It’s a rare joy to spend an afternoon with people so at home in their skins, who connect so easily and who, despite being extraordinarily accomplished, are so down-to-earth. As soon as I clear the door, we are laughing. According to Hopi philosophy, says Marian Denipah, “You do your best with what little you have.” For Marian and her husband, Steve LaRance, this refrain runs in their blood. What they have, they gladly share.
“I first saw Steve at a powwow in Ft. Lewis,” Marian says, “but I approached him in Denver, at another powwow—this was a social dance—and I grabbed him! I knew other girls were trying to claim him, Pueblos and Navajo, Sioux girls, too. All along, I wanted to marry a Native guy, and my mom said she respected the Hopi, which is what Steve is, so I thought, ‘Even better!’” They dated for 10 years and then married.
Raised on Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, Marian and her brothers and sisters were in and out of the house their grandfather built on his farm. “My grandfather was governor of the Pueblo many times,” she says. “He would take us fishing. My dad and the Navajo side of the family were hunters. When I was young, my mom always had a garden. Because we lived off the land, we all grew up knowing how.”
As soon as they were ready to start a family, the couple knew that, because of all the partying, the heroin and alcoholism, Española was not where they wanted to raise kids. So they moved to Flagstaff, close by Hopiland and Steve’s home village of Munquapi. “Our kids all got Hopi names,” Steve says. “They were able to participate in some of the social dances there; they became familiar with the language, the culture, the ceremonies. They especially thought the women’s basket dance was really exciting,” he explains. “I look at Hopi culture as being a little more untouched,” Marian adds admiringly. “And they got to try some of our foods,” Steve continues, “like our piki bread and other blue-corn dishes. Our daughter Nizhoni learned basketweaving from her Hopi grandmother. They know their Hopi cousins and other relatives.”
“Because we’re both artists,” Marian says, “working at home, we could be more available to our kids growing up.” Steve continues, “Our studio in Arizona was just 20 steps from the house, so we could watch them jump on the trampoline while we worked.” The family continued traveling back to New Mexico to visit Tewa relatives and to compete in Indian Market every year. Once Cree, their youngest, graduated from high school four years ago, Marian was ready to leave Flagstaff. “I couldn’t make anything grow there—it’s too cold.” They were deliberating between the Big Island in Hawaii and Tucson, Marian says, “when my mom got wind we were moving. She said, ‘No, no, no, I’ll give you my house and the land—I can’t do this anymore!’” Steve adds, “Marian’s mom was already getting elderly. She hadn’t planted in five years, the house was in disarray—so we moved back.”
Marian’s great-grandfather had traded a wagon wheel for this land (“and we still have the paper they signed!”). The old house, built by the Pueblo, had five bedrooms, one for each of the four kids. They fixed it up and cleared the land, scraping off years’ of dung accumulation (“That’s when I decided to do organic farming—we had the sheep manure!” Marian laughs). They also are blessed with not just one but two communal irrigation ditches, provided by the Rio Grande and the Chama rivers. “My brother and sister have six acres behind us,” Marian says. “The Pueblo brings a tractor and only charges $20 to plow your field. It’s mandatory for all males to help clear the debris and maintain the ditches.” One of the first things they planted was blue corn. “My Hopi niece is getting married,” Steve explains. “For the wedding ceremony, my family has to provide blue corn for the groom’s family. It’s like a dowry; in exchange, the men from his family weave her outfit.”
“We have to keep the corn separate—the regular kind in front,” Marian points out the window, “the blue corn in back, so they won’t breed. We’ve set up two other new fields, and last year, there were tons of grasshoppers. My mom called, crying, because she said all her plants were little sticks. But I set my guinea hens loose out in the fields and they ate them all. I had the best cornfield!”
This early in the season, nothing’s been planted yet. “We have to get a burn permit to clear the fields,” Marian says. But the animals are all out there, including lots of chickens, one little red hen, three huge turkeys, a few ducks and the guineas, “little dinosaurs,” Marian laughs. “They’re very loud.” And the sheep and goats. “I’m weaning my herd back, giving my females a break. My one cousin comes to help milk the goats,” She says. “A Navajo cousin sheers the sheep,” Steve adds.
Eventually, they plan to have horses and a couple of cows; they planted alfalfa for the horses. Marian’s experimenting with different crops, like kale, tomatoes, beans, “to see how and if they grow.” Next up, she says, is a greenhouse. The farm takes a lot of hard work and commitment. At harvest time, Marian cans pickles and jams, grinds blue corn, and stores what she can in the root cellar built by her great-grandfather. She says their son Cree, 23, who builds fences, preps the land and helps with planting, “is our back.”
Additionally, both Marian and Steve are deeply committed to their Pueblo community. “Our son Nakota, 26, is an award-winning, world-champion hoop dancer. He and I started youth hoop-dancing classes when we moved back here. At the big Phoenix Heard Museum competition that I chaperoned Nakota to last month, one of our students, Josiah Enriquez, placed third in the teenaged division! By teaching their kids, we’ve gotten to know lots of the Pueblo families. It’s opened doors.” Steve has gone all over the world representing the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) and Native American artists in all kinds of exchanges and exhibitions, including being selected by Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture to represent Native American jewelers in Turkmenistan. He’s also gone to Australia and a European tour of France, Italy and Switzerland, where he was a guest of the Swiss ambassador. Steve and Marian were selected by IAIA to represent Native artists in China and Japan. Marian, a former runner, works with WINGS, a Native American youth organization encouraging youth to embrace this healthy lifestyle, which, as Marian says, is adapted from their ancestors, who were messengers. And she’s enrolled in a Tewa class. “So much of our culture goes along with the language, our stories and where the words came from.”
When do they have time to devote to their art? For Steve, it’s in between travels; after his recent return from the Phoenix competition with Nakotah, he’ll accompany his son again mid-April for a performance in Japan. Marian fits it in, too. “With one art show out of the way, I can start carving waxes while I’m caretaking my sister.” Both use an old technique called the tufa method, which Steve says not a lot of people are familiar with anymore, and they cut their own stones. “We have a drawer full of ribbons and many awards.” Their artwork can be seen in Santa Fe at True West Gallery on Lincoln Avenue and Canyon Road’s Desert Son Gallery. They have galleries in Japan, Germany and Canada; their work is collected by public and private institutions, including City Hall in Phoenix.
The Smithsonian exhibits some of Marian’s grandmother’s dolls. Steve’s grandmother, an aficionado of traditional Hopi foods, was a basketmaker, his uncles makers of kachina dolls and ceremonial regalia. Steve and Marian’s kids are all artists, as well. Daughters Shandien, 23, is a dancer with Cirque de Soleil, who also paints and draws, and Nizhoni, 32, is a doctor, who also makes beautiful jewelry. Her daughter, Shadé, 11, is a hoop dancer. And Cree, also a talented jewelrymaker, who just applied for a Goodman Aspiring Artist fellowship, wrote in his personal statement that he remembers waking up hearing power tools and looking out the window to see his father in a cloud of dust, and his mother dancing around to rock music while painting. His parents, he wrote, were his main mentors.
“There’s a rawness about New Mexico,” says Marian. “It’s the wild, wild West. I love being with our animals, and there’s a great solitude in watching the plants grow and working with the Earth.” Steve agrees. “It’s a blessing to see other cultures and customs,” he says. “It’s fun to experience New York, San Francisco, Dallas. But then I look forward to coming home.” Marian adds, “I’m glad my mom offered us her house. It’s all worked out for the best. We’ve come full circle.”
To see what Marian and Steve are up to, check out Denipah-LaRance Fine Art on Facebook.
Story by Gail Snyder