Hopi Fine Arts celebrates life on the mesas

Jean Johnson
1/26/05

SECOND MESA, Ariz. - If there was ever a business enterprise that's an
homage to the heart, it's Alph Secakuku's Hopi Fine Arts. The gallery has
sat at the foot of Second Mesa in Arizona for going on 11 years now, and
travelers stopping by in the summer are greeted by peach trees, a willowy
stand of bamboo, and a small garden of corn and beans and melons. Within
the entry of Hopi Fine Arts is a fountain - a Hopi maiden with water
pouring from her painted jug into a larger piece of pottery. Reddish
flagstone pavers lead the way past a six-foot-tall relief of Butterfly
dancers, the downy eagle plumes on the young people's costumes seeming to
flutter as people as pass by.

Hopi Fine Arts meets all the parameters that The Harvard Project on
American Indian Economic Development identifies for success. The business
has skipped over common concerns about access to markets and endowments of
natural resources and zeroed in on the key to empowerment and independence.
Hopi Fine Arts has taken what Harvard's director of the program, Andrew Lee
calls "a nation-building approach and has created a long-term environment
that supports authentic sovereignty." Put another way by Lee: "Strong
self-interest on the home front motivates like nothing else."

From the interior of the gallery comes the faint smell of cedar. Hopi songs
over a discretely-stationed CD player fill the air. If tourists time it
right, they might even hear Secakuku himself on one of the two CDs he has
cut, his deep bass booming out like a thunderstorm, backed by the
snake-like snap of his rattle and the hollow trill of a flute. Overhead
track lighting infuses the space with light designed to pick up the shine
of silver and gold jewelry and the polished pottery, and bring out the rich
color in the katsina dolls and the baskets and the textiles.

If Hopi Fine Arts sounds like a place where you'll find the best, it's
because it is. Secakuku deals only in medium and high-end art, eschewing
anything bordering on the souvenir. "The way I attract the better artists
is by giving what I call artistic value," said Secakuku. "Maybe a guy comes
in and wants a $100 for a one-inch bracelet. I look at it and say this has
a lot of cutting and story to tell or good designs and intricate work. So I
say I'll give $110, adding the $10 for his artistic value. At the same time
I ask him to come back and see me first the next time he has something.

Then when he comes in with three bracelets, I choose the best one and build
up my inventory that way. That's why paying for artistic value really
works."

Overlay bracelets at Hopi Fine Arts, for example, run anywhere from $150 to
$2,500, and in addition to customers who stop in while they're traveling
through Hopiland, Secakuku sells to jobbers, wholesalers and collectors.
The gallery also carries supplies for silversmiths so artists living on the
remote Hopi mesas don't have to go to Gallup or Flagstaff to get their
materials.

Having a bachelor's degree in Business Administration hasn't hurt Alph
Secakuku's endeavor at Hopi Fine Arts. Neither has being retired from a
career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs - one that ended as assistant
director of the BIA's Phoenix Area Office, a place that oversees 45 tribes.
And then there's the edge he got from being one of the sons of Hale and
Susie Secakuku who started the Secakuku Trading Post back in 1934.

But what really fuels Alph Secakuku's work is his commitment to "preserving
the beauty and value of the Hopi belief system." He was born in 1939 and
grew up fluent in the Hopi language and surrounded by people he remembers
as those who "gave all that they were and all that they had to the Hopi way
of life."

Because the goal of Hopi Fine Arts is to keep Hopi culture alive, Secakuku
and his staff take care to educate their clientele on authenticity. "There
are a lot of reproductions of Hopi jewelry and katsina dolls," Secakuku
said. "If you don't have an eye for it, you'd think it was Hopi because a
lot of them look surprisingly good. The stuff comes in from foreign
countries as well as from other tribes. The Japanese and Mexicans are known
for doing fakes of our jewelry, and the Navajos and Philippine people copy
our katsina dolls. About 90 percent of the Indian arts and crafts that are
out on the market are fake."

As do art dealers across the board, Secakuku understands the intrinsic
value in handmade pieces. "Each of these items is one of a kind," he said.
"Even things like the coil plaques and the storm sashes. Weavers might use
the same pattern many times, but it will change in the process and each
piece will have something about it that's unique and distinctive."

Husband and father of three children, Secakuku knows that what goes around
comes around. Thus, even after heart surgery in July 2002, when he's not
working in his gallery, he's occupied writing and lecturing about Hopi
culture. He serves as a consultant for different museums in the U.S. and
abroad, and he addressed the International Peace Research convention in
Australia on Hopi religion - how Hopi spirituality teaches the importance
of ecology, environmental concepts and world peace.

Closer to home, Secakuku always accepts invitations to speak to the
students at Hopi High School. What grieves him, though, is that the Hopi
language is dying out. The young ones coming up aren't learning Hopi and he
fears for the very fiber of the culture. "Because of our religion being the
way it is, once we forget our language, our whole culture goes. And once
that happens, who are we at that point." Secakuku said. "I guess we're
descendants of the Hopi then, but we're not Hopi any more, we're general
Americans. We've melted. To me that's pretty sad and in my opinion we can't
let that happen."

The Hopi ceremonial calendar, of course, is based on the doings of many
sacred and secret religious societies, so it's not something the Hopi
people would even discuss. Still, Secakuku underscores the idea that the
Hopi are highly religious and spiritual people. Indeed, it seems natural
that when a culture has coalesced in the high desert around dry farming and
reliance on precarious summer rains, members of the group sometimes become
extraordinarily devout. And of course, being Hopi - being Indian - they
even joke about it. From beyond the lenses of his glasses, Alph Secakuku's
black eyes crinkle up and he chuckles, "The way we say it out here is that
if we're not finishing one ceremony, we're getting ready for the next one."

If Hopi Fine Arts has anything to do with it, people on the Hopi mesas will
maintain their culture and keep producing world-class arts and crafts as
they have for the past thousand years. Eighty percent of the Hopi tribe's
12,000 members currently work in arts and crafts, bring more than $15
million into the Hopi economy and will continue to expand their niche.
Carvers will make katsina dolls from cottonwood root. Basketmakers will
fashion their yucca and willow into plaques. Weavers will sit at their
looms, and potters will dig their clay. Silversmiths will turn out jewelry
with enough shine to match the Arizona sun.

In this way Alph Secakuku has turned what he loves and cares deeply about
into a viable economic pursuit. Like Harvard's Andrew Lee said, when people
put their heart on the line, it makes all the difference.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page