“…as our friendship has grown, my admiration for this woman has also grown. At 103 years of age, she is still alert and active, still making and selling her ‘potteries’ to contribute economically to her family, still helping with the work of the household, still helping with raising the children, still serving as a source of inspiration for her family and all others who come to know her – Indian and non-Indian alike. “ — John E. Collins, 1977
For over a century, Grace Chapella “White Squash Blossom,” (pronounced “Tsepela”) was devoted to her clan and to her culture. Nevertheless, she adapted gracefully to the extraordinary changes which occurred in her Tewa-Hopi world. Grace understood changes, which would have traumatized a more fragile person, as having been prophesied by her elder kinswomen.
According to family traditions, Grace, of the Bear Clan was born February 14, 1874 at Tewa Village, Iwinge (also known as Hano) located on the eastern edge atop First Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona. Grace began learning to make pottery from her mother, TaTung Pawbe, when she was a small child. She also learned pottery making techniques from her neighbor, Nampeyo, who was fourteen years her senior. Her father, Toby Wehe, was a traditional farmer. During the 1890s, he was also the courier for ethnologist A. M. Stephen who lived on top of First Mesa. Wehe ran the round trip journey to and from Gallup in one day’s time whenever Stephen needed to have mail and supplies brought to him.
At age nine, Grace was with the first group of children taken to Keam’s Canyon to attend school. It was there that she met and married John Mahkewa. As the years passed, she gave birth to three children, Dorothy, Donald, and Alma; she also adopted the four children of her sister who died in childbirth. At the time of her death, Grace had forty-six grandchildren, eighty-eight great-grandchildren, and twenty great-great-grandchildren.
The first two decades of the twentieth century were especially eventful for Grace. Her mother, then in her seventies, was digging coal for firing pottery when a rock fell and killed her. Her father who had been blind for many years died soon afterward. But Grace was becoming ever more accomplished with her pottery making and becoming known as “The White Pottery Lady,” because of the off-white color of her pots. She sold the wares at the trading post established by Tom Polacca who was also a Tewa from First Mesa.
Tourists began to ask especially for her pottery and orders were sometimes placed for pottery to be shipped to other states. Grace received orders to make dozens of salt and pepper shakers for restaurants. Tom Polacca began to encourage her to sign her work. Grace was hesitant – pottery had not been signed up to that time – but finally she agreed. In the next few years, the signing of pottery became customary.
In 1917, Grace became the cook for the Polacca Day School, a position she held for thirty-eight years. She arrived at school each morning before dawn. She hired school boys to chop wood for the oven and to help haul water from the well while she made fresh yeast bread and butchered the meat. In the early years, there was no refrigeration so all food had to be prepared daily.
The tiring walk up and down the side of the mesa convinced Grace that she should build a house in Polacca close to the school. Her home, the first non-government house in Polacca, now enlarged and modernized, is still being used by her descendants. In 1955 when Grace retired, in recognition of her many years of hard labor, the school personnel gave her a water spigot for her yard. At that time, plumbing was not common in Polacca, and Grace was the first person to have running water available at a private home.
Grace spoke English fluently in addition to her native Tewa and Hopi languages. She was friends with the Polacca Day School teachers and they often picnicked together and shared craft ideas. The first Hopi teacher at Polacca was Elizabeth White who in later years also became a well-known potter. During the two years Elizabeth was at the school, she would often go to Grace’s home during her lunch hour and play Grace’s piano, another first for that period.
During her frequent long walks, Grace would gather wild spinach and other greens to prepare as food or tea, or to use in making paints for her pottery. She also collected broken pottery (potsherds) which she ground and used for temper. Sometimes, she would find larger pieces with lovely designs, which she kept, for inspiration. Among those special potsherds were pieces with the rain bird and butterfly which she developed as her special designs. The butterfly, more than any other, is now considered to belong especially to Grace’s family and the use of it is being carried on in the fourth generation. Grace’s daughter, Alma Tahbo, granddaughter Deanna Tahbo, and great-grandson Mark Tahbo have particularly incorporated the butterfly into their own fine pottery work.
In 1927, Grace became the first person from the Hopi Reservation to travel in an airplane, going from Grand Canyon to Long Beach where she demonstrated and sold her pottery. A half-century later, Grace returned to California with her daughter, Alma, for a special showing and demonstration at the Numasters Gallery in Alhambra. By this time, Grace was well over a hundred and was recovering from a severe automobile accident. Although she walked with a cane and needed someone to comb her long hair because she could no longer reach around to the back of her head, she was still making pottery, including some very large bowls which are now collectors items.
Throughout her long life, friends sought Grace’s company. It was not unusual to see cars with out-of-state license plates parked beside her home in Polacca. In 1967, a retired school teacher from California made her way to Polacca to bring back to Grace a jar she had purchased in Long Beach, California nearly forty years before. The teacher wanted Grace’s grandchildren to see some of Grace’s early wonderful work. Grace was the subject of study by anthropologist Gene Weltfish and ethno-archeologist Michael Stanislawski. In his popular book, Sun in the Sky, Walter O’Kane includes words of praise and a photograph of this remarkable woman. She has also been cited regularly in books about Southwestern pottery.
As a human being, Grace was gentle, compassionate, and hardworking. She had a keen sense of humor all of her 106 years. She was tolerant of those individuals who referred to her work as “Hopi pottery,” but she identified herself, and would want to be remembered, as a member of the Tewa Bear Clan and as a Tewa-Hopi pottery maker.