Jennifer Berg, the Native Knitter, grew up on the Navajo Reservation on the New Mexico/Arizona border and was exposed to many different types of art. But it wasn’t until she took up knitting a few years ago that she started designing patterns to show off Native designs.
Photo by Katie Lively Photography.
Stephanie Tafoya is a fifth-generation potter, learning to hand build, carve, fire, and even mine her own clay – just as her ancestors did — while growing up on the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico.
Her polished blackwork vessels, with designs inspired by her Spanish and Native American culture, follow the traditions honed by her great-grandmother, Margaret Tafoya, who was lauded for her skill in crafting hand-built large clay vessels.
Interest in Indigenous-made art is blossoming. For instance, print-on-demand company Spoonflower recently featured Indigenous designers and Etsy created an Indigenous Artists Collective.
“The appreciation for art by indigenous makers has been steady for several years and 2022 was the biggest market season for several associations and businesses in Santa Fe,” says Tafoya, whose pottery is sold at King Galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The misappropriation of native symbols is sometimes a concern of Indigenous makers. “We want to share and educate others about our culture and the symbols that are significant to us,” says Bethany McCord, business manager at Mahota Textiles, a tribal-owned business in Oklahoma. “Taking native symbols and using them inappropriately, or without consent is disrespectful and wrong. We create meaningful products that share our culture with the world. The last thing we want is for people to take something special and misuse it.”
Indigenous makers are happy about the burgeoning interest in their craft and culture. Here are just a few of their stories.
Stephanie Tafoya is a fifth-generation potter who creates her blackware vessels in the traditional ways her ancestors did, even mining her own clay.
Tafoya uses traditional methods of firing her pottery, which she does at the home of her Aunt Linda Tafoya-Sanchez, also an accomplished potter and Tafoya’s mentor. Her favorite part of her pottery-making is hand-carving designs into the clay. She is inspired by nature and often incorporates family symbols, such as the bear claw, into her work.
Photos 1-4 courtesy of King Galleries, New Mexico. Photos 5-6 courtesy of Keegan Parker.
Stephanie Tafoya, the Native Potter
Tafoya was only seven when her father, also an artist, taught her how to work clay. As she got older, she focused on jewelry, graduating from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles and receiving a Colored Stone Degree from the Geological Institute of America.
But in 2018 she “craved working with clay when I understood how vital it is to keep the family tradition going.” It took her four years under the mentorship of her aunt, experienced potter Linda Tafoya-Sanchez, to perfect her techniques, “using the same methods our ancestors did,” sometimes taking months to process the clay to get it workable.
“Each piece is coil built, hand carved, stone polished, and traditionally fired,” says Tafoya, who often incorporates family symbols, such as a bear claw design, in her work. “It took me four years to finally get a groove and have consistency with the pieces I’d produce.”
She’s learned a lot since then.
“When I first started, I didn’t work the clay enough and pack down my coils right. This caused air bubbles and cracks in my pieces.” Now, she says, she works the clay for several hours prior to building her pieces, “taking just a little more time on each step so the next step goes that much smoother. I think there will always be a learning curve as I try to create designs that I haven’t seen before.”
Her favorite part of the process is carving designs in the clay and “seeing the design pop out.”
“I’m proud to be able to do the same processes as my ancestors did, and that my family still does today. I get an indescribable feeling when one of my finished pieces sits next to one of my family members. I admire it so much, knowing how much work went into creating that one piece.”
Tayler Gutierrez, the founder of ‘Kamama Beadwork, puts a contemporary spin on “old-style” Cherokee beadwork for her designs and loves to create unusual color combinations.
Tayler Gutierrez, ‘Kamama Beadwork
Tayler Gutierrez, founder of ‘Kamama Beadwork, beads just about anything. Purses. Hat bands and brims. Moccasins. Clothing. Jewelry. Beading, she says, is one way she keeps her Cherokee culture alive. But she never thought it would be a business until she began posting her work on Instagram, and people wanted to buy it.
