Every summer, there’s one particular booth at the Santa Fe Indian Market that always draws a crowd. The annual event, which is the largest indigenous market in North America, features a number of indigenous artists who sell their art pieces—but at Sandra and Jamie Okuma’s booth, serious shoppers have been known to line up early, in the hopes of scoring one of their intricate beadwork pieces that blend cultural heritage with colorful motifs and modern finishings.
The indigenous mother-daughter duo, who are Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock, have been showing at the market together every year since 1998, and have since become one of the market’s hottest attractions. It’s an annual tradition that continues to strengthen their creative bond. “The shows have been my life since I was 15-years-old,” says Jamie, whose own pieces, including hand-beaded Christian Louboutins, have appeared in top museums. Throughout the year, the Okumas work on their pieces on their traditional territory, the La Jolla Indian Reservation in Pauma Valley, California. The mother and daughter live next door to each other, and regularly pop over to each other’s homes to brainstorm ideas. “Hers is the only opinion I give a shit about,” says Jamie of her mom. “If somebody tells me something looks bad, it rolls right off my back—but if she tells me to change something, I'll do it.”
Most of the time, the duo work on separate solo projects: Jamie designs her eponymous ready-to-wear line, while Sandra produces one-of-a-kind bags and accessories. But on special occasions, Jamie and Sandra will also partner up on special joint pieces, too. Over the years, the duo have entered a variety of pieces together into Santa Fe’s best-of-show competitions—from handmade dolls, to full-on fashion ensembles made of beads, quills, and other traditional materials. While the two artists have their own distinct beadwork styles, they enjoy the process of coming together artistically. “We have separate [beadwork] styles,” says Sandra. “They’re compatible, but totally different.” Their collaborative works have collected top prizes at the markets, and separately, their solo works have, too: Jamie also holds the record for the youngest participant to ever win Santa Fe’s Best of Show award, when she was 22.
Unlike many indigenous families who pass down and teach each other various beadwork skills, Sandra and Jamie mastered the art form completely on their own. Sandra actually began in the arts as a painter, a skill she learned from her mother. And for years, she designed album covers for The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and more as a graphic designer at Universal Studios and MCA Records, choosing to focus on beadwork in her later years. Jamie, meanwhile, self-taught herself how to bead while on the powwow trail when she was younger: she would often make her own regalia as a dancer. “My grandmother is from Fort Hall, Idaho, and they have a fabulous festival every year. As a kid, that was our vacation,” Jamie says. She hopes one of her two boys will pick up beadwork, too.
Most recently, the Okumas have been enjoying teaming up in new, unexpected ways outside of just beadwork. Their latest piece is in one of Jamie’s new ready-to-wear collections. On a sweater, Jamie applied a print from an archival painting done by Sandra, titled, My Country Tis of Thee. “It’s an older piece that was an entry for a show,” Sandra says. In previous collections, Jamie has also used Sandra’s beadwork patterns and printed them onto her silk scarves.
Given how the COVID-19 pandemic has cancelled many of their upcoming summer markets, the Okumas plan on continuing these experimentations—and they aren’t planning on slowing down their collaborations anytime soon. “We’ve still been beading almost every day, with no specific goal,” says Sandra, who is currently working on a beaded bag. “It’s freeing.” Like Sandra, Jamie is finding hope and solace in these uncertain times by creating, too. “We’ve been beading like our ancestors did,” she says. “Beading just to bead. They went through the worst of the worst, and yet they still made the most beautiful things.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue