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The West of Us

A new book explores the people and ideas shaping our region and future

January 27, 2010, 12:00 am


Roxanne Swentzell’s hands create stories in clay. Her sculptures—many of people with wonderfully recognizable expressions—offer a glimpse into the Pueblo culture. Her sculptures often parody the confusion of the traditional Native world meeting the modern non-Native world.

Her work is exhibited in her own gallery as part of the Pueblo of Pojoaque Poeh Center.

I believe that my art comes from way inside me, and who I am happens to be from this place. You can’t detach the two. I am part of the Santa Clara Pueblo, and we have been in this area for hundreds and hundreds of years.

From a Pueblo perspective, our aim is to have balance: balance between night and day, summer and winter, male and female. Everything has to be balanced by the opposite or it becomes misaligned. If that happens, bad things follow.

My father was German. He taught philosophy and had a very European mentality.

My mother grew up as a Pueblo Indian girl. Somehow they got together. Talk about extremes! My father saw me as an artist. My mother sees me as a struggling person, I think, trying to make sense of it all. In the world my mother comes from, calling yourself an artist doesn’t make sense because you just do what you do. If you made art, you didn’t call it art. We didn’t sign our names to artwork. It just was. In my dad’s world, there is Michelangelo and all the great artists of the world. I grew up more with my mother’s side of the world because that’s where we lived.

I started sculpting as a very small child. My mother was a potter, and clay was part of our life. She calls us mud people. I had an intense speech impediment, and no one could understand me. I found that sculpting little figures about how I felt was how I could communicate. I made little people, beginning when I was four or five years old, and I never stopped. The figurines were all about emotions, how I felt. I remember making a little girl crying on a desk because I hated school. I’d sculpt the things I saw, like my father reading a book, just scenes from my life.

Pueblos believe in rings of centeredness. We understand the need for having a center place, a heart, a soul, or being centered in oneself. Even the way the buildings themselves—the pueblos—are built, and the ceremonial houses, all focus to the center, toward what we call the Gaia, the mother. The theory is that it brings us back home. We are the people of this place. We didn’t come from somewhere else. We’ll point to the ground and say we’re from this spot. There’s something about knowing this that makes me feel grounded.

Pueblos are amazing tribes. Unlike the rest of the tribes in the United States, they were not moved from their original place. We are still in our homeland. We’ve continued our dances and our language up till now. Most other tribes have broken away from that. So to me, the Pueblos have a really strong sense of core, though it’s been shaken a lot from the outside. I sometimes think that what I’m doing with my pieces is trying to find the core of my being.

Here is a sculpture of a woman in her traditional clothes drinking a soda. She shows the conflict of two cultures coming together. A very real conflict. Sometimes it boggles my brain to see two worlds in the same place. When I watch our traditional dances, I feel like I’ve gone back in time. Especially when the men wear animal skins and branches and mud. But then a car drives by. These two worlds don’t go together, this very old tradition next to modern society. These feelings come out in my work.

I always think of my artwork somewhat as my babies. My pieces are like children who are born through me. This woman has her babies emerging out of the pot on her head. The pot we are all born of is the earth. And she is Mother Earth.

My mother is an architect who grew up building mud houses. When HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] housing came in to help the Pueblos set up tract housing, it destroyed the structure of the pueblo architecturally. She was distraught. One more way of destroying our culture is to give people free housing. We don’t know how to fix those kinds of houses. We know how to fix mud. HUD housing killed a lot of tradition for the Pueblos in the name of help. Mom went to architecture school so she could fight it and learn how to approach those kinds of people.

My mother talks about growing up on the pueblo where you had all your aunts, uncles, and family all around you. The kids are raised by the community. When my kids were growing up, I had my aunt next door, my brother next to her. His kids and my kids roamed around. The doors were all open. The traditional buildings of the pueblo were built around a central outside area. You can think of it as rings around the place. It’s a lot harder when you break it all up into separate neighborhoods and separate yards. There were no yards back then. The outside was everyone’s outside. Today my son lives next door. My daughter actually has a piece of land right next to his. And that’s a tradition too: your family stays within the pueblo.

When George Rivera offered to let me make this building into a gallery, it was just an old pigeon coop, full of pigeons. When it came time to fix it up, my entire family, grandmas, aunts, babies, uncles, and all the teenage kids, came to help. We don’t hire outside contractors with hard hats to come in. Instead, we do it together. My sisters and aunties plastered the walls. All the kids mixed up the mud. That is a very cultural thing for Pueblos. If someone’s house needs fixing, the family comes. I guess it is similar to a barn raising in other cultures.

There is a big sculpture out front of the Poeh. The girl is holding a little bead. I call it Window to the Past. Throughout these hills are old ruins of our ancestors. Often I’ll find little beads from old jewelry. We get so excited when we find an arrowhead or a bead because it is a very real connection to the past. The beads have a little hole, and in my sculpture, the girl is looking through into the past. That’s us.

This is a Pueblo clown. They’re striped figures. They’re slightly different depending on what pueblo you are at, but basically, all the pueblos have them. They are sacred. They fool around, they play tricks, but for a specific purpose. They love to make fun of the tribal officials, for instance, because they’re important. They act as reflections for people.

I remember as a little girl watching five or six clowns at a pueblo. They were holding something. I could tell that it was important to them. They started fighting over it, and I thought whatever it was must be very precious. Finally one clown ended up with it and the rest of them left.

The clown who had it sat down on the ground. I waited to see what it was. Eventually he dropped his hand and got up and walked away. There was never anything in his hand. It was so profound to me because we make all kinds of fluff about nothing, and the clowns were teasing us for that.

I don’t believe I can make art detached from my culture. I’m a woman, so my work has a female influence. I’m a mother, so it has a mother aspect. Because I’m from Santa Clara, my work reflects that, because that’s who I am.

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