Sunday, May 10, 2015

Jeri Ah-be-hill (1934-2015)

We went to a Memorial Service a couple of weeks ago and while I might not usually write about such an event, I feel compelled to.  Jeri Ah-be-hill was someone I became aware of very slowly.  It was mainly seeing this small distinguished looking woman who always seemed to be dressed up.  Not that she wore fancy clothes in the sense of designer togs but they were striking and extra ordinary clothes.  Ones, that made you aware of her without being startled by them.

It was pointed out to me that this person who had just dawned on my consciousness had been chairwoman of the Indian Market costume completion in Santa Fe for 17 years!  She had never presented herself as the main event but let the contestants ranging in age from infants, who could hardly walk, to adults, be the center of attention.

Jeri had two daughters.  Teri Greeves and Keri Ataumbi.  Teri is a beader who I have written about in the past and Keri a jeweler.  The last time we saw Keri was at the winter Indian Market. Where she sat in her booth with her mother by her side acting as assistant sales person, and boy could Jeri sell.  After all, she had run the Fort Washakie Trading Post on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming from the mid 1960’s to mid 1980’s.

We have bought some wonderful beadwork from Teri and I have gotten to know her better since she joined the Advisory Board and later was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Ralph T. Coe Foundation.   I learned from her that Jeri was very much her own person and marched to her own drummer.  After her divorce from Richard V. Greeves, a sculptor, she decided not to take her maiden name since her parents had also divorced, but rather her grand mother’s name, and was known in Santa Fe as Ah-be-hill.  She left her Wyoming trading post for Santa Fe with a very large inventory and worked with Mark Arrowsmith at the Relics of the Old West gallery in town.  Jeri knew many of the traders and artists who had visited her in Wyoming   When she acted as Master of Ceremonies at the Indian Market competition she would ask Rex Arrowsmith, Mark’s father, and a dealer as well as part owner of La Fonda, the historic Harvey Hotel in town, to assist her because of his extensive knowledge of the Southwestern Indian tribes.

Jeri had so many artistic interests.  Her greatest passion, no surprise here, was Native American women’s garments, not just that of the Kiowa people but of tribes all over the country from East to West and North to South.  In the 1960’s when most of the writing about Indians was by men, she decided to go directly to the source and speak with the women personally.  When she was particularly taken with a dress she would ask if she could buy it.  She was not, however, satisfied with just the dress she would want the entire outfit including shawl and moccasins that went with it. Her closets were full of these outfits that she had collected and sometimes would model for shows.  What she wore every day was very much her own style and wardrobe, possibly influenced by, but never the garments of other tribes.  As I said, she stood out but in a subdued way.  It slowly dawned as one looked around a room that this outfit was unusual and beautiful and was quite possibly unique.

Jeri never taught in a school but I have met many who have spoken of all they learned from this remarkable woman who was so generous with her knowledge.  She volunteered at the Coe Foundation quietly answering all kinds of questions from the public about various Indian objects in the collection.  I became captivated by her quiet distinguished personality and the more I learned the more curious I became.  I asked Teri if her mother would mind if I wrote about her.  Teri said that she would enjoy that so I put it on my list to go out and meet her on her own ground.  Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.  Within a few weeks of my question, and without warning, Jeri was gone.   When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, announced to the Nation, “Now he belongs to the Ages” or possibly he had said “Angels”, it is not known for sure.   I believe that either would have applied to Jeri.

In her trading post Jeri’s greatest interest was in beads.  On You Tube you can find a clip of her speaking about them:

She naturally became friendly with many bead artists.  One who brought Jeri a great deal of work was Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty.  After Joyce became well known enough that she could sell her own work on commission or in shows they remained friends, and a mutual friend of theirs was Ted Coe.  In this image Jeri is on the left and Joyce to Ted’s right.

Jeri loved to travel and when she went anywhere she wanted to visit culture spots and particularly museums.  When she went to New York Teri wanted her to see the Museum of Modern Art but Jeri preferred to go to the Metropolitan Museum where she could learn more about the culture of other peoples.  She traveled to Rome, Venice, in Spain and here is an image of her in front of the Louvre in Paris.  Note The New Mexican newspaper under her arm.

The memorial assembly in her honor was at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe. It brought people from all over filling the 200 seat auditorium.  It was appropriate for Jeri that it did not follow strict rules though there were traditional aspects.  Teri and Keri put the event together as they believed their mother would have liked it.  At the front was an altar with pieces of art from Jeri’s home and gifts she had received that were among her favorites, including a green robe that Jeri had collected and a yellow beaded buffalo hide that she used as a bedspread. Teri put her most recent beaded portrait of Jeri on the altar.  Laid out below were gifts to be given to members of the family and extended family.  Close friends are often adopted into a Native American family and treated as such. Ken Williams, who is also on the advisory board of the Coe Foundation, was given a gift and on the altar was a bag that Jeri had received from him.

Prayers and tributes in English and the Kiowa language were said, gifts were given and Jeri and her family were appropriately honored.  We had heard stories about Jeri such as how she had provided a weekly clipping service for her daughters to keep them informed of issues that she thought they would, or should, be interested in.   I had heard from Teri how her mother had kept track of every new restaurant in town and insisted on checking them out.  After the ceremony a huge feast was served. Teri had cooked up 60 pounds of bison.  Most of those who came added food, both ready made and cooked for the occasion, to the groaning board.  The desert table alone would have fed a battalion.  We spilled over from the three very long tables set out for the attendees into adjoining rooms and all told stories either about Jeri and her family or ones that Jeri would have enjoyed listening in on.

Keri and Teri have established a scholarship fund at IAIA for a Kiowa student to come and study at the Institute and asked that rather than flowers contributions be made to this fund.

I must also thank Keri Ataumbi and Teri Greeves for many of the photos in this missive.

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