Native American Artists Leave Images of Healthy Lifestyles for Future Generations

Native American Artists Leave Images of Healthy Lifestyles for Future Generations

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Above picture: A traditional dance scene at Albuquerque’s All Indian Pueblo Cultural Center shows Thomas Montoya’s 25-foot painting of an Ohkay Owingey deer dancer in the background. (Photos by Colleen Keane)

Part 2. Read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.

SANTA FE, N.M. -- On a clear, windy day last September, Anthony Moquino, a former governor of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, walked quickly up the steep stone steps that lead to a breathtaking panoramic view of Santa Fe’s northern horizon that on this day is dotted with billowing white clouds. Struck by the beauty of the place, he stopped for a moment before entering the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on Museum Hill.

Moquino was on a mission to locate artwork by his late father, Ignacio Moquino. He had been told that 13 of his father’s original paintings were in the museum’s Dorothy Dunn Collection. Moquino said that his father, who painted under his Zia Pueblo name, Waka Yeni Dewa, was one of the first American Indian painters who learned easel painting from Dunn at the Santa Fe Indian School in the 1930s.

Moquino recalled how later on his father opened up a studio with fellow students, Navajo artists Harrison Begay and Quincy Tahoma and Taos artist Pop Chalee (Marina Lujan) on Canyon Road in Santa Fe. There they continued the style Dunn taught them: painting scenes of traditional life -- before westernization -- on flat surfaces from canvas to walls.

Montoya Image

Above, artist Ignacio Moquino, known as Waka Yeni Dewa, depicted how children were taught respect for the sun, earth, plants and animals.

At that time, they sold their paintings for a few dollars, according to records kept at the museum. Today, Moquino said they could be worth thousands.

Even more than the monetary value, Moquino said, the historical images and the meanings behind them are priceless, maybe even more important now than they were back then.

Healthy Relationship to Nature

“These artists, like my dad, profiled daily life that was true to their nature,” he said, explaining that the lifestyle focused on healthy eating and exercise.

“In today’s society, we don’t have that relationship with nature. We are bombarded with fast foods and we forget about the health risks of a sedentary lifestyle,” he explained, emphasizing the impact of diabetes, which continues to devastate tribal communities.

At the museum, Valerie Verzuh, curator of individually catalogued collections, greeted Moquino then led him to a room on the museum’s bottom floor to see the Dorothy Dunn Collection.

Wearing specially made gloves to keep oils from getting on the artwork, Verzuh laid down one after another of Waka Yeni Dewa’s paintings on a light table for Moquino to see, some for the first time.

Among the scenes are corn growing in fields, women gathering wheat, hunters riding horses and dancers paying homage to animals and nature while children play with Kachina dolls to teach them respect for the sun, the rain, the plants and animals.

In “Thunder Bird and Fawns," an image of a thunderbird, a legendary creature with unearthly powers, hovers over a mother deer and two fawns.

“Deer are the essence of our life,” Moquino said.

Wearing the black plastic gloves Verzuh delicately places “Mythical Corn Ceremony,” a painting Waka drew in water colors in 1938, on the light table. The painting depicts traditional Zia Pueblo dancers and drummers paying tribute to the ripening of the corn.

“The existence of the corn represents the survival of the people,” Moquino said.


In the above close up of a mural, artist Ohkay Owingeh’s deer dancers giving thanks for the rain, animals and other beauties of life.

Looking closer at the images in the painting, Moquino tells Verzuh, “You can see they are raising the corn and giving gifts back to the spirits that gave it to us.” He explains that such images preserve a visual history of what is important traditionally--healthy food and active lives.

Moquino continues that his father’s 1934 painting, “Baby Playing with Kachina Doll,” which he created at age 17, aims to instill children with these values early on. “At young ages, children were already being enculturated into the Pueblo world to appreciate everything the earth provides,” he said.

Messages From the Past

Moquino stressed that paintings from his father’s era and the messages they hold exist for anyone to see and learn about, but they might not be obvious to the untrained eye.


Photo: Anthony Moquino examines American Indian paintings, including his father's, with curator Valerie Veruz at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.

Every day crowds of travelers walk by Taos painter Pop Chalee’s mystical images of horses and buffalos at the Albuquerque International Airport. Each is about 16-feet long and hangs above the elevators that run up to the second floor at the airline check in.

Paintings from that era can also be found at the Wheelwright Museum, also on Santa Fe‘s Museum Hill. As manager of the Case Trading Post, located on the Wheelwright’s bottom floor, Ken Williams is going about his daily routine of customer service, arranging art and preparing for meetings with Native American artists. Williams, Northern Arapaho and Seneca, is one of the few Native American art buyers in the United States.

Walking across the creaky, wooden floors, Williams’s gives a concise history of more than a century of American Indian art, describing how it evolved in more contemporary times.

Art from the Dunn era are among the treasures. Like Waka Yeni Dewa’s work, Tonita Pena, Pablita Velarde and Vincent Mirabel’s paintings depict scenes showing indigenous people’s natural co-existence with nature.

“It was important for the artists to uphold those images--and the messages behind them--for the next generation,” he said.

Relevance for the 21st Century

Marketing director Tazbah McCullah said that the All Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque has created a project that provides a contemporary venue for that to happen. She is the marketing director at the All Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, which includes a restaurant, museum, exhibitions and education programs.

Next fall, she plans to roll out the Native Fusion Culinary Tour, which includes having a Pueblo feast, “comprised of the three sisters--beans, corn and squash,” she explained.

After the feast, visitors will learn about traditional farming methods, how pueblo foods like piki, a rolled bread made from corn meal, and oven bread baked in outdoor ovens called hornos, are made and their nutritional value.

Art from the Dorothy Dunn era and beyond surrounds the dance ground at the All Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

On one side, a mural by Santa Clara Pueblo artist Pablita Velarde depicts a dance honoring the buffalo, the deer and the antelope, while on the other side the late Jemez Pueblo artist Jose Rey Toledo portrays 12 dancers giving thanks for the beauties of life, abundant rain and plentiful crops.

Across the dance grounds, a dramatic mural more than 25-feet high painted by Thomas Montoya depicts the solitary figure of an Ohkay Owingeh deer dancer in motion. He’s holding sticks representing the front legs of a deer, while one foot is on the ground and the other raised.

With these images of dancers dancing, hunters riding horses, people working in fields, Moquino said that the cultural tour will also remind people of the old ways, ways he said that can lead to healthy lifestyles, rather than ones that take their lives away.

Looking at the last of his father’s painting, tear come to Moquino’s eyes. “To survive,” he reflects, “everything still revolves around healthy living.”

Colleen Keane wrote this article for the Navajo Times with support from a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. The Navajo Times and Koahnic Broadcast Corporation represented Native media in the fellowship, which includes 17 news agencies from across the country.