For centuries, Native American women didn’t earn recognition for their wares, but modern makers are ensuring it doesn’t happen again.

By Amanda Ogle
November 30, 2020
Left: Penelope Joe; Right: Virginia Yazzie-Ballenger
Credit: Left: Courtesy of Penelope Joe; Right: Courtesy of Virginia Yazzie-Ballenger

In the late ‘90s, Barbara Jean Teller Ornelas, a fifth-generation Master Navajo weaver, traveled with her kids to Los Angeles for a Vincent van Gogh exhibit that her daughter wanted to see at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Teller Ornelas noticed that each van Gogh painting had a story with it explaining why he made the piece and what it represented. After viewing van Gogh’s impressionist works, they wandered across the hallway to see a collection of old Navajo weavings. But to Teller Ornelas’ dismay, the weavings were only labeled with simple dates. She asked her kids to look at the dates on the pieces, all of which had no corresponding names. “Who were these weavers?” she asked her children. “Where did they live and come from? What part of the reservation were they from? What were they thinking when they made these pieces? Were they safe on their homeland, or hiding from the Cavalry? Were they making it day by day, or rich with lots of animals and food?” It was something for them all to think about, as Teller Ornelas noted to them. “Van Gogh was halfway around the world and was able to express himself, and somebody had enough wisdom to save his words,” she told her children. “And somebody here had the wisdom to save all these pieces, but they forgot our story.”

Too often throughout history, this narrative has rung true with Native Americans, but especially Native American women artists, who have been notoriously unrecognized for their work. Prior to the first half of the 20th century, if a Native American woman created a rug, basket, jewelry, pottery, or other artistic piece, it was usually only attributed to the tribe itself: “a Navajo rug,” perhaps, or “a Zuni bowl,” or sometimes the warrior who wore the piece, but never a woman’s name, and never a story of how the piece was created. According to Emerald Tanner, a fifth-generation trader with Tanner’s Indian Arts in Gallup, New Mexico, it was uncommon for a rug to have a woman’s name attached to it despite the fact that Native women have been weaving and making for hundreds of years.

Navajo woman crafting blanket
Credit: History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

According to Tanner, things began to shift in the 1930s and ‘40s with Della Casa Appa, a female Zuni jeweler and trailblazer who helped Native American women artists get the recognition they deserved. Appa began making jewelry as her silversmith husband’s assistant. After he died, she was left with a family to support so she began doing her own silversmith work, selling her pieces out of her apron on the Zuni Pueblo. “Prior to that, it was socially unacceptable for women to be jewelers, as it was a man’s craft,” says Tanner. “She really set the bar for women artists everywhere.”

Since this time, female Native American makers have been becoming more and more recognized for not only their artistic endeavors, but for preserving their histories and earning the respect they deserve from their trades. Today, 75 percent of Native American art comes from the Gallup, New Mexico area, where Tanner’s Indian Arts is located, and where Emerald Tanner works with Native American women to promote their work and traditions. “We like to continue their stories, and we work with generations of artists that learned from their mothers and grandmothers,” says Tanner. “It’s not uncommon for us to work with artists where my grandfather worked with their grandfather.”

Today, Native American women’s pieces have been featured in world-renowned museums, with their creators being recognized and celebrated on a national scale. Just last year at the 2019 Golden Globes, Queen’s lead guitarist, Brian May, wore an authentic Zuni bolo tie to the ceremony, which was made by Zuni jeweler April Unkestine. In June of 2019, the Minneapolis Institute of Art presented the first ever major exhibition of Native women artwork, Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, by over 115 artists. (The exhibition moved on to the Frist Museum in Nashville, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and is now at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa.) And since late 2018, the Met has had an ongoing exhibition of the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of Native artwork, which Tanner helped curate by connecting the museum with artists. This is the first exhibition of Native American art to be presented in the American Wing of the Met since it was established in 1924.

Travel + Leisure talked with five Native American women makers who are carrying on their cultures and traditions, and earning the respect they deserve along the way.

Barbara Jean Teller Ornelas
Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Jean Teller Ornelas

Barbara Jean Teller Ornelas

Fifth-generation Master Navajo weaver Barbara Jean Teller Ornelas is known for her Two Grey Hills style of weaving. She enjoys using her weaves to tell stories, a gift that’s been passed down through her family name — Teller. Her great grandfather was a Keeper of Stories, and when he returned from the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation, after being forced there alongside thousands of other Native Americans, he was given the last name Teller because of his storyteller role. Teller Ornelas has traveled the world with her sister, Lynda, teaching Navajo weaving, and also taught her children to weave, both of whom are award-winning weavers. Like most Native American women makers of their time, Teller Ornelas’ grandmothers and great grandmothers never had their names associated with their weaves. “I feel like with my name being attached with all my pieces, I’m honoring them,” she says. “One hundred years from now, when we’re the old weavers, our pieces are going to come with stories. We’re not going to be the unknown weaver anymore. Our names are going to be with each piece we do.” Her pieces are part of the permanent collection at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, and her work has won numerous awards, including Best of Division at the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market. Use her website to contact her about commissions, and find her books, “How to Weave a Navajo Rug” and “Spider Woman’s Children,” written alongside her sister Lynda, online.

