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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 5, 2002 - Issue 71


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Ancestral Artistry

by Chet Barfield San Diego Union-Tribune
Jamie OkumaLA JOLLA INDIAN RESERVATION – Inspired by pride in her ancestry, a young member of this remote North County tribe is nurturing a talent that has vaulted her to the pinnacle of American Indian art.

She's only 24, but doll-maker Jamie Okuma has achieved what many would consider the accomplishment of a lifetime. She won her second "best of show" last month at New Mexico's prestigious Santa Fe Indian Market.

The annual exhibition, featuring more than 1,200 American Indian artists, is the largest and most acclaimed in the nation, attracting major collectors from around the world. One of Okuma's dolls won best of show two years ago, beating out other first-place entries in jewelry, textiles, pottery and other categories.

"This is almost like winning the Academy Award," said Joan Caballero of Santa Fe, an Indian art appraiser and a longtime judge at the show. "This instantly makes Jamie Okuma nationally known, if not world-renowned."

Okuma has been working as an artist since high school, and now she can fetch eye-popping prices. But she doesn't look or act like a big celebrity.

"I grew up reading these magazine articles about artists," she said. "Now I'm one of them. It's kind of strange."

She lives with her parents in a modest trailer-home on the reservation near Palomar Mountain. Petite and soft-spoken, she has red-dyed streaks in her hair and a silver stud in her tongue. She likes to go surfing with friends at Torrey Pines beach.

Her studio is a 10-by-20-foot shed of unvarnished wood. Inside are her workbench, her tools, her soldering torch. Boxes of fabric are stacked near a surfboard, a microwave oven and a case of Red Bull energy drink.

Okuma's Indian ancestry is on her mother's side, a mix of Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock. Her father is Hawaiian-Okinawan. Okuma was born in Los Angeles and has lived on the reservation since she was 5, except for a two-year stint in her early 20s at an Indian art institute in Santa Fe.

She began working with beads in early childhood, when her mom was taking her to powwows in Idaho on the Shoshone-Bannock reservation. Eager to start dancing, Okuma beaded her first powwow dress at age 5, she said.

It was a calling that grew throughout her teen years at Orange Glen High in Escondido. Attending powwows in San Diego County and elsewhere, she designed and beaded her own outfits, then started making them for other girl dancers.

Okuma made her first doll at 15. Like many to follow, it consisted of a wood skeleton, 12 inches tall, covered in leather stuffed with cotton. Its hand-sewn red-and-black dress was adorned with colored beads and metal ornaments, the kind a powwow dancer would wear.

Historical authenticity is a hallmark of Okuma's work, and it's one of the things that most impressed the Santa Fe judges.

"What she has at a young age that you don't expect is her clothing has the look of something extremely well-researched," Caballero said. "The dress (that won this year) was prepared as if it was a dress of 100 years ago."

Okuma's award-winning doll – sold to a collector for a price she won't disclose – was that of a 19th-century Sioux woman carrying an intricately beaded doctor's bag as a purse. It was not only beautiful, Caballero said, but accurate to the tiniest detail.

"I try to get everything exactly the same as the real ones," Okuma said, adding that she prefers to call her works "soft sculptures."

"I don't like saying 'dolls.' People think of Barbie dolls," she said. "They're my little people."

Okuma feels a personal connection to her ancestors in her art.

"It's something our people have been doing forever, and it's finally being recognized," she said. "For a long time it was considered a craft. It really isn't."

Her mother, a professional painter in watercolor and oils, said art is intrinsic to the heritage of American Indians. "It's who you are. It's a part of your life," said Sandra Okuma, 57. "It's really inside you, more than a way to make a living."

La Jolla tribal Chairwoman Wendy Schlater said the tribe is proud of Jamie Okuma, not only for her commercial success but also for the role model she's setting for other Indian youth.

"She has been an outstanding tribal citizen, all through her young years and her adulthood," Schlater said. "She has been an example of going to school and keeping the balance between the traditional world and the modern world.

"We're proud to see one of our members excel like that."

The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, Inc.
The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, Inc. (SWAIA) is a not-for-profit organization established in 1922 to support and preserve American Indian cultures. SWAIA was formed at the request of Pueblo leaders, who asked local influential citizens to help Pueblo Indians retain their threatened land and water rights. SWAIA has evolved with the needs of Indian people and continues today in the form of educational programs and art- oriented events that encourage cultural preservation, intercultural understanding, and economic opportunities for American Indians through excellence in the arts.

La Jolla IR CA, MAP
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