Storyteller Figures from the American Southwest

Background Information

The Pueblos

The pueblos are located in the north central and north western regions of New Mexico, east of the continental divide in an area of high desert surrounded by mountain ranges and national forests.  The Rio Grande River runs along the western side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the east, and there are other rivers and many lakes.  The villagers dig clay for pottery along the river beds, and they gather plants and minerals that they use to add color details to their clay bowls and figurines.


The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico have a long history of figurative clay sculpture. In the past century, many of these figurines depicted singing mothers holding children.

In 1964, Helen Cordero's groundbreaking sculpture of her grandfather surrounded by five grandchildren, a figure type unseen before, invigorated what had been a relatively stable ceramic tradition. With her children grown, Helen had tried making jewelry, but the money she made always went into buying more materials. She switched to making clay bowls and jars using clay she dug herself, but she was unhappy with the results. When she switched to sculpting clay figures, she found her gift.  Helen was inspired by the memory of her grandfather, Cochiti Pueblo elder Santiago Quintana, who had been a beloved storyteller, dedicated to keeping the culture and traditions of his village alive. Helen was encouraged by a dealer, Alexander Girard, who purchased her work and gave her the self-confidence and freedom to explore new directions with her figurines.

The immediate acclaim and popularity of Helen's storyteller figures transformed and revitalized the genre.  Today potters in many Pueblos are sculpting clay storyteller figures. 

The following story is an example of the type of narrative an adult storyteller might tell the children gathered around him or her.

How the Seasons Came to Be

from Pueblo Stories and Storytellers, by Mark Bahti

Shakak, Ruler of North Mountain and the spirit of winter, was married to Yellow Woman of the Corn Maidens, who was a daughter of the Acoma chief. They lived together at a place called White House. It was always cold there and no one could plant anything. The people ate only cactus.

One day when Yellow Woman was looking for cactus to gather, she wandered far from her home.  In this wandering, she met Miochin. "Why do you gather cactus?" he asked. "Do you not prefer corn or squash or melons?" She told him that such fine foods were not to be found at her home, for such things would not grow there. 

As they spoke, she noticed his fine clothes. His shirt was made of woven cornsilk, his belt of green corn leaves. His hat was corn leaves with corn tassels. He had leggings of moss and moccasins embroidered with butterflies. He offered her the green corn he was carrying in his arms. Accepting the gift, she asked where it came from.   

"From my home to the south," he replied.

When she returned to her village, she related the meeting to her parents and showed them the wonderful green corn she had been given. They knew that she had met Miochin, the spirit of summer. They asked her to go to the south again the next day and bring him back with her.

Shakak had been hunting. When he came home the next day, he arrived in a swirl of hail and sleet. He knew someone was in his village and in his house. So he called out, "Show yourself!" Miochin stepped out from the next room to see Shakak standing there in his icicle clothing. They agreed to meet in four days to battle over Yellow Woman.

Miochin assembled the birds and animals of summer. Shakak called the birds and animals of winter. On the fourth day they met. Miochin rode in on clouds of steam and smoke. Shakak arrived in a great blizzard. They fought for many hours, but Shakak's weapons of sleet, snow, and hail began to melt, and he had to agree that he had lost the battle. 

Miochin then declared that they should share the year henceforth, but his Spring and Summer would last longer than Shakak's Fall and Winter. And it has been that way since. 

Da hama tas'iteh.