I came to know Lloyd Kiva New, the legendary artistic founder of the Institute of American Indian Arts, by way of an introduction to him by Edith Crutcher, his dear friend and associate on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Edie had read my Booker Series novels in the mid-1990s and felt that I had the cultural sensitivity and ability to author Lloyd’s biography.
There had been promises to undertake a biography, but as Lloyd reached his mid-eighties and had serious health issues, Edie pressed for my willingness to commit to the project. She knew my work habits and that I would complete the book if I started. Despite Edie’s recommendation and my willingness, however, Lloyd would not agree even to speak to me on the phone until he had read my American Indian related novels, and that took the better part of a year. Finally, we began to talk long distance from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Boone, North Carolina; and in October 1999 Lloyd invited me to visit him to discuss the project.
Lloyd’s wife Aysen advised me that our first interview could last no more than an hour because of her husband’s frailty, but our intense conversation lasted through an impromptu lunch and into the afternoon. Our conclusion that day was that Lloyd was both unable and unwilling to go through the anticipated painful process of re-telling and documenting the cultural and political conflicts of his long career. His endurance for work was down to less than three hours a day, and my presence as a biographer would have compromised the peace and comfort that he had attained under Aysen’s care.
That visit was made even more memorable by the introduction Lloyd gave me to master glass artist Tony Jojola that resulted in my being in Tony’s Taos hot shop for three days. Then back in Santa Fe, I joined Lloyd and Aysen at the raising of the first structure on the new IAIA campus, a large log hogan. There was a lunch served under a big-top tent, and then all of us who participated signed our names to a number of white plastic hardhats to commemorate the event.
When I returned to North Carolina, I wrote my impression of being with Lloyd in his Santa Fe home. The piece became the second chapter in the novel that he inspired—Eagle Feathers In Glass. The novel features characters based on Lloyd and other contemporary American Indian fine artists. I sent the novel to Lloyd in manuscript, and I was told that it was the last book that he read before his death at 86 in February 2002.
I subsequently adapted Eagle Feathers In Glass into a classic opera libretto. Sadly, no publisher has yet agreed to consider the novel, and composers who like the opera libretto need a $100,000 commission to begin to write the music! Here, then, in tribute to Lloyd, is Chapter Two of Eagle Feathers In Glass.
He was an old man who had outlived the riches he had generated in middle age but not the esteem of his students who had decorated his spacious adobe house in the hills above the galleries of Santa Fe with their valuable art. The house was an artist’s abode with a high-ceiling great room with a cathedral wall of glass to beckon the transcendent light. He now painted haunting faceless Taos women waiting for the return of Pueblo men away at the hunt for elk or fasting deep in the kiva chanting prayers for rain. Even his large canvas of a single red tulip displaying its intimacy like a George O’Keefe seemed in its petals like shrouded sisters of the Taos women. The white-haired elder had abandoned his fortune to save an endangered culture, had followed his Cherokee heart to become an Indian art educator, running a game trail that no warrior had run before him. And now in the twilight of his life, knowing what he knew about the poverty and despair of continuing generations, he wondered if the path he had trod was marked well enough for other Indian artists to follow.
The venerable, controversial old man had endured the Depression and service in a world war to be the witness of Southwestern Indian artists who had gone from roadside souvenir stands to millionaire status by virtue of their talents. He himself had defied all the odds that Oklahoma subsistence farming can claim on the last child in a string of ten. That such a boy could discover his passion for visual arts, let alone acquire a formal university art education in an Indian-blind age, set him apart as an oddity. That such a person could impose his vision of Indian art education on an unwilling federal bureaucracy is a historic triumph.
His mother had sensed that he was a different child from the older others. At age five he had found pigments in the ground and mixed them with oil to make the colors adhere to crude bag paper. At seven, his mother, so strong and beautiful that her face and form would have required an Allan Houser bronze, saved him from sacrifice on the farm and sent him to live with his married sister in a school-rich, oil-boom Tulsa. He responded to the isolation among whites by prodding himself to academic excellence. He graduated from high school at the top of his class.
But where was the energy in his hands to go? What were the forms for feelings that hung between two languages like the spaces between drumbeats? He could draw, merge colors, but how do you discover what you can do? How do you find the truth of your spirit when no one expects you to accomplish anything? How do you break the skin of the white world of expectations when you are dirt farm poor and an Indian?
Someone must spark the ether of creativity. Someone must give confidence like candy given to a troubled child, honey into the mouth of self-doubt and fear. Someone must first tell the artistic soul that it can breathe free, that it can emerge to create, and that what it produces has value. Someone must say yes when the rest of the known world is saying no.
Before Native Americans had learned politics from the Europeans, a chief rose to his responsibility by the will of his community. He never offered himself as worthy of any office but was rather given title by virtue of his spiritual qualities, intelligence and bravery. English and Spanish kings might fight for the right of their sons to ascend the hereditary throne, but Indian chiefs are made, not born.
Lloyd was an Indian chief not by virtue of a war bonnet or eagle-feathered buffalo robe but by the respect shown to him by many tribes. He was a chief of many nations who walked with the aid of a cane ornamented by a long cylinder of colorful beadwork ending in a tassel. The walking stick was as powerful a symbol as the silver-headed canes given to the Pueblo governors by a United States president as a sign of their authority. Lloyd’s authority could not be granted or confirmed because it rose from the hearts of grateful recipients of his love and trust, which was then returned to him as honor and respect.
Lloyd had earned his place of honor as a warrior, but his combat had not been against the soldiers of a land-grabbing greedy government. The land was gone, and his people were restricted to reservations and land allotments before he came of age. He could not prevent the loss of the land that had been their home for thousands of years before the Europeans invented discovery, but he could fight to save the Indian soul of creativity that had sustained them over those millenniums. He could fight to prevent the suffocation of young Indians by a frivolous culture that had no relevance to their ancient traditions. He could do battle against the forces of disrespect that would erase the Indian spirit from the dominated continent.
His chosen battlefield was the Indian art school as a place of refuge and creative freedom. On this field he had won many victories. Out of this struggle had emerged many brave young people who had matured to become chiefs themselves, demonstrating, encouraging, mentoring yet another generation of brave hearts to express themselves as the first people, as Indians.
The reported status that he was, at 84, retired was a misstatement. It was true that he held no academic chair, but he was far from being removed from the never-ending battle that his institutions and ideals were subjected to. He was still a fountain to his people and a firebrand to those who displaced and disrespected them. He could still write a letter that provoked bureaucratic reaction. He still led where only the courageous would follow.
In his long life he had survived two wives and gone into his eighties alone in the sprawling adobe house overlooking Santa Fe. And then he had fallen in love and became like a young man courting a maiden with a cedar flute and a newly composed song. She was much younger—a cultured internationalist who sensed his inner beauty and strength—and willingly gave herself to him in love and devotion. Her own strength and abilities seemed to magnify his, and he began to paint again in a revival of artistic energy. His spiritual force, as well as his romantic heart, was a presence that the winds of time could not blow away. He had stood against the wind and not only endured but also found happiness and loving comfort. For all who knew him, his late marriage seemed like a just reward.