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Native American Artists Create Unique N.M. Bowl Trophy

By Tim Korte/
Associated Press
      ZIA PUEBLO — Memo to chunky-fingered linemen: Handle with care.
    The trophy going to the winning team in the inaugural New Mexico Bowl is a 20-inch piece of Zia Pueblo pottery, adorned with ancient symbols and — in a twist on centuries of tribal tradition — hand-painted images of football players.
    ''We could have done another gold football,'' said the game's executive director, Jeff Siembieda. ''This will really stand out.''
    For generations, pottery similar to this has been used at Zia Pueblo and other New Mexico tribal villages to haul water and store goods. As tourists streamed West, pots became valued as art, and today prices at some galleries can reach into the thousands.
    But awarding tribal pottery to recognize a football champion? At first, even the husband-and-wife artists who crafted three pieces for the Dec. 23 game had to refine their definition of Zia artwork.
    ''I could imagine seeing a (Native American) dancer painted on the side, not a football player,'' said Elizabeth Medina, who hand-coiled and fired the pottery at the couple's home studio.
    Her husband, Marcellus Medina, painted the clay trophies with a white base and, in black, angular Zia patterns — lines resembling furrows, triangular Zia prayer feathers and, of course, the Zia sun symbol seen on New Mexico's state flag.
    Then came the anachronism.
    Medina used colored acrylic paints to depict football players in action and logos for the participating teams — the New Mexico Lobos and San Jose State Spartans — and the New Mexico Bowl insignia, which features a Zia sun.
    The Medinas created three pots — a championship trophy for the winning team, another for display at the New Mexico Bowl office and a third as a backup. This hardware, after all, can shatter if it collides with a sidewalk.
    ''I hope the champions give it good care. I hope they nurture it,'' Mrs. Medina said.
    On the market, each of the pots would probably sell for about $2,500.
    Another Zia Pueblo artist, Ralph Aragon, crafted offensive and defensive Most Valuable Player awards from traditional leather shields.
    These awards are nothing close to the typical handouts during bowl season, and that's exactly the point.
    Many bowl games present conventional cups or trophies, perhaps accented with glasswork and topped by a gold- or silver-plated football. At the Orange Bowl, for example, the champion gets a crystal basin filled with oranges.
    Siembieda said organizers for the first-year bowl game in Albuquerque wanted something unique — something that would, in his words, ''embrace New Mexico and different aspects of New Mexico culture.''
    The bowl's relationship with Zia Pueblo began when Siembieda wanted to use the Zia sun on the New Mexico Bowl insignia. He visited the village 30 miles northwest of Albuquerque to ask tribal leaders for permission.
    ''We felt it was the right thing to do,'' he said.
    When Siembieda asked what he could offer in return, tribal leaders suggested using Zia art for awards. The artists were consulted and agreed, and it quickly became clear the partnership would pay off for all sides.
    Siembieda called the artwork ''definitely one of the coolest things we've done for the game'' and said the response from coaches, players, fans and sponsors has been overwhelmingly favorable.
    The tribe stands to benefit from the publicity, but for good measure bowl officials contributed to a scholarship fund for Zia Pueblo students. The Medinas, meanwhile, got an unexpected venue to showcase their art.
    ''It was an honor to be asked to work on this project,'' Marcellus Medina said. ''We've taken our work to shows in Santa Fe, San Diego, all over the Phoenix area. This is a different kind of show, something very different for us.''
    The concept, linking ancient tribal traditions with college football, isn't as much of a stretch as you might think.
    Marcellus Medina said the painted feathers on the pottery, for example, symbolize turkey or eagle feathers typically carried by Zia Pueblo hunting parties.
    ''We take feathers with us on a hunt as a way to carry messages to the gods,'' he said. ''It's the same for the football player. He goes out hunting for the ball. He wants to take it across the goal line. He prays to win the game.''
    The pottery reserved for the bowl office features images of a deer, cougar, buffalo and eagle. Medina said characteristics of those animals carry over to football players, whether they're bulky linemen or fleet-footed receivers.
    ''The deer symbolizes courage,'' he explained. ''The cougar is aggressive and uses strategy, just like a football player. The buffalo is all power, like a linebacker. The eagle is a messenger to the gods.''
    All art work created by the Medinas is regarded by the couple as offspring, just like their two children. The pots are crafted from the pueblo's clay, given a bath upon removal from the oven and then clothed in painted designs.
    ''I'm the mother. I created this pot,'' Elizabeth Medina said. ''It has life. It has a purpose.''
    The Medinas said it can be difficult to part with their artwork, just as it was when their children grew up and left home.
    Yet with the New Mexico Bowl trophy, they're excited to see their customs blend with American sports culture. They have tickets to the game, and while they usually support the hometown Lobos they'll be cheering for both teams this time.
    ''A football team is a family, just like our tribe, our community,'' Marcellus Medina said. ''It's a struggle to win any football game, and both of these teams are playing in a bowl game so that means they're already champions.''
    He glanced at the champion's trophy and laughed.
    ''Too bad someone has to lose.''

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