Pablita Velarde

The life of American's leading Indian woman artist is a story of determination and dedication winning out over daunting obstacles. You'd never guess it from her gentle paintings, full of charming narrative detail.

Born at Santa Clara Pueblo in 1918, Pablita was given the Tewa name Tse Tan, Golden Dawn. When she was five her mother died, and she herself suffered a brief bout of blindness. She was sent to St Catherine's Indian School in Santa Fe, and there given the name Pablita Velarde.

Continuing her studies at the Santa Fe Indian School, she was the only girl in the painting class. "The boys were mean, she recalls. "They poked fun at me. Because I wanted to be an artist. You'd do better washing dishes or washing clothes or scrubbing floors, they said." And her father, Herman Velarde, "didn't believe in a woman painting pictures and not doing a woman's work or learning to make a living," so he sent her to Espanola to study bookkeeping and typing.

But Pablita's own talent and the encouragement of her teacher, Dorothy Dunn, and Tonita Pena, the only other Indian woman artist of the day, kept her on her chosen path. Early on, she began experimenting with earth pigments she ground herself, the way the "old ones" painted. Following graduation from the Indian School in 1936, Pablita took odd jobs to support herself, working as a maid and a nurse's aide. She taught when she could, while continuing to paint at night.

Pablita's break came when the Park Service hired her to paint murals depicting Pueblo life at Bandelier National Monument. Then, while working as a switchboard operator in Albuquerque, she met and married police officer Herbert Hardin. Following her divorce in 1957, she supported her two children, Helen and Herbert, through her painting. "I didn't really think of myself as an artist until my kids were in school, and I thought: I'm gonna compete."

Text from Living Treasures of Santa Fe