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 Elizabeth Ruth Qoyawayma White  (1892 - 1990)



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Lived/Active: Arizona/Kansas      Known for: Hopi ceramic pottery, Indian symbolism

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BIOGRAPHY for Elizabeth White
1892 (Old Oraibi, Hopi Reservation, Arizona)
1990 (Phoenix, Arizona)


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Hopi ceramic pottery, Indian symbolism

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Native American ceramist Elizabeth White was born with the name Polingaysi Qoyawayma on the Hopi Reservation at Old Oraibi on the Third Mesa in Arizona in 1892. Her first name translates to "Butterfly Resting Among the Flowers in a Breeze." She was one of the first children of Oraibi to be educated and become a teacher. Taught by Mennonites who hoped she would spread the Christian religion on the reservation, she was rejected by her people when she tried to do so.

Her life was that of a person caught between two cultures. In fact, she wrote the story of her life from just such a perspective: "No Turning Back: A Hopi Indian Woman's Struggle to Live in Two Worlds", published by the University of New Mexico Press, in 1964.

When she moved to Kansas to study to be a missionary, she stayed with the Frey family, who gave her the Anglo name Elizabeth Ruth which she used from then on. She also lived with Gustav and Clara Haury. Their son, Emil, fascinated by her tales of life among the Hopi, grew up to become head of the University of Arizona's Anthropology Department, and would head the Arizona State Museum.

When her attempts to bridge religious and social gaps between cultures failed, she decided to go into teaching, where, after initial criticism, her inventive method of using Hopi legends to teach arithmetic and science, were later hailed. Her grandmother had prophesied that she would be a bridge between the Hopi and White cultures.

White studied at Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff, and the University of California, Los Angeles, in order to gain the formal qualifications to be a teacher in the Indian Service. She taught at the Tuba City Boarding School and Hotevilla Government Day School; later on the Navajo reservation in Chinle, Arizona and in Toadlena, New Mexico. She met and married Lloyd White, a part Cherokee, in Toadlena in 1931, though they were later divorced.

She saved her money in order to fulfill her dream of building a big house for herself and her relatives on the Reservation. The house also served as a meeting place for visitors, including celebrated thinkers, anthropologists and writers. Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt came to see White.

After her retirement from thirty-five years of teaching, White involved herself in music (she was gifted with a singing voice) and writing. She published "The Sun Girl" in 1945, which was named one of the fifty best books of the year. Returning to ceramics, White found and developed a pearly clay that is specifically hers, and identifies her work. She also used raised designs of ears of corn and Kokopelli, the bringer of life. Her pots are in the collection of the Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona.

Elizabeth White's work is discussed in Art and Indian Individualists, The Art of Seventeen Contemporary Southwestern Artists and Craftsmen, by Guy Monthan and Doris Monthan, published in 1975 by Northland Press.

In 1954, she was given the United States Department of the Interior Distinguished Service Award. In 1976, the Museum of Northern Arizona commissioned a bronze sculpture of her. Bethel College honored her as a distinguished alumna. She received the Arizona Author Award in 1989, and in the same year was designated an "Arizona Indian Living Treasure."

Elizabeth White died on December 6, 1990. In 1991, she was inducted into the Arizona Women's Hall of Fame.

Jules and Nancy Heller, "North American Women Artists of the 20th Century"

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