the coil weaving at that time.
Now, as she has worked on combining the two techniques, Honyestewa displayed the stages of her attempts. The first basket, she said, bulged out at the base where the two pieces were woven together. With the second, she left the basket fibers sticking out rather than rolled at the area of joining, giving a less bulky look but still not something that satisfied her. With the third, she experimented with a square rather than circular coil weaving at the bottom, but a little too much space was left at the corners where the two pieces joined. Finally, she refined her technique to fill the spaces on the fourth basket and came up with something she thinks works.
“Every basket tells a story,” Honyestewa said of the patterns contained within them.
The first in her series of developing the new basket uses gentle yet bright colors to show the beginning growth of spring, she said, while the second showed four clouds with lightning bolts above them. The third also showed the clouds of the four directions, with lightning and rain falling on the corn seed in the middle.
And the fourth demonstrates how each viewer might see a different story in the same basket.
Honyestewa said her best friend told her she gazed at the basket for a long time, and saw a rattle design in the middle and the story of migration, with the white, red, yellow and black people going off in the four directions, yet they all are intertwined.
Honyestewa said she actually intended the middle symbol to be a star with its glow shining forth as something newly created. “My thought,” she said of the new baskets, “was that my people are falling so far apart, I wanted to bring them back together. That’s why I combined (the basket styles).”
Chance to slow down
She’s enjoyed her time at SAR and the opportunity to work on her ideas, Honyestewa said.
At the same time, she admitted, she has sometimes gotten homesick, missing the hustle and bustle of her life and the activities entwined with the entire village.
Her family, she said, compares her to the Energizer bunny, always busy with something, and told her this fellowship might give her an opportunity to slow down for a while.
At home, Honyestewa said, she has occasional part-time jobs on agricultural surveys with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and as a supervisor with the census surveys that occur every five years. She has worked on a slew of projects in her village, especially youth programs.
She also has her own business, an arts and crafts gallery on Second Mesa called Iskasokpu. The name translates to “the spring where the coyote burped,” but many people just call it the “Burping Coyote,” she said.
And that, of course, has a story behind it. It comes from a tale of a coyote who was very hungry and thirsty, and stopped at a spring, where he found a turtle. He tried and tried to eat that turtle, but had no luck, because the turtle kept hidden inside his shell.
In the process, the coyote broke his teeth, but didn’t realize it. He went to another spring to get a drink, but saw this scary-looking creature looking back at him and he took off running. At a second spring, the same thing happened. By the time he came to a third spring, located below Honyestewa’s home, he was so thirsty that he ignored the scary reflection and just drank and drank. Finally, he raised his head and gave a big burp.
And that’s how the spring, and Honyestewa’s gallery, got their names.