Old but New–Pueblo Storytellers

In the late 1950’s, Helen Cordero was 45 years old, and the mother of six children.  She and her cousin’s wife, Juanita, had been doing bead and leather work to sell to the tourists who came to Cochiti Pueblo, south of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Both women were skilled artisans, but the leather and beads were so costly that there was little profit to be gained from selling their handiwork.

“Why don’t you make pottery?” their grandmother suggested.  “You don’t have to buy anything.  Mother Earth gives it all to you.”

Juanita was already an accomplished potter.  But Helen had to learn, and it was a struggle.  After six months of practice, her pots still didn’t look right.  That was when Juanita suggested she try making figures.

“It was like a flower blooming,” Helen was to say later.  Small frogs, birds, animals and eventually little people came to life.  The first time she showed them at a festival a collector bought them all and ordered more, including a 250-piece Nativity set.

In 1964, Helen was asked to make a larger figure with children.  Some potters were making mother and child figures, but Helen wanted something different.  She thought of her grandfather, one of the great Pueblo storytellers and preservers of tradition.  She remembered his voice and made her first storyteller figure a portrait of him, with his five grandchildren.  One of those grandchildren is Helen.

Helen Cordero, honored as a Santa Fe Living Treasure, passed away in 1994.  Today more than three hundred potters in thirteen pueblos have created storytellers—men, women, animals, birds and mythical figures.

 

I saw my first storyteller at Acoma Pueblo in the early 1990’s.  I loved it so much that I bought it from the potter, a wonderful artist named Peggy Garcia.  My little storyteller is a woman with five children, beautifully fashioned and painted.  I gave it to my mother, whose 45 years of teaching elementary school made her a true storyteller.  Now that she’s gone I have it back.  It sits on my shelf, carefully anchored, as I write this.  I wish I had a photo to show you.  Here’s a similar example of Peggy’s work.

(For the information about Helen Cordero, I credit an article by Pamela Michaelis.)

Who are the storytellers in your family?  Maybe you’re one of them.

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I'm an internationally published romance author, coming up on 40 novels and novellas. Most of my stories have been Westerns for Harlequin Historicals, but I set stories in other times and places as well. I'll also be writing contemporary stories for Harlequin Desire, with the first release in January 2013. You can learn more on my web site.

14 thoughts on “Old but New–Pueblo Storytellers”

  1. Hi Elizabeth,

    The storytellers are so sweet, I love them.

    My grandmothers were definitely storytellers, and my dad can spin a pretty good yarn when given the chance, and his sisters tell the most hilarious stories about their childhood. They had a hard life, but they can bring humor into the hardest times.

    Thank you for sharing this, I’ll have to be on the lookout for a storyteller.

  2. You’re the early bird again, Kirsten. As writers we owe a lot to the storytellers in our families. My grandpa told the same story over and over about a little boy who crawled into a box trap to escape from a bear and got batted down a hill. We never got tired of it. I still hear that wonderful old Scottish voice in my head.

  3. Hi Elizabeth. I love those storyteller figures! I’m afraid I’m not very good spinning verbal stories myself, but there are lots of storytellers in my family – my brother is especially good at keeping an audience enthralled.

  4. Thanks for your comment. With so many children watching TV and playing on computers, storytelling has become, sadly, less common. The ability to tell a good story is a true gift.

  5. I remember my grandma telling a true story of when she was a girl. Her parents went on a short trip and left her and her sisters alone. The cow bloated and died, and they had to bury it. They dug this huge hole and rolled it in, but its legs stuck above the ground. Those girls had to saw its legs off. Now there’s a story I won’t forget.
    Any good stories in your family?

  6. Hi, Elizabeth. My mother in law was a great storyteller. She loved to talk and laugh and often when we’d visit she’d launch into a tale of her seven sons and the constant activity and nonsense she put up with, the brushes with death, the broken furniture. And she always says, “I wasn’t laughing then, believe me.”

    but she could laugh later at the retelling and lace her love for her children and her pride in the men they’d become, in with the antics.

  7. Beautiful memory, Mary. I take your mother in law is no longer with you, which makes her stories even more precious.
    And seven sons!!! I’ll bet she had some hair-raising stories to tell. Love this.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing the information on the story telling figures. We visited the Southwest – Santa Fe and Taos in particular- in 1983. I remember seeing a wide variety of storytelling figures them. I never did get one, I blew 2 weeks budget on a butterfly dancers carving our second day out. I have looked at them since and may yet get one. I haven’t had one strike me as an “I’ve got to have it” item yet. I do like Peggy Garcia’s work. Hopefully we will get back out that way again in the near future.
    Juanita’s story is interesting. How lucky for us she took this turn in her creativity.

    No real story tellers in our family, which is sad. We would ask the grandparents questions and always got a “Why do you want to know about that?” answer. I do remember overhearing family tales at large family gatherings, but they were usually individuals reminiscing. I made up stories and told them to the kids for many years, but that isn’t history, it was fiction.

  9. You always have such interesting things to add, Patricia. Your butterfly dancers must be gorgeous. I love Pueblo art, and when I saw that little storyteller I couldn’t walk away. Almost couldn’t buy it. Peggy wanted cash and I only had my credit card, but someone in my group was kind enough to lend me the money. Buying it from the artist made it extra special.
    And who says stories have to be family history. Fictional stories can become beloved memories, too. I bet you’re a great storyteller.

  10. Wow I love the storytelling figures. Something I think that I would really like to have.

    I love telling stories and my kids always seemed to know if I embellished more in a subsequent story! Often the story started out in fact and ended major fiction. I am trying now to record some of them but again they are never qite the same.

    As I recently founds some cassette tapes of my grandfather and my parents, I realize that perhaps I also need to record them orally. Perhaps one day they will mean as much to someone as these recordings mean to me.

  11. What a wonderful idea, Connie, recording your own stories. They will be treasured by your family.
    And fact or fiction or a mix of both, a good story is just that. Thanks for stopping by.

  12. hi Elizabeth, wonderful post. I love storyteller dolls. Such a wonderful symbol of the west. My gramma was the best story teller, of her life on a Kansas farm and raising six kids in the Depression. Sadly I lost her far too soon.

    My mom and I sometimes go through a horde of antique family photos left behind by others. Sadly again, many do not list names on the back. Grrrrr.

  13. Thanks, Tanya. If we knew how much our descendants would like to know about our lives, maybe some of us would leave a better a record (I plead guilty here). You’re so lucky to have the memory of your gramma’s stories.

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