Rebecca T. Begay
Credit: Courtesy of Rebecca T. Begay

Rebecca T. Begay

Having only been working in silversmithing and jewelry for 14 years, Rebecca T. Begay has already made a name for herself and her designs. Specializing in tufa casting — a Navajo technique created in the 1800s where tufa stone (a compressed volcanic ash stone) is carved to make impressions and designs and molten metal is poured into the impressions to create bracelets, earrings, etc. — Begay has won numerous awards alongside her husband, Darryl, for their works, including a fellowship from the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts and Best of Show for a concha belt at the Santa Fe Indian Market. Darryl taught Rebecca the tufa casting technique, and together they create their pieces. “I like to focus on the drawing and the carving of tufa casting, as my main passion is drawing,” says Rebecca. “After I draw and carve my images or designs on the tufa stone, my husband does the casting.” Tufa casting is usually a 14 to 17 step process, and a new mold has to be created for every piece. The Begays are passing on the tufa casting tradition to their three sons, who are interested in learning. “It’s a privilege and honor to carry on the tradition,” says Rebecca. “Everyone’s an individual, but we are all Navajo, and I’m proud to carry on what our ancestors did and pass that down to our sons.” You can find the Begays contact info on their website, and their work is in many galleries in Arizona and New Mexico, including Tanner’s Indian Arts, Sunwest Silver Company, Garland’s Indian Jewelry, and Faust Gallery

Penelope Joe
Credit: Courtesy of Penelope Joe

Penelope Joe

At just 18 years old, Navajo painter Penelope Joe has already achieved what many artists dream of: having their pieces purchased by the Smithsonian. Based off of stories told to her by her grandfather, Joe’s pieces are full of color, history, and Navajo traditions. She began learning to paint when she was five years old from her seven uncles. “I remember after we’d eat dinner, after ranch work, my uncles would get crayons and paper and we’d all do art,” she says. Her favorite story of her grandfather’s that she has interpreted into a painting is a Navajo tale about four sacred horses, which won her first place at the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial when she was just 13 years old. “My grandpa was always teaching me about my Navajo cultural stories all the time,” she says. “He’d say PJ, don’t forget who you are. Say your clan name, say where you’re from. These stories are of our Diné [Navajo] people. Carry them strong and proud.” This painting now travels in galleries, and the Navajo Nation Museum brought it around the Navajo reservation, teaching children about the story of the four horses. Joe continues to paint pieces based on Navajo storytelling, and many of her works include the Navajo Tree of Life and other important symbols. “It’s so important to preserve our storytelling so my people don’t forget. We’re losing our knowledge and our language. I want my youth to understand our stories so they can tell future generations,” she says. For commission information, contact Penelope via Instagram or Facebook, or find her work at Tanner’s Indian Arts, Richardson Trading Post in Gallup, or Perry Null Trading in Gallup.

April Unkestine
Credit: Courtesy of April Unkestine

April Unkestine

A lapidary artist and silversmith from the Zuni Pueblo, April Unkestine’s work has appeared in the Smithsonian and the Heard Museum, and even around the neck of Queen’s lead guitarist, Brian May, at the 2019 Golden Globes. Unkestine’s work often includes the Zuni sunface, an ancient symbol honoring the sacred Sun Father, and includes gorgeous materials like turquoise, coral, and mother of pearl. Legendary Della Casa Appa also has a special place in Unkestine’s heart, as she was her husband’s grandmother. In regards to having her name recognized with her pieces, Unkestine says she’s very blessed. “A lot of our elders were never recognized,” she says. “I remember my grandma used to make jewelry but it was always under a male family member’s name.” Unkestine is teaching her youngest daughter her artistic skills, and her oldest son enjoys making Zuni fetishes — animal carvings made from stone – with his dad. You can find April’s work via Facebook, and at Tanner’s Indian Arts and Keshi the Zuni Connection in Santa Fe.

Virginia Yazzie-Ballenger
Credit: Courtesy of Virginia Yazzie-Ballenger

Virginia Yazzie-Ballenger

While competing in Native American pageants in high school and for Miss Indian New Mexico, Virginia Yazzie-Ballenger had to dress in her traditional Navajo attire, sparking an interest in fashion that has led her to numerous awards and even a fashion show in Russia. Her mother taught her how to make traditional Navajo velvet skirts and shirts, and she began sewing as a hobby in the early ‘80s. She started exhibiting at the Santa Fe Indian Market in 1984, and began designing and making Navajo-inspired clothing full time around 1988. During this time, Yazzie-Ballenger met buyers for QVC and sold Navajo-inspired pillows to them, which sold out on QVC in 10 minutes. She also began a working relationship with the Smithsonian, rolling her designs into the buyers’ hotel room for the Smithsonian catalog selection. “The first item they purchased from us was a black cotton tiered skirt with designs of kachinas [personifications of ancestral spirits] on it,” she says. “They bought 70 for their catalog and within four days of dropping the catalog, the skirt was selling four times more than anything else in the catalog.” In 1999, she opened her retail store, Navajo Spirit, in Gallup, New Mexico, where she creates traditional wares and modern clothing. Last year, her dress “The Slender One” won Best of Show at the Santa Fe Indian Market. You can find her work at her store in Gallup.