Preserving native culture

The books have titles like “Taytay’s Memories” and “Swift Eagle of the Rio Grande.” Bound in sturdy hard covers, the thick volumes with their heavy ragged-edge pages evoke memories of the library on snowy childhood Saturdays, or the rush to finish the arithmetic lesson, and read a few precious pages before Mrs. Jones put the spelling list on the board.

These volumes are part of an exhibit entitled “Native American Picture Books of Change: The Art of Historic Children’s Editions,” currently at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe.


The show traces efforts by Anglo- American authors in the early 20th Century to accurately depict Native American lives, beliefs, customs and culture, first for Native children, then for children across the country.

MIAC’s curator of collections and registrar, Anita McNeese, stands in the intimate gallery that holds “Picture Books,” and gazes at pen-and-ink , black-and-white sketches of youngsters herding sheep, learning to weave, or following a band of wild turkeys up a mountain path.

She placed the show in a small space on purpose, to give the visitor an intimate look at the books. Special cases designed to look like open pages offer the feeling of finding a good read.

“They portrayed Native Americans as they were. Not just as part of the (romantic) American West,” she says softly. “The authors took actual tales of the tribes and adapted them to children. They had Native American illustrators.”

The collaboration resulted from a shift in the U.S. Government’s approach to Native American education in the second decade of the 20th Century, McNeese explains.

Before 1920, Indian boarding schools pushed children to assimilate into non-native life.

But after that date, the Bureau of Indian Affairs slowly began to encourage students to learn their own history and culture, as well as that of other Americans.

The movement began in New Mexico with author Elizabeth Willis DeHuff. A Georgia native who attended Barnard College and taught in the Philippines, she followed her husband, John David DeHuff, to the Santa Fe Indian School in 1913, where he had taken the job of superintendent.

Mrs. DeHuff fell in love with the Southwest, but “didn’t approve of the rigid treatment of Indian people, still found at that time,” Ms. McNeese says. “She (began) looking for a way to soften it — to give the kids a better experience away from home and family.”

Realizing that the children loved stories, she encouraged them to share their tribal folk takes, and began writing them down. Soon, the older boys added illustrations to the manuscripts. McNeese rattles off a list of young artists who collaborated with Mrs. DeHuff. “Fred Kabotie, Otis Polelonema, Velino Herrera, Velino Shije and Ma-Pe-Wi.”

By 1922, DeHuff was publishing her books, as well as giving them to lonely students when they entered school. First came “Taytay’s Tales,” with drawings by Kabotie and Polelonema.

Smiling, McNeese strolls to a case holding the book’s front illustration. “The frontis,” she calls it, adding, “Taytay is telling winter stories to his grandchildren. Notice the picture’s in color. But most of the (internal) illustrations would be in black-and-white.”

That’s because the exquisite image of boys listening to their grandfather was created by laying multiple plates of individual colors over each other in alignment, an expensive process known as color separation. Publishers could only afford to employ the method of reproducing pictures once or twice in a book.

Today, color separations are not used at all in children’s books, McNeese says. “And we don’t have pictures that are quite as lovely, quite as rich (as those in Taytay),” she sighs. “Taytay’s Tales” proved so successful that DeHuff published “Taytay’s Memories” in 1924, and “Swift Eagle of the Rio Grande” in 1928.

“ ‘Swift Eagle of the Rio Grande’ follows a year in the life of a young pueblo boy,” explains McNeese. “It tells how he learned to behave, and what was expected of him — his chores, and everything.”

She glances at a black-and-white illustration for “Swift Eagle,” with publisher’s notes about copper and silver plate reproduction scribbled in the margin. Pencil lines set registration points. She nods at the black x’s. “We decided not to erase them. They’re part of the illustration.”

This particular picture shows how Swift Eagle’s family eats. “Grandfather first, then father, and so on down the family.” McNeese thinks a moment. “Of course that was in 1928. It would be different today.” She laughs a little.

After DeHuff, more authors in the Southwest began to work with Indian stores. Columbia University-trained anthropologist Ruth Underhill used knowledge gathered in field studies among the Tohono O’Odham Indians, Navajos, and other groups to write for and about Indian children.

Ann Nolan Clark started writing when she needed books for her firstthrough fourth-graders at Tesugue Pueblo. After working with the Navajo, she created the bilingual Little Herder Series in the 1950s with the help of a Navajo interpreter.

The bilingual stories follow Diné children through their spring, summer, fall, and winter activities at home and in school. “They’re just beautiful,” whispers McNeese.

By 1960, Anglo authors and Native American illustrators had produced books for Navajo, Pueblo, and Lakota/Dakota children. McNeese nods at a volume written in English and Lakota Sioux.

Then the BIA dismantled the program that encouraged the collaborations between Native artists and Anglo writers. Many original illustrations for their books disappeared.

Fortunately, DeHuff maintained a close relationship with her illustrators until her death in the early 1980s, keeping many of their drawings, and her publishers’ proofs. She donated all of them to the School of American Research in Santa Fe at the end of her life. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture received them after it opened.

Still, the history of that exciting and unique literary era disappeared — until another very creative person accidentally rediscovered it.

“Rebecca Benes owned an art shop that sold illustrations,” explains McNeese. When some of Clark’s and DeHuff’s books came her way, “she became fascinated, and started researching their art work.”

That led her to MIAC’s archives, where she studied DeHuff’s illustrations. Benes also set about locating some of the missing drawings.

By 2004, she had gathered enough material to publish a reference book, “Native American Picture Books of Change: The Art of Historic Children’s Editions,” documenting the history and evolution of the story books created at Indian boarding schools.

McNeese proposed that the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture create an exhibit based on the book. Benes agreed, and with McNeese as curator, they developed the show.

The exhibit has two parts. The first, installed at MIAC through June 2006, focuses mostly on ‘’Swift Eagle of the Rio Grande,” with some text and illustrations from “Taytay’s Tales,” “Taytay’s Memories,” the Little Herder Series, and folk stories such as “The Pine Gum Baby,” from Taos Pueblo.

The second installment offers a broader sample of boarding-school stories. It is designed to tour the United States as part of TREX, the Museum of New Mexico’s Traveling Exhibits Program.

“It is truly a beautiful exhibit from a beautiful book,” says McNeese.

“Rebecca is a wonderful individual, and very passionate about getting the history and the illustrations (together).”

From October 2005.