The Storyteller Doll

The Storyteller Doll

Norbert Blei

I recall my New Mexican days in the early ‘70’s, walking toward the plaza in Santa Fe after midnight, wandering all the deserted streets…the smell of piñon drifting through the air, a comforting cobalt blue sky above, a sense of mountains in the distance, the earthiness of everything within reach. The writer-in-me alive, in place…living the story.

My treks to Santa Fe became an annual journey, a force of habit, a place to see the world in a different light, develop my Midwestern sense of art in new ways, thanks to friends Ross and Arlene LewAllen who took me under their wings, introduced me to the painters, poets, potters, photographers, sculptors, weavers, jewelers, crafts-people of all sorts, a never-ending story of life in passionate pursuit of art. I absorbed everything I could about the place…history, literature, language, geography. Restaurants, bookstores, galleries, schools. The three cultures: Anglo, Native American, Latino. Just who was doing what. Something new. Something, someone always different. An Anglo painter, A New Mexican carver. A Native American artist, potter.

I recall yet another satisfying evening of friends, food, drink…good old fashioned, soul searching conversation, the pursuit of art, love, happiness and everything that mattered among like-minded souls gathered together at any number of favorite haunts—La Posada, the Pink Adobe, the La Fonda, the Bull Ring, Evangelo’s, the Ore House, the Plaza Bar. Loud talk, laughter, sometimes Spanish guitar music (El Farol on Canyon Road)… sometimes warmth enough from glowing adobe fireplaces to nurture tomorrow’s dream, past, present, future—a particular reverence for the past because it was Santa Fe, the Old Santa Fe Trail…the living past…the historical, mystical, native southwest…where the story for me, for then (now still) came together, wove itself before one’s eyes like a Navajo tapestry.

What else had we been doing all night but telling stories?

I recall seeing a doll in one of the shop windows in one of my after midnight sojourns down the streets of Santa Fe. A seated clay pottery figure…eyes closed, mouth open, children climbing all over it, clinging to arms and shoulders, lined up along the legs.

Entranced: the seated figure…the children…me.

What is going on here?

I didn’t know then it was called the Storyteller Doll. Though obviously Native American, I didn’t know then where it came from, who made it, what it cost. I didn’t purchase one then—though I wish I had now. I could not afford it then—a hundred dollars at least. (Valued over ten thousand dollars now for an early one.)

Some years later (more storyteller dolls in evidence all over Santa Fe), I learn that Helen Cordero of the Cochiti Pueblo made the first Storyteller Doll around 1964 when she was forty years old and grew tired of making pots. I learned that the doll was created in honor of her grandfather, Santiago Quintana, who was a tribal storyteller…passing down the legends of his people, keeping the stories alive.

“As conceived by Helen Cordero, the clay Storyteller is itself the material expression of regeneration: the very structure of this large figure alive with small children re-enacts this reproductive dynamic; its proportions are, indeed, social proportions; and its subject is explicitly relationship—between generations, between past and future, and between words and things. “We are,” as she has said, “all in there, in the clay.”—Barbara A. Babcock, Guy and Doris Monthan, THE PUEBLO STORYTELLER

This is where I come in This is where you come in. This is the work of the writer. This is the connection to the Storyteller Doll.

This is the beginning,


  1. Jackie

    What a charming essay, Norb. The doll is exquisite and so it the idea. I particularly like the little boy-looking character at her feet with his hand over his eyes–I imagine he is ‘seeing’ the character he is hearing about. Did you acquire a doll altho of lesser value per dollar, much more value to the storyteller in you? Thank you always for your memories.

  2. Ross Lewallen

    It is high time to return – there are still some of us ( old Santa Fe here) to speak new stories. Liked your you tube video …
    Have you seen “Midnight in Paris” a must.
    Not been to the La Posada, the Pink Adobe, the La Fonda, the Bull Ring, Evangelo’s, the Ore House, the Plaza Bar in many years. I today would not look for like-minded souls at those haunts. I have been finding them at the remarkable SF farmers market in the rail yard or the Three Raven Coffee house in TA New Mexico. You would find special pottery from an old friend there that tells its own stories. rl

  3. Steve Fortney

    Amen. Delicious.

  4. Ross Lewallen

    Three Ravens Coffee House in TA ,N.M. I hang out here most of the time when sailing at near by Heron Lake. The perfect chair waits for you there.

