Arts of the American Southwest: The Pabst Collection

 Arts of the American Southwest: The Pabst Collection

In the late 1930s, Galvestonians William and Viola Pabst traveled extensively through New Mexico and Arizona, purchasing Indian-made arts and crafts from reservations and trading posts. Throughout the next two decades, the couple developed a true passion for collecting Native American art including jewelry, pottery, weavings, baskets, and Kachina dolls. Rosenberg Library acquired the William and Viola Pabst Indian Artifact Collection in 1986.

 Arts of the American Southwest: The Pabst Collection


Long before the Spanish arrived in the Southwest, Pueblo Indians wove garments, blankets, and other items from the cotton they grew in irrigated fields. When the Spanish settlers brought sheep and goats to serve their own weaving needs, the Indians began to weave wool as well. Additionally, they developed multiple natural dyes with which they colored these textiles. Celebrated for its quality and design, the majority of textiles produced in this region after 1865 were made for sale rather than for use by tribal members. Traditionally, women were responsible for weaving and dying textiles.


Kachina dolls represent the kachina spirits, or gods, that the Pueblo Indians believe influence their daily lives. In the Pueblo religion, there are more than 300 different kachina deities, all with unique characteristics. Kachinas can be identified by their shape, color, and ornamentation.

 Arts of the American Southwest: The Pabst Collection

The word “kachina” (sometimes spelled “katsina”) actually has three different meanings. The first refers to the supernatural entities that the Pueblo people believe to have influence over nature. The second meaning refers to men from the tribe who wear costumes to represent these spirits at ceremonial events and dances. The third references the masked dolls which are made for Pueblo children.

Kachina dolls were given to children as a way to teach them about the Pueblo system of beliefs and values. Traditionally, the carving of kachina dolls was the work of male artisans. Authentic dolls are made of cottonwood root, which is easy to carve but also very durable. It was not until the late 19th century that Indian tribes began to sell kachina dolls at trading posts. The dolls became popular collectibles for tourists, and even today, they are highly prized in the Native American crafts market.


Prior to the 19th century, baskets played an important utilitarian role among native peoples. Food and water were stored in woven containers which were sealed with pitch or resin. Baskets were also objects of trade with the Spanish and with neighboring tribes. For centuries, Native Americans have made woven objects for utilitarian, decorative, and religious purposes. Baskets are composed of a base, side walls, and a rim. Sometimes lids, handles, or other embellishments are added. Patterns can be made by changing the size, color, or placement of different weaving styles. Likewise, materials can be dyed then woven create intricate designs. Common materials used in Southwest basketry are native plants including red, yucca, willow, and grass.

 Arts of the American Southwest: The Pabst Collection
 Arts of the American Southwest: The Pabst Collection


When the Spanish arrived in the Southwest during the 16th century, a rich heritage of native ornamentation was already in existence. However, the Spanish introduced new European forms of jewelry-making as well as the technique of silversmithing. During the early 1900s, the expansion of the Santa Fe Railroad into the American Southwest created a huge demand for inexpensive Indian-made curios. The need for financial security prompted many Indian artisans to go to work in commercial jewelry factories to mass-produce souvenirs for tourists. Non-traditional motifs and elaborate decoration were adopted in order to make Indian jewelry more appealing to the masses.

From about 1910 to 1940, traditional hand-made jewelry could only be purchased away from major trade centers along the railroad line. With the onset of the Great Depression followed by World War II, the demand for Indian jewelry waned, creating an economic crisis for the tribes in the Southwest. In 1934, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act which gave tribes the right to govern themselves in an attempt to restore tribal identity and traditional ways of life. The following year, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board was created to assist Native American silversmiths by helping them establish new markets for their goods. Vocational schools were founded specifically to teach the silversmith trade, and these artisans enjoyed a growing patronage by collectors and museums.

During the past several decades, Native American artisans have become more professionalized and individualistic in their approaches to design. Some have adapted new modern styles and methods, while others favor more traditional techniques and materials.

The appeal of Native American art — both antique and modern — has withstood the test of time.