A Wealth of Indian Crafts in Tucson, at the Fringe of Mineral Madness

A Wealth of Indian Crafts in Tucson, at the Fringe of Mineral Madness

Lee Allen

The largest treasure hunt in the world—the 58th annual Gem/Mineral/Fossil Showcase—is underway at more than 50 sites in and around Tucson’s downtown area housed in everything from hastily-erected parking lot tents to more formal exhibit displays in hotels. The international marketplace attracts over 250 mineral, gemstone, jewelry, and fossil dealers and more than 50,000 visitors in search of unique purchases.

At the fringe of all this mineral madness (estimated total product value: $100 million) is the annual American Indian Exposition featuring arts and crafts from 80 tribal nations in the United States, Canada, Alaska, Mexico and Central America.

“Thirty years ago we decided it would be a great idea to do our own Native American show,” says promoter Fred Synder, Director of the North American Indian Trade Center that represents 2,700 Indian artisans. “The gem show is all about a ton of this and a kilo of that, things made around the world in multiples. Here, everything is quality in the form of a unique one-of-a-kind piece from Huichol beadwork to silver smithing and basket weaving.”

Like the glazed black pottery with turquoise inlay crafted for the past 35 years by Maria Adelicia, a Pueblo tribal member from San Juan, New Mexico. “There’s only a few of us throughout the country that glaze our pottery this way,” she says. “I do all the designs and my son, daughter, and I do all the hand crafting. Our creations amaze people who see our work for the first time,” says the San Juan, New Mexico resident who lives out of a suitcase for several weeks per year attending shows and pow wows to vend her unique products.

Also unique in product production is Navajo/Hopi craftsman Harry Bert of Flagstaff, Arizona. The former union pipefitter took up craftwork when bad knees dictated a career change. In addition to silver jewelry, he’s found a distinctive product. “I’m one of the first to specialize in corn dolls,” he says of his carvings made from cottonwood tree roots.

“Grandmother told me about the Creation story and I put two and two together and came up with this concept. Children are like corn—some are small, some grow very large, their faces aren’t set as kids and they look pretty universal when they’re young. That’s why corn dolls have no distinctive faces and they’re always twisted and bent, like a bunch of kids moving around, waving back at you.”

His corn doll creations are colorful with acrylics that soak into the cottonwood making its thick corky bark lighter and vibrant. “The colors are like morning dust, lots of yellow—like corn ready to grow.”

Bert, a lover of the outdoors, also has original sterling silver jewelry with wildlife themes. “You’ll see a lot of elk, buffalo, and eagles in my work because I love animals and whenever I’m in the outdoors looking for cottonwood supplies, images get stuck in my head and end up in my jewelry—bears for strength, cornstalks as the tree of life, whirlwinds representing new beginnings.”

Then there’s Ernie Northrup from the Arizona village of Kykotsmovi on 3rd Mesa who unabashedly describes himself as a Hopi Renaissance Man. “I live Hopi, breathe Hopi, 24/7,” he says.

Northrup is long on talent and short on shyness: “It’s hard to say what I excel at because I make silver and gold jewelry, drums, flutes, wood carvings, weavings—anything and everything. I was taught to never say ‘I can’t’. Now I’m like the little engine that could; like Jabba The Hut from Star Wars—all-knowing.”

Acting as both craftsman for his own creations and middleman for the work of others, Northrup says, “Everything I create with my hands has a story to it. When I pick up a stone on the ground or a limb that fell from the tree, I change the spirit of it by bringing life to it. I put my soul into the outcome of it as a legacy to leave behind.”

The legacies displayed by Native American craftsmen and women (Navajo, Hopi, Aztec, Zuni, Shoshoni, and Tohono O’odham) are available for viewing—and sale—through Valentine’s Day.

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