Santa Fe Living Treasures ‚Äď Elder Stories

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Modesta Charley



Honored May 1990

Modesta Charley

"These tewa dresses have a special traditional pattern using tiny tucks and traditional gussets under the arm, Modesta Charley showed us her handiwork.

"We usually use a regular white material, forty-five inches wide. You use the edge to make the pleats. Every year I would make one dress, and every year it would win a prize. Now they have a machine to make the gathers and the pleats."

Born the daughter of Santiago and Delorita Martinez at San Juan Pueblo in 1905, Modesta lived with her mother and sister, Raycita. "My father passed away. My mother made pottery for her living," said Modesta. "There was a Spanish lady who used to sew for us. We didn't have a sewing machine, so she made our clothes. My mother paid her with the pottery that she made."

Once or twice a month the family loaded up the wagon and headed to Santa Fe to sell the pottery. "We didn't get all the way to Santa Fe," Modesta recalled. "We got to a place where the water runs across the highway. There were a lot of cottonwood trees. We would stay there during the night. In the morning, we'd eat breakfast and go on in to Santa Fe. There were just a few stores then."

Modesta attended school in San Juan until fourth grade, when she went to boarding school in Santa Fe. "I never came back to the village," she said. "My mother passed away during the big flu the first year I was in Santa Fe. The field nurse took a liking to me, and she always looked after me. I learned to make fancy lace, and she sold my bobbin lace. That's how I earned money." She then learned to make buttonholes at ten cents apiece.

After eighth grade, Modesta studied business at the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, now Indian Nations University. She took Civil Service tests and was assigned to a job at the Indian hospital in Tuba City, Arizona, but didn't report for work immediately. "I came home for the first time," she said.

Please see Volume 1 for complete text.
Photo ©1997 by Joanne Rijmes