Gutierrez grew up in northwest Washington state, now lives in Oklahoma, and is studying fine art at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She likes to put a contemporary spin on traditional Cherokee designs, whether she is making jewelry, pottery, or baskets.
“Art is how I have always expressed myself and has been a source of happiness,” says Gutierrez, who learned to bead while working at This is The Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City. “I love my culture and am so proud of all the beautiful parts of my heritage. My art is one way I keep my culture alive in my life.”
Even her company name is a bow to her roots. ‘Kamama (pronounced kaw-mama) is the Cherokee word for butterfly, she explains, likening the transformation of raw materials into something new, akin to the caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly.
Gutierrez, who loves creating unique color combinations, makes and sells her jewelry in small batches and is a one-woman show, doing everything from marketing to fulfilling orders. “There’s been a huge learning curve in the business side of things, figuring out the best way to be productive so that my day-to-day life can run smoothly and without stress.”
A pair of earrings can take from a few hours to several days to make, and one of her greatest challenges “is charging what I’m worth. I want my work to be accessible. It’s a hard balance.”
Anyone is welcome to wear her jewelry, she notes, so there is no misappropriation of her Cherokee-inspired designs. “I don’t sell things that I wouldn’t feel comfortable with anyone wearing. I feel grateful that I can live off my beadwork and that folks outside of Native communities are recognizing the beauty and worth of it as well.”
When Jennifer Berg became obsessed with knitting a few years ago, she wanted to incorporate Native designs into her projects but found few patterns. So she started designing her own.
Jennifer Berg, The Native Knitter
As a Navajo woman (or asdzáán in her native language), Jennifer Berg’s heritage is deeply woven into her identity. Berg grew up on the Navajo reservation along the New Mexico/Arizona border, where her family has owned a Navajo jewelry store for four generations.
A few years ago, Berg took up knitting and was drawn to incorporating native designs into her work.
“Textiles are an integral part of Navajo (or Diné) artistry and knitting felt like a way to share the beauty of my culture’s designs,” says Berg, whose work is influenced by the colors and landscapes of her childhood as well as the designs found on Native pottery, jewelry, woven rugs, and sandpainting.
But in looking for patterns, she found not only a dearth of Native designs but few Indigenous knitters. “On top of being a minority in the knitting community, I realized that there weren’t really any authentic Native designs. So I began designing.”
Soon, magazines were asking her for designs, which can be found on her website, at Ravelry, and other places. She donates 5 percent of the proceeds from her self-published patterns to the Coalition to Stop Violence against Native Women.
Turning her passion into a business was a slow-growth experience, she says. For instance, it takes her anywhere from four months to a year to develop a sweater pattern.
“I view each piece that I create as a wearable work of art, and I tweak each design for months until I think it’s ready for others to create. I want to emulate my heritage in each piece. I tend to come up with a theme or concept and build my pieces around them.”
While she mostly sells patterns, non-knitters wanted her products, so she created a few physical items to sell.
Owning your own business means you wear “so many different hats: designer, marketer, publisher,” she adds, but she has learned to budget her time and hired a project manager, who helps her stay organized and “stay creative longer because I’m not weighed down by logistics.”
She has also seen a jump in interest in Indigenous work, with companies reaching out to her for “authentic Indigenous designs.”
Anishinaabe textile designer Destiny Seymour, creator of Indigo Arrows, works from her home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she has a basement office and storage area. She does her printmaking at an outside studio, but hangs her printed linens in her basement to dry, then irons them and stores them in bins.
Destiny Seymour, Indigo Arrows
Anishinaaba textile artist Destiny Seymour, founder of Indigo Arrows, worked in a Manitoba, Canada, architecture firm for a decade and loved being part of the interior design team on large projects. But it bothered her that there weren’t textiles or furniture representing the history and culture of Indigenous nations from that territory.
“I saw a lack of textiles from my territory, and I filled that gap. I wanted to see Indigenous representation in interior spaces, design magazines, and in stores.”
Inspired by the ancient pottery shards being cataloged at the Manitoba Museum, she began to sketch design ideas and tape them on her walls at home.
