Otis Polelonema

Painter, Weaver, Song Composer !


Otis was born at the beginning of the 20th century, in a village on Second Mesa, called Shungopovi. He lived there most of his life as an important, respected man. He was not only a farmer, but an honored poet and composer of ritual songs. He left the mesas in 1914 to attend the Santa Fe Indian School under the tutorage of Superintendent DeHuff, whose wife was to affect his future life. Otis spent the next six years at Santa Fe High School, after which, he returned to his home village.

His painting career began in 1915, while in Santa Fe. Otis and another young Hopi man, Fred Kabotie, along with several others, were invited to participate after school, in watercolor painting sessions in Elizabeth De Huff’s living room. She provided paper, supplies and encouragement to her youngstudents. Otis’ painting career was greatly affected by her interest in her students’culture and her reinforcement in using that culture as inspiration for their paintings.

His ongoing relationship with Fred Kabotie was another strong influence. Kabotie once said, “He also paints because I paint”. You can see this in the close style in some of their paintings from this period. He and Fred also did illustrations for Mrs. De Huff’s children’s book, “Tatay’s Tales”.

Once Otis went back to Shungopovi, he never left. He married Jessie Salaftoche in 1925, and had six children, including artist, Tyler Polelonema. Here, he raised sheep, excelled in the traditional craft of weaving, and became famous as a song composer of ceremonial dances. He learned all the ceremonial songs of the Gray Flute society, which was very difficult. According to Fred Kabotie, “These are foreign songs in a very, very ancient language”.

Although his volume of artwork decreased as he became more involved in traditional Hopi activities, Otis painted throughout most of his life. His paintings give us an insight into Hopi ceremonial life. He painted with an honest intensity up into the mid 1970’s. People

came to Hopi seeking his art for over 5 decades. During this time, he won several awards. He has paintings in the Heard collection, and was included in thirteen Heard exhibits, the last one being, “The Art of Ceremony”, in 2011. Otis passed away on December 27, 1981, at Shungopovi. “He died during Solstice Ceremony.”, remembers Fred Kabotie. “He was down in the Kiva all night. Then, the next morning, he was on his way.”

To read more of these comments about Otis Polelonema, check out the book, “When The Rainbow Touches Down”.