By Staci Pratt (Mvskoke)
RAY TSALATE (ZUNI PUEBLO)
Zuni carver Ray Tsalate is grateful to be carrying on the tradition of carving in the style of his ancestors. His carvings of insects, animals and corn maidens draw on a long tradition that continues today.
Since ancient times, Zuni talismans — sometimes called fetishes — have been used for ceremonial and cultural purposes. “Zuni fetishes are absolutely significant and extend throughout our history,” Tsalate said. “They were used as items to trade, as adornments, to draw strength, make offerings to nature for muchneeded rain or to give thanks for a bountiful crop. It's important to know that they are still used in these ways.”
He continued, “The significance of our carving is so much more than an art form. It is a way of preserving and maintaining our cultural identity. It is our way of honoring our ancestors.” While Tsalate's carvings are not created for ceremonial uses, he finds the practice of making them personally meaningful.
Tsalate began as an apprentice for well-known Zuni carver Troy Sice in 2004, helping to shape and set semiprecious stones, shells and coral for inlay into pieces Sice had created. Sice encouraged him to begin carving.
“I created my first pieces in the summer of 2006,” he said. “These pieces consisted of antler frogs, and various stones and shells assembled to create dragonflies, butterflies, ladybugs and worms. That led to antler dragonflies and butterfly maidens in fall 2006, with stone and shell wings using the same concept.”
Tsalate also carves corn maidens from various tribes. “Corn maidens have always been the apple of the Zuni fetish carver's eye,” he said. “While each artist has their own particular style and most are carving maidens, I give into whimsy and youthfulness. I love carving and creating Pueblo girls. It's awesome how each turns out and how each has a personality all her own. Many of the collectors seem to be drawn to them by nostalgia, finding a little bit of themselves in the piece.”
Semiprecious stones led Tsalate to carving, and he incorporates them into his work. “A:shiwi, the Zuni people, have been using turquoise, shells and coral since time immemorial,” he said. “They hold a significant place in our culture. Incorporating these stones, shells and corals adds a bit of the Southwest and an essence of where I'm from.”
In 2009 Tsalate received the Wolfus Family Fellowship from the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. He said the award was “a very welcome surprise. . . . The fellowship elevated me as an artist and has opened many opportunities to showcase my work, which in turn I hope inspires others to create.”
It is important to Tsalate to help other carvers have opportunities, both creatively and professionally. “I am devoted to helping with a cause close to my heart: the Keshi Foundation, a public nonprofit providing ‘sustainable pathways promoting Zuni arts, education and economic development while respecting the traditions and lifeways of the Zuni People,'” he said, quoting from Keshi's mission statement.
Tsalate is excited about returning to Indian Market. “It is an honor to be a part of such a broad and beautiful spectrum of artists,” he said. “SWAIA's Indian Market weekend is the best part of the year because everyone looks forward to catching up with old friends and making new ones. It's a positive cycle and a great place to network.”
The work of Tsalate and many other Zuni artists can be found on the Keshi Foundation's website: thekeshifoundation.org.
Santa Fe New Mexican