“I didn’t set out to become a pattern maker or textile designer,” says Seymour, who lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “I just loved working in the studio and playing with designs.”
In 2014, she took print-making lessons and began making tea towels for herself and her family, and in 2016 she left her job “to pursue my dream of creating an Indigenous-owned day job.”
It took her two years to source fabrics and supplies to create her first batch of linens, continuing to work as an interior designer to fund her burgeoning business. “I worked with my dad to make sure I was being respectful to the history of these patterns. I wanted the patterns to be subtle but feel welcoming. I also wanted them named in our language, Anishinaabemowin.”
When she sells her items, she likes to tell where the patterns originated. For instance, the Bezhig pattern of circles and lines is inspired by the patterns etched on a 400-year-old elk antler scraper tool she saw at the Museum. “My designs have become a teaching tool for many customers.
“I am so proud that I started this project with my dad. I’m grateful that customers understand and appreciate the history behind my designs.”
On her website, Seymour advises buyers to beware when shopping for Indigenous-made jewelry, textiles, or home goods. “Do some research and make sure you are buying from an Indigenous maker,” Seymour urges. Each purchase, she says, creates space for an Indigenous-owned small business and supports the revival of traditional Indigenous crafts.
“(This) supports Indigenous families and communities. Indigenous-made products have stories behind them. Each Nation and Tribe has its own cultural designs, traditional crafts, and languages. It’s important to understand how diverse Indigenous peoples are. Cultural appropriation is adopting (stealing) elements of these designs and claiming them as your own, particularly when non-Indigenous makers profit from the sale of Native-inspired crafts. Research the maker(s) behind the designs before buying.”
Oklahoma-based Mahota Textiles was the vision of Chickasaw textile designer Margaret Roach Wheeler, is owned by the Chickasaw tribe, and uses commercial looms to create a variety of textiles.
Photo courtesy of Oakes Creative House and Mahota Textiles.
Oklahoma-based Mahota Textiles is the first textile company owned by a North American tribe, according to the company website, and was founded in 2018 by the award-winning weaver, Margaret Roach Wheeler, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation.
“We’re makers of art, of story, the threads that connect the inspiration of our ancestors to all of us in a modern world,” Wheeler has said. “These tell our stories; these create our brand.”
Mahota textiles are commercially woven at a mill, not handwoven, and the business is tribally owned by the Chickasaw Nation.
“People are always surprised that we do not personally own the business and that we did not weave the fabric ourselves,” explains Bethany McCord, business manager, who has been with Mahota from the beginning.
The business idea, she says, was presented to the Chickasaw Nation by Weaver, who found that using a handloom to create designs common to Chickasaw and Southeastern Tribal culture was limiting.
Mahota Textiles, McCord notes, was an opportunity to create products with traditional symbols and designs on a larger scale by using commercial looms. Although tribally owned, the business operates as an LLC, “so we are similar to any small business with a small staff and limited budget. Using American-made, high-quality fabric and materials is important to us, as well as sourcing local seamstresses and artisans to assist with design and production. Logistically, that means a lot of research and planning.”
Creating a business plan for a tribally-owned company was the first obstacle, McCord says, and the tribe consulted with Margo Selby, a British designer, and artist with experience in both hand and commercial weaving. “She gave us a lot of guidance and support to develop a successful textile business.”
The tribe then sought an American mill to create cotton fabrics “in the quality that we required while also accommodating our small-scale yardage minimums.” (Product weaving is currently done at a Pennsylvania mill.)
“Our heritage is a big part of our business,” McCord notes. “Creating meaningful designs inspired by our cultural heritage was key from the beginning. Each design has a story and is an opportunity for us to tell that story, share our traditional symbols and their meaning, while also educating and enlightening others.”
Roberta G. Wax
Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. A former news reporter, her freelance articles and projects have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, from the Los Angeles Times and Emmy magazine to Cloth Paper Scissors, Somerset Studio, Craftideas, Belle Armoire, etc. She has also designed for craft companies. Although she has no art background she was a crafty Girl Scout leader. www.creativeunblock.com