"Priscilla Vigil Makes a Classic Tesuque Rain God"

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Priscilla Vigil on the cover of El Palacio 82, no. 3 (Fall 1976). 

Gratz, Kathleen. “Tesuque Rain God.” El Palacio 82, no. 3 (Fall 1976): 3-8. 

Warren, Nancy. “Priscilla Vigil Makes a Classic Tesuque Rain God.” El Palacio 82, no. 3 (Fall 1976): 9-13.

In these 1976 articles from El Palacio, Kathleen Gratz details the history of “Tesuque Rain Gods,” and Nancy Warren follows artist Priscilla Vigil (Tesuque Pueblo) as she creates one of the figures, a ceramic work popular with tourists and found in both E. I. Couse’s paintings as well as his collection of Native American material culture.

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The first page from Kathleen Gratz's article, "Tesuque Rain God" in El Palacio 82, no. 3 (Fall 1976).

In the 1880s, potters from Tesuque Pueblo, located just north of Santa Fe, began to create small ceramic figures marketed as ceremonial “Rain Gods.”[1] A Tewa speaking pueblo, Tesuque had and continues to have “strong economic ties to the capital city” of Santa Fe, and, prior to tourism, its economy centered mainly around farming.[2] However, towards the end of the nineteenth century, Tesuque artists were responding to the amplified demand for Pueblo goods, including works of art, by non-Native tourists brought to the area in increasing numbers by the newly developed railroad.[3] While likely based in a previously-established tradition of figurative ceramic works at Tesuque Pueblo, Tesuque Rain Gods are widely accepted as “neither traditional nor ceremonial,” but rather, “produced strictly for the tourist trade.”[4] Specifically, scholars note that Rain Gods were “coveted” by tourists during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and were often sold by vendors in high-traffic locations such as highway roadsides and train stops.[5]


Described as “small palm-sized figure[s]” with a strong presence in the late nineteenth-century tourist trade, Rain Gods were consumed so readily by tourists, in part, because of prevailing beliefs in “salvage ethnography.”[6] The inherently false and Euro-centric idea that Indigenous cultures would “die out,” and as a result, one should collect objects and records of Indigenous cultures to “preserve” them, salvage ethnology was motivated by increasing technological advances across the country and the decidedly “anti-modern” sentiments of non-Native scholars. While many tourists subscribed to these beliefs and purchased Native goods on their travels throughout the American Southwest to play their part in the “salvage paradigm,” late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anthropologists and ethnologist rejected Tesuque Rain Gods as “authentic” works of Native art. Instead, they believed that the works were “cheap and not representative of pre-contact culture.”[7] This belief aligns itself with the inaccurate idea that Native artwork created for the tourism industry is inherently inauthentic as a result of the demands of its production and denies evidence that Rain Gods had functions for the Pueblo outside the tourism industry.[8]

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The first page from Kathleen Gratz's article, "Tesuque Rain God" in El Palacio 82, no. 3 (Fall 1976).

Primarily, women such as Priscilla Vigil were the main pottery makers in Pueblo communities, and their production of Tesuque Rain Gods and other ceramic wares provided families with needed income.[9] Thus, while curio shop owners and art dealers “may have played a key role in encouraging potters to make these figurines,” Tesuque women were and continue to be instrumental in both their production and the resulting economic benefit of their sale for their communities.[10] The income from the sale of goods to tourists was especially needed in the late 1800s as “precarious weather conditions” had impacted Tesuque farming negatively.[11] While scholars have disagreed on the “exact origins” of the Rain Gods, Tesuque oral tradition supports the idea that either or both Anastasia Romero Vigil and her sister Francisgita Romero created the first figures. Following their inception and excited reception by tourists, Rain Gods have “carried over into other Pueblos” while still “reflecting the ceramic tradition of their originating community.”[12]

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Two pages from Kathleen Gratz's article, "Tesuque Rain God" in El Palacio 82, no. 3 (Fall 1976).