  5. delphine sanks

    I agree with Ross Lewallen. DO IT!!!

  6. Leonard Cirinoq

    Intriguing stories. That’s a part of the US I’ve only been to once — and for a week. Makes me want to return, thanks, Leonard

  7. Gretchen Maring

    We have gone to Santa Fe four times over the years…John loves to go there, as do I. One time I bought a lovely turquoise pendant carved like a feather. Ten years later I was wearing it while looking over the lovely jewelry at the “authorized” site when a lady, selling her wares, said, “that’s my husband’s piece.” We were both so pleased. We hugged, posed for pictures and I went on with a full heart.”

  8. Kris

    On your way north to TA, stop and see me too. Then go see Santa Clara potter Roxanne Swentzell’s clay figures at her Tower Gallery, at Cities of Gold casino, between Santa Fe and Pojoaque. Another amazing storyteller in her own right. We are all telling our stories, with words, with songs, with clay. We are weaving together the generations.

  9. Bonnie Hartmann

    Lovely writing, Norb.
    The storytellers are magical. I have a tiny one that delights me every time I look at it. Wish you could have bought the Cordero way back when…Thanks,

  10. vicki elberfeld

    My mother brought me one of these dolls from Santa Fe, but I hadn’t known the history. Thank you so much for your essay, Norb. I’ll think of it whenever I look at my doll.

  11. jude hey

    Visons of Santa Fe are tatooed in memory in red sand and the scent of pinion and times with your people, Arlene and Jerry and Ross ~ so good to be reminded of them this grey gloomy day in the Heartland. Beau coups ~

  12. Nancy

    If you come east and get to NYC, you’ll find Helen Cordero figures and others from throughout the Western Hemisphere in “Small Spirits”, on exhibit at the American Indian Museum’s Heye Center (One Bowling Green NYC). Plenty of time for NM and NY–exhibit runs through Feb. 19, 2012. Happy trails wherever you are, Norb. Thanks for the story.

  13. Tom's Jude

    Norb, as always thanks for sharing your reflections.
    The Storyteller Doll reminds me of Tom sitting on the pier telling Door County stories to the children of three couples who would later become treasured friends.
    Your vivid descriptions prompted me to share your “Once Upon a Time” with two classmates who live in New Mexico.

  14. Michael Brecke

    When moments like that rise up and you encounter a transcendant truth, both in creativity and life, it is almost overwhelming. You captured that in words but importantly you captured it in a way that enables memory to send it to the future. Thanks Michael

  15. Tim Stone

    You brought back many memories of our wonderful trips to Santa Fe. Debora and Bill Barrett of Santa Fe/New York will enjoy this. Ross featured Bill’s sculpture work.

  16. Debora and Bill Barrett

    Thank you Tim and Sue and Norbert. We begin our day in Santa Fe happy to have wonderful friends to make great stories to share. With a very full heart we send hugs to Door County.

  17. Norbert Blei

    To all of you above (and those who might follow), thank you for your thoughts. Great Spirits, each and everyone. I’m blessed to share my stories with you.

    Old friend, Ross…I may take you up on that empty chair some day. (Our time grows short.) I find it difficult to return, for reasons we both know. I miss Arlene so much, I can’t imagine walking the streets of Santa Fe without her presence, her spirit of life which haunts me everyday.I am surrounded by photos, paintings, postcards, words and letters from her here in the coop. I am glad I caught you both in some of my stories and books (the way we all were then), though I had hoped for more. Hoped to settle there, hoped to write the Santa Fe book, which would have made a fascinating trilogy in its own right: the Chicago book, the Door County book, and the Santa Fe, bringing it all home in a sense. Three love affairs; people and place. But life takes strange turns as we all learn. And though I sit upon boxes of notes, files, photographs, chapters of the Santa Fe book written and some previously published, I doubt it will ever be done. And no doubt burned with the rest of my finished and unfinished business that made up a life. I cannot imagine “picking myself up, dusting myself off, and starting all over again” in light of the death of Arlene, our patron saint of inspiration, who was an immense part of the book as I envisioned it, sought and needed her counsel . (Yours as well.) In light of what I’ve been through the past year, in light of my writing life, living conditions, place here in Door, my need to complete the myriad of writing tasks already set before me given my reduced energy level…fading light.

