Santo Domingo, one of the Rio Grande pueblos, lies between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Don Juan de Oñate y Salazar and the conquering Spaniards named this place in the 1600’s; Santo Domingo was the Spanish headquarters in the province of Queres, though the earliest known name for the village was Gipuy. Locally, this pueblo has been called Kewa for many years, and in 2009 the name was formally changed to reflect this.
Priscilla Nieto was born and raised here, and she and husband Harvey have raised their five children in Santo Domingo. This community of approximately 5000 is known as the most conservative of the nineteen New Mexico pueblos; pride in native history and customs is strong. Unlike other tribes, eighty percent of children entering school speak their native language, which is Keresan. The Catholic religion is a heavy influence as well, and August 4th of each year the patron Saint Dominic is honored with a large feast and traditional Corn Dance.
Priscilla Nieto and Harvey Abeyta are well respected artists — Santo Domingo jewelers produce the finest handmade beads of any native tribe — and are recognized for their intricate and painstakingly executed jewelry. Known primarily for designing and creating necklaces (although the family creates quality bracelets and earrings, too) the process from original concept to final product is an arduous one. Beads fall into two primary categories- what comes from the ocean is shell; what is taken from Mother Earth, stone. These tiny beads — discs and tubes, a hole drilled through — are known as heishi and are cut, ground, shaped, sliced, drilled, and polished — with oil or animal fat — and then strung by hand on extremely strong string. The necklaces are fastened by tying, rather than by silver clasps and the material used — actually, carpet threading — is durable and comfortable. Priscilla tells us the wearer doesn’t feel the weight of the piece, adding, “We used to use cotton string, then waxed cord. Our people are always looking for better materials; then the word goes out. Thank God for this — we share ideas, but we keep our techniques to ourselves!”
Priscilla’s favorite materials are coral and turquoise. “To us, turquoise has a very deep connection to the woman. Shells and coral, too, because everything comes from Mother Earth”. Jet (which is technically petrified coal) is considered both male and female. Much of the turquoise comes from Cerrillos, northeast of Santo Domingo. “Our people used to have access, and work by hand with the sandstone and turquoise”, she says. Sandstone was used as a shaping tool; after softening the shells and turquoise with water — usually by soaking in bowls for several days — the material was ground smooth. “Turquoise is a really hard stone. Back [in the old days] candles or animal fat were brought to a hard boil and the stone would be immersed in it. This [stabilized it and] made it easier to work with.”
Centuries ago the Spanish brought metal tools; many years after that drilling was accomplished with a hand pump tool, utilizing a flint. Today, Dremel drills are the accepted norm. A piece of turquoise is drilled halfway through, then flipped around and the process is repeated in order to avoid breakage. Because shells are thinner, one straight pass-through is all that’s required. The beads are then ready to be strung. Priscilla continues, “My parents are my teachers. I was seven years old when I started shaping [material] on the sandstone, and then I started drilling.”
“I picture [the necklace] in my mind,” Priscilla adds, “and sometimes I draw it out. I then prioritize. In the winter months after Christmas, business slows down. We slice and drill the material in different sizes and sort it. We constantly work — the hours are long — starting at four a.m. up to midnight. Sometimes we take a thirty minute nap or break for lunch, go grocery shopping or do something with the kids. Everybody pitches in.”
Indeed, everyone does. Their children, ranging in age from 16-30, each have a specialty: silver-smithing, fashioning contemporary pieces or working in the old techniques. Nothing is written down, she confides; everything is passed down orally. “As long as you want to learn, and you have the patience,” she empathizes. While her father Raymond was a silversmith, as was her brother Robert, the pueblo isn’t celebrated for silver work -– it is the beads. There are those who do excel in pottery, however — in fact, her mother Reyes was a potter.
“My family was very poor. We used to get water from our neighbors, in buckets. We then got a pump, in the kitchen. We never had electricity — we used candles or kerosene lanterns. Now [everybody] is spoiled — better living now, but smarter then. I’m glad my parents taught me survival skills, because [when technology crashes] people will panic — what will people do?” She pauses. “In the old days we ate birds, deer and rabbits: we still use plants, to eat and drink medicinally.”
When asked about specific symbols in their work, Priscilla is passionate. “Here in the village we hold our culture strong, so I won’t talk about it. We put good intentions into our work, and look forward to the person who will wear it. We do a prayer, a blessing, for the wearer of the piece, and we hope they accept this with their heart — all of the teaching from the Parents and from our Family.” She pauses. “Wear it in good health, with protection. That is what makes me happy. This all comes from Mother Earth, and like a mother cradles her children, Mother Earth does the same thing, providing us the materials.” She laughs, adding, “[The jewelry] should be free, but we have to pay for those materials!”
The Santo Domingo people are known as traditionalists, and there is much pride in the fact that their jewelry is not only made by hand but imprinted with blessings and good will. “My feeling as an individual is to stick with the traditional.” Harnessing good energy is key; “As long as it’s good intentioned,” she asserts, “and has a good purpose, the wearer will feel safe and protected. Whoever accepts the piece is in the healing process.”
Upon reflection, Priscilla elaborates. “I just want to pass on what I’ve learned from my parents, and share it with others. What really matters is how you learned, how you pass it on, and the look in someone’s eye. It feels good. It has good energy.”
The jewelry of Priscilla Nieto and Harvey Abeyta can be seen at the Pickle Barrel Trading Post in historic downtown Globe, Arizona, along with a wide selection of spectacular turquoise and sterling silver jewelry, featuring a fine, curated collection of Sleeping Beauty turquoise bracelets, necklaces, rings, and earrings.
PHOTOS: Jim Lindstrom