Also called muna, Tesuque Rain Gods can resemble koshare, or sacred Pueblo clowns, in their exaggerated forms and expressions.[13] Typically holding pots or other forms of vessels, Rain Gods are a singular variety of a multitude of seated “god” figurines that grasp objects such as animals, children, body parts, or vessels.[14] In the late nineteenth-century, figures holding pots became known as Rain Gods and were produced at a larger quantity than other “god” variations.[15] Within the genre of Rain Gods, artists painted figures in a variety of designs and colors. Often, these designs were created from Earthen clays and slips in red, cream, brown, and black, and some Rain Gods glitter from mica particles present in their clay.[16] Warren argues that, from 1890-1930, most Tesuque Rain Gods were painted, but the type of paint used—either natural slips or synthetic poster paints—fluctuated over time. She furthers that, before 1900, Rain Gods were decorated frequently with a singular color—white, red, black, or micaceous slip. However, by 1905, figures painted in two colors became increasingly popular with tourists, and poster paints became utilized with a higher frequency. Lastly, Warren notes that, beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the time of the article’s creation (the 1970s), artists tended to produce Rain Gods decorated with one all-over color.[17] The fluctuations in Rain God design and color were due, in large part, by the demands of the tourist market, but also reflect changing availability of local clays and access to commercial dyes.[18]


Tesuque artists mass-produced Rain Gods at the peak of their popularity with tourists. In the 1890s, Gunther’s Candy Company of Chicago learned of the figures and began buying them from Santa Fe traders in large quantities.[19] By the early twentieth century, Tesuque artists were producing thousands of Rain Gods, a quantity so large that the artworks were frequently packed into barrels and mailed to tourist and curio shops across the Southwest.[20] Warren notes that, from their “discovery” by traders until the 1920s and ‘30s, Rain Gods garnered artists ten cents apiece.[21] In part, the popularity of Tesuque Rain Gods and their ceramic precursors was due not only to the idea of “salvage ethnology,” but also that the misinformation about the objects that traders spread; to garner interest in the figurines, the false association of the Rain Gods with unidentified “ancient people” and their promotion as objects of worship was widely stated.[22]

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Two pages from Kathleen Gratz's article, "Tesuque Rain God" in El Palacio 82, no. 3 (Fall 1976).

While the mass-production of Rain Gods provided artists from Tesuque Pueblo with a profitable economic opportunity, the sheer number of figurines being made often frustrated non-Native scholars and “serious” art collectors. To these figures, including ethnologist Edgar J. Hewitt, Tesuque Rain Gods were “no more than ugly tourist trinkets, not worthy of serious study or addition to museum collections,” in part due to the large quantity of the Rain Gods available in the market.[23] This negative attitude began at the Rain God’s conception and has been perpetuated, by some, for the proceeding 140 years.[24] Yet, for the artists who made and continue to make Tesuque Rain Gods, the ceramic figures have been and continue to be a form of “individual self-expression and identity.”[25] Now, in the twenty-first century, the production of Rain Gods in Tesuque Pueblo continues, with artists taking immense pride in their work. In the early 2000s, a Rain God won a coveted prize at the esteemed Santa Fe Indian Market.[26] Additionally, collectors and scholars have, for the most part, eschewed past, non-Native judgements of the Rain Gods, and the figurines are “sought after pieces among collectors” and represented in established museum collections.[27]


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The first page from Nancy Warren's photoessay, "Priscilla Vigil Makes a Classic Tesuque Rain God" in El Palacio 82, no. 3 (Fall 1976).

Born in 1919 in Tesuque Pueblo, Priscilla Vigil ran her local Head Start program until her retirement at the age of 54 and was a celebrated cook—in addition to a noted potter.[28] Specifically, Vigil was interested deeply in traditional Pueblo foods and their modern adaptations and wrote the introduction for Pueblo Indian Cookbook, published by the Museum of New Mexico Press in 1972.[29] This interest was reflected by her involvement with the Circle of Elders and Youths, a group of elderly and young Native Americans concerned with preserving and then transmitting their traditional ways and cultures.[30] Vigil’s artwork and artistic practice has received wide-spread attention in the Southwest art world, with her work appearing in texts such as  Pueblo Indian Pottery, American Indian Pottery, and Southwestern Pottery, Anasazi to Zuni. In 1933, she began exhibiting her artwork at the Santa Fe Indian Market and continued to show her art at institutions such as the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife and the New Mexico Folklife Festival through the late twentieth century.[31]

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One page from Nancy Warren's photoessay, "Priscilla Vigil Makes a Classic Tesuque Rain God" in El Palacio 82, no. 3 (Fall 1976).

