Manataka® American Indian Council










Christmas Between

Adobe and Kiva

The first Indian-made nativities seem to have appeared in the late 1950's, at a time when the century-old European Crèche tradition slowly but surely went into temporary decline. Over the next decades interest and production quickened. Today, a number of Indian artisans consider nativity sets an integral part of their yearly program. The early impetus for the making of indigenous crèches may have come from the tourist industry and major collectors. Growing interest in popular art and crafts, and stronger emphasis put on local cultural expressions of faith by the Catholic Church also explain why the making of nativities by Indian artisans of the southwestern United States is considered by experts a new and promising phenomenon.

What is meant here when speaking of Southwest and Indians is the region between Albuquerque and Taos in New Mexico. There are nineteen villages or pueblos in or close to that part of the Rio Grande Valley. Some of them are only sparsely populated, more tourist attraction than home to what is known as Mesa Indians. However, most of them, spread out between Acoma in the South and Taos in the North, have an age-old tradition of making pottery, which is the seed bed and also the stuff from which most Pueblo nativities are made. Although exposed to Christianity since 1540 when the first Spanish explorers entered New Mexico, the Indians' contribution to Christian art has been modest and sporadic until they discovered the nativity set. Today, Indian nativity artisans are believed to be the only homogenous group in the USA producing art on the theme of Christ's birth. As in other regions with a rich crèche culture, Pueblo nativities represent different styles from colonial painted (or fabric-clothed) figures to sets made of Yucca. But the great majority of Pueblo artisans work solely in clay. At one time, their technique and decorating art depended very much on tradition and style proper to each pueblo. Things have changed. Many artisans now have their own style, sometimes a mixture of styles from different pueblos. For this reason, it becomes almost impossible to find the typical nativity set from Laguna or Jemez. This applies to the fifteen nativity set on display in this exhibit. They are from fifteen different artists, most of them contacted personally by the exhibitors, but they do not represent fifteen different pueblos.  

At first glance, the visitor will discover that there exists a great similarity between the different sets. One of the foundational characteristics of pueblo art is its earth-boundness. Whatever the figure or personage, it does not speak its own language or message but that of the clay and the earth from where it comes. The message of the earth speaks of life and life's origin. Faces, limbs and extremities of pueblo crèche figures are crude and clumsy in the eye of the beholder used to the work of Neapolitan figurari or Provencal santonniers. For the Indian artisan the many details of the human or animal body are not important as long as they express loud and clear the message of the earth. The visitor has to look for different kinds of detail: colors, ornaments, various postures and features of a culture which is not indebted to Christianity. Most Indians have accepted the Christian religion as an addition to their own pre-Christian way of life. For this reason, the visitor will have to look at these nativity sets from two different vantage points. The Christian perspective is represented in the scene as such and its traditional characters. Indian culture is present in the finer details of decorative motifs and other traditional elements.


Honored Tradition by Juanita Dubray Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

Ladder of Ascent by Santana Seonia, Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico

Adobe Nativity by Robert Toledo, Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico




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