    All of which reminds me of the old Native American adage: “Today is a good day to die” which, subconsciously, remains a feeling I long nourished. New Mexico, the desert, the mountains, the sun…the right and perfect final place to disappear into the ethereal…now in the (that) hour. ( I have left instructions that some of my ashes be scattered there …on the old road, in the mountains, somewhere between Santa Fe and Chimayo…near the Santuario as well).You remember my story, I’m sure: “The Hour of the Sunshine Now” which I could not have written had I not been living with you and Ar way back then…when…Ah, we all know the words that follow.

    She inspires me still as I write these words this morning, her smile, her laughter, her total faith in whatever one wanted to do with his life, his art. “Do it!” Mother Encouragement. “When you’re down to your last dollar,” she would always advise,” buy the Cadillac!”

    This is a strange, peaceful little shelter I inhabit, where I find myself each day. Monastic. The outside–vintage Wisconsin, weathered cedar shingles gone silver, green woods, blue waters in walking distance. The inside lives and breathes the mystical spirit of the Southwest … crosses and crucifixes and carvings and candles and milagros and pottery and paintings and weaving. Memories and stories crying to be heard, touched, seen on every wall.

    I rummage through my desk drawer, seek and find a stick of old pinon incense …light it with a wooden match … wait for the first wave of blue smoke to rise…to bring us all together once again.


  18. John Bennett

    Norb … you coninue to lay out taut, on-the-money writing …either yours or that of others … a tip of the hat…

  19. Mary Ann

    While staying in a small town near Santa Fe in 1996 I bought a silver raven pin and two large steel ravens to put on fence posts. In 2007 while talking in camp with fellow paddlers canoeing down the Colorado River someone mentioned Santa Fe and I told of the wonderful raven pieces that I bought at a small shop on our way to Abiquiu. The woman across from me said, with amazement on her face, that she was the artist who made the ravens. I was so thrilled to make such a connection. It made the canoe trip down the Colorado even more special. But Abiquiu, Plaza Blanca, Chimayo and Santa Fe are spiritual places for me too. Once again Norb for bringing a lovely memory back..

  20. Jean Casey

    We were on the last trip with Gretchen and several of us flew in from Colorado Springs in a single engine Bonanza flying down the flanks of the Sangre de Christos and following the groove below which marked the river on its way to the land where the hard edge of adobe meets the cobalt blue of the sky. It’s a tape I play through my head when I cannot sleep.

  21. DyAnne

    As Barry Lopez said, “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” Thank you the spirit food, Norb.

  22. Judith Wiker

    The endless celebration’s of life, creativity and laughter sitting around the table with Ross, Arlene and you at the Casa Lewallen, will never leave my mind.The Golden years at the Yaqui Village shaped my spirit and gave inspiration for my creativity to this day, through Ross’s magic. Arlene’s open heart/ friendship are etched into my soul forever. Thanks for a walk down memory lane….

  23. RD Armstrong

    I agree with John B…a tip of the old sombrero from me as well. I’ll be in Santa Fe this coming November and will certainly check out some of the “haunts” you suggested. So glad I have come to know you Norbert.

  24. Arlene Eisenbise

    Thank you, Norb, for your background tale about the original Storyteller Doll. I have a replica which speaks to the storyteller in me. You are truly appreciated.

  25. Ross Lewallen

    The yaqui village still exists – it is now a yurt on 10 ac SE of Santa Fe ….. Tomorrow morning my clients in the yurt will seek some insight as to why they want to end their marriage after many years …..

  26. Judith Wiker

    Ross…the yaqui village continues to have a life of it’s own…here/hear! I do hope you can assist in levitating it’s new members to a higher consciousness! After all…it is all just another fine chapter in a wonderful movie….may the force be with you xx

  27. Bridget Blei Buff

    My first thought after reading this piece is I love the storyteller pottery photo because it reminds me of how I would love to sit on your lap and have you read books to me. Now your grandchildren enjoy doing the same. I love that memory and the memories of Santa Fe and of Ross, Arlene, and Laura. The piece made me smile, and brought me to tears, and made my heart ache a bit too. xoxo Bridget

  28. Niko Andonian

    Hello my name is Niko Andonian. I live in OK I’m a Comanche tribal member. I have heard story’s of theses strory telling dolls. That at night they would come alive and tell story’s and sing and dance old Indian songs all night. And they said that the story tellers would multiply. I thought it was interesting to hear theses story’s.

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