There is a vision people have of a Native Woman, impeccably dressed for ceremony, making those swishing, jingling sounds at pow-wow or just standing in line for fry bread at Indian Market. Jeri Ah-be-hill was that vision in all manner of true Native Fashions, and of course mostly from her Kiowa-Comanche heritage. Jeri Ah-be-hill passed away of a sudden heart attack on Wednesday March 11 and was laid to rest by her family on March 17.
Her daughters are award winning artists, Teri Greeves and Keri Ataumbi. They are planning a public celebration of her life in late April in Santa Fe and plan on establishing a scholarship in Jeri’s name at the Institute of American Indian Art for a Kiowa student. This is from Teri Greeves’ statement: “Helping a young artist express themselves and make their way would be very meaningful for her and is certainly meaningful for my sister and I. We are the artists and the human beings we are because of her loving and generous guidance throughout her life. Thank you to all of you who have reached out to us. The love we feel from all of you is an extension of the love she had for all of us.”
For the last 17 years, Jeri Ah-be-hill was the chairwoman for SWAIA’s most popular event during Indian Market, the Traditional Native American Clothing Contest. Jeri was always cool with her sunglasses, her hair braided traditionally, sometimes with eagle plumes, always smiling and cheerful. It seemed she was always on her way somewhere to drop some wisdom and knowledge, but for any good reason she could be tough if an issue came up.
She supported Native artists and beadworkers, she purchased traditional clothing and outfits, and she told people “never call them costumes.” She and her husband Richard Greeves started the Washakie Trading Company at the Wind River Reservation in 1954, specializing in the beadwork of Shoshone-Arapaho tribes and carrying the art of many other tribes; after they divorced she and her daughters moved to Santa Fe in 1988. That’s when Jeri became widely known in the Native Art world as she worked and volunteered at IAIA, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, the Indigenous Language Institute and SWAIA. For many she was the face, the smile and the energy that defined Santa Fe and Indian Market.
Staci Golar, who has worked all around Santa Fe with different cultural institutions, said about Jeri: “She was independent, creative, sharp, hilarious, saucy, generous and a staunch supporter of Native arts and artists. She was a walking encyclopedia of all things Native American. She always stood out in a crowd (because of her Native attire) and answered questions from curious non-Natives with kindness, openness and sincerity. But she had no patience for those who issued ignorant statements that glorified Native American stereotypes.”
Wendy Ponca: “Her style and grace are what I respectfully remember of her and our world has been elevated in beauty by her good taste in art.”
Patricia Michaels: “I worked for Jeri when she first moved to Santa Fe, when I was a student at IAIA and I was blessed to be close with her ever since. It’s hard to believe and even harder knowing that her daughters are probably having a difficult time with this sudden unexpected loss. I know Jeri raised them to both be beautiful strong women and also with their own voice but all we can do is pray for them and for Jeri’s journey into the next world where her beautiful smile will shine. She has given us all an everlasting smile. Blessing into the Spirit World.”
Marcus Amerman: “She was a giant! She was an icon and a powerhouse and a dynamo. She wasn’t tall but she had a powerful, intelligent, cultural presence that always made her appear bigger than anyone in the room. She was a great friend and supporter of Indians and artists everywhere and loved, and was loved like the mother of an entire people. And she was—she was a mythological figure.”
Fran Loretto: “She walked a straight Indian path, she was powerful and beautiful. She was like a mother, our own Indian Mother.”
Celia Kay: “Jeri was a force, a woman of power that she never misused. I will miss her every day.”
She will be missed and everyone at this year’s Indian Market will be talking about all the good work, all the good jokes, all the good times she shared with everybody. In our tribe all women are “Istah” (mother) but every family and clan has the “Big” Mother. Safe Journey to “Istah”.
Santa Fe, NM
March 20, 2015