Hano pueblo  Pastel on paper  Akiko Hirano

Tonita 

Tim Wong & Akiko Hirano

Fall, 2020.  The world is in the grip of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic. The virus has taken well over a million lives worldwide, and sickens hundreds of thousands more every single day. Flipping through the news at her home in Santa Fe, Kuro-e is numbed by the daily dose of bad news. When she turns to the obituary section, a familiar name catches her attention. 


Greer’s Mortuary of Winslow
Winslow, AZ 86047
Tonita Hamilton of Polacca, Arizona
June 23, 1936 – October 25, 2020

Tonita Hamilton, better known as Tonita Nampeyo, was a renowned Hopi potter and daughter of famed potter Fannie Nampeyo. Her grandmother was the Hopi woman simply known as Nampeyo, who revived the lost Sikyatki style Hopi pottery in the late 19th to early 20th century. The brief obituary hits Kuro-e like a sledgehammer. It takes her memory back to a far-away place on that day 32 years ago.

June 23, 1988.  Kuro-e was driving through the Southwest after attending a scientific conference in Texas. On that hot day, she arrived for the first time at the Hopi reservation in northern Arizona. She stopped at the visitor center to ask for permission to tour the pueblos. A young woman greeted her, “I am Kay, I’ll be your guide today.” After listening to the rules - no sketching, no recording, no cameras - Kuro-e followed Kay up an unpaved ramp to the top of the First Mesa.

The Hopi reservation consists of a dozen pueblos built on top of three mesas that stick out into the Arizona desert like three fingers. The First Mesa has three pueblos: Walpi, Sichomovi, and Hano; each has a small plaza with an underground ceremonial kiva. Kay was from Sichomovi, the middle pueblo. As they walked along the narrow passageways, Kuro-e noted that the houses were of traditional adobe construction; and unlike the pueblos she had visited in New Mexico, there were no Spanish missions attached to the Hopi pueblos. Kay explained, “The pueblos on the First Mesa were built after the 1680 Pueblo revolt against Spanish subjugation. In fact, the Hano pueblo we just walked past was settled by Tewa-speaking people escaping from Rio Grande pueblos in New Mexico during that time. We don’t have Spanish missions here.”

 

They reached the last pueblo Walpi at the tip of the mesa. Surrounded by sheer cliffs, it was obviously built there for defense. From there, Kuro-e could see the Second Mesa 10 miles to the west. “That’s the sacred Flower Rock, it gives us happiness,” said Kay, pointing to a large balanced rock near the kiva. “Where do people get water?” Kuro-e asked. “There is no running water or electricity; people haul water up here,” Kay replied. As they spoke, Kay saw several tourists poking around by themselves. She admonished them, “You’re not supposed to come up here without a guide!” “I didn’t see any sign,” one of them answered and walked away.

Back in the visitor center, Kuro-e asked if she could visit Tonita Nampeyo, a Hopi potter she had read about. “Her house is in Hano,” Kay gave her the direction. Kuro-e thanked her and walked back up the mesa. She found the adobe house and gingerly knocked on the weathered wooden door. “Come in!” a woman called out. Kuro-e pushed open the unlocked door and stepped into the single room with a bare floor.

Inside, a woman in her 50s was working on an unfired olla on a small square table. Kuro-e recognized her from pictures she had seen. Tonita motioned Kuro-e to pull a chair to sit down. While Kuro-e watched, Tonita picked up a yucca leaf, crushed it between her teeth, then twisted the fibers into a fine brush. She dipped the brush into a small dish of amber-color liquid, then deftly applied the liquid in a series of invisible lines onto the olla, while turning it with her left hand. After she finished, the pot did not seem to be painted at all.

 

Besides the working table, the only other furniture in the room was a bed and a couple of chairs. A 50-gallon metal drum full of water sat in a corner. In another corner were clothes hanging from a wooden pole; and next to the clothes hung several ears of corn. Through a small square window, Kuro-e could see the red desert spreading out towards the distant horizon.

The door suddenly swung open. “Happy birthday Grandma!” A little girl burst into the room, followed by a stocky man. Kuro-e stood up and introduced herself. “Eugene; and our granddaughter Yanaka,” Tonita’s husband extended a big hand. Kuro-e just noticed the home-made cake sitting in a corner of the table. “I didn’t know it’s your birthday, happy birthday Tonita!” Tonita handed the freshly painted olla to Eugene, “You can fire this one too.” Then, turning to Kuro-e, “Would you like to watch the firing?” “Of course, I'd love to!” Kuro-e said bye to Tonita and Yanaka, and followed Eugene down the mesa to their son’s place. She noticed Eugene walked with a limp.

It was a trailer house. Eugene led Kuro-e to the back, where he had already dug a shallow pit in the dirt for the firing. He took several pots from a milk crate and arranged them carefully in the pit, shielded them with chicken wire and slabs of clay, then piled cow chips over the pit and lit the fire. While Eugene tended the fire, Kuro-e watched, sitting on a tree stump. The sun was beating down mercilessly. She looked around for shades; there was none. Next to the trailer house was a small corral holding a skinny mare that kept flicking her ears against nuisance flies. Two coyote pelts hung from the corral railing. She thought about the irony of watching beautiful pottery being made in such a setting.

After the firing, Eugene carefully peeled away the chicken wire and let the pit cool down. The pots had turned from gray to a gorgeous golden yellow. The invisible lines that Tonita painted on the olla had transformed into her signature 'wing' motifs. Holding the still warm olla like a newborn baby, Kuro-e fell in love with it and pleaded to buy it on the spot. It has since remained as one of her most treasured possessions.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Kuro-e puts down the obituary section and walks over to the Spanish cabinet in a corner of her sitting room. She retrieves the olla from the cabinet and runs her hand over its smooth curves. She can still visualize how Tonita painted each one of those fine lines with a yucca leaf and how Eugene lifted it from the fire pit to show her with a big grin. Turning the olla over to look at Tonita's signature and her corn clan symbol on the bottom, a folded piece of paper falls out. It is a letter from Tonita, dated January 24, 1998, several years before Eugene passed away.


Dear Kuro-e, Thank you for remembering us with your card during the holiday. Eugene and Yanaka are well …

Reading the letter again, memories seep back like fragments of a dream. So much has transpired. How did it all happen

Tonita Nampeyo olla  Photo  Tim Wong