In “Priscilla Vigil Makes a Classic Tesuque Rain God,” Warren provides background information on both the history of Tesuque Rain Gods as well as Vigil herself. The rest of the article follows, through a “photo essay,” Vigil and her “fascinating process” of creating a “classic Rain God figure, from the raw clay to a collector’s prize.”[32] Warren asserts that Vigil “came onto the scene in the end days of Tesuque Rain God production” and was still creating the figures through the 1960s, although she appeared to stop using poster paint to decorate the Rain Gods and favored golden micaceous slip, instead.[33] In addition to her reputation as a notable potter and cook, Vigil was also known for her pottery and storytelling. In her artistic practice, she followed closely the traditional ceramic techniques used by Pueblo potters in her area for generations.[34] Specifically, Vigil gathered locally and prepared in the conventional manner clays and tempers for her ceramics, which she decorated using skills and designs learned from her mother and other family members. Yet, within this framework of tradition, Vigil often added variations and design elements of her own making.[35]

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One page from Nancy Warren's photoessay, "Priscilla Vigil Makes a Classic Tesuque Rain God" in El Palacio 82, no. 3 (Fall 1976).

Over the course of the photo essay, Warren delves deeply into Vigil’s process of creating a Tesuque Rain God. She notes that, after creating the form of the Rain God and letting it slowly dry for days, Vigil would brush on three coats of micaceous slip. Then, she would smooth and polish the figure to ready it for firing. Preferably, Vigil would fire her ceramics in the early morning, when there is less chance for wind, on a clear, calm day. Her works were fired in a kiln that she would build from kindling, tin cans, and scrap metal.[36]


In addition to being the focus of articles herself in El Palacio, Vigil also wrote featured stories for the magazine such as “Christmas in Tesuque” from 1973.[37]

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Cover to El Palacio VI, no. 12 (June 14, 1919), featuring a scene from "The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife." 

With a name meaning “the palace” and referring to the original location of the Museum of New Mexico, El Palacio was published for the first time in November of 1913 and is the oldest museum magazine of its kind.[38] Since its inception, the magazine has covered the history, culture, and art of the Southwest, as represented in public programming, exhibitions, and the scholarship of eight area museums: the Museum of International Folk Art, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum, the National Hispanic Cultural Center, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, the New Mexico Museum of Art, and the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Additionally, El Palacio covers the going-ons and scholarship of eight state historic sites—Fort Stanton, Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner, Jemez, Lincoln, Fort Selden, Los Luceros, and the Taylor-Mesilla Historic property—as well as other state divisions such as the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies, New Mexico Arts, the New Mexico State Library, and the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division.[39]

[1] “Tesuque Rain God,” McPherson Museum, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.mcphersonmuseum.com/virtual-tour/tesuque-rain-god#:~:text=During%20the%201880s%2C%20the%20potters,strictly%20for%20the%20tourist%20trade.

[2] “Tesuque Rain Gods,” New Mexico Historic Women Marker Initiative, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.nmhistoricwomen.org/location/tesuque-rain-gods/.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Tesuque Rain God,” McPherson Museum.

[5] “Tesuque Rain Gods,” New Mexico Historic Women Marker Initiative.

[6] “Figurine,” Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, accessed June 27, 2022, https://portal.hearstmuseum.berkeley.edu/catalog/3bf6793b-154a-4ba4-82c0-fba504ede4bb.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Tesuque Rain Gods,” New Mexico Historic Women Marker Initiative.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Figurine,” Phoebe A. Hearst Museum.

[14] “Tesuque Rain Gods,” New Mexico Historic Women Marker Initiative.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Nancy Warren, “Priscilla Vigil Makes a Classic Tesuque Rain God,” El Palacio 82, no. 3 (Fall 1976): 5.

[18] “Tesuque Rain Gods,” New Mexico Historic Women Marker Initiative.

[19] Warren, “Priscilla Vigil Makes a Classic Tesuque Rain God,” 4.

[20] “Tesuque Rain God,” McPherson Museum.

[21] Warren, “Priscilla Vigil Makes a Classic Tesuque Rain God,” 4.

[22] Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds, ed. by Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher Steiner (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 293.

[23] “Tesuque Rain God,” McPherson Museum; J. C. H. King, “Review: Clay People,” American Anthropologist 102, no. 2 (June 2000): 344.

[24] Duane Anderson, “‘Our mission is to present Native American Culture from the Native perspective,” in Voicing Folklore: Careers, Concerns and Issues, ed. by M. D. Muthukumaraswamy (Chennai, India: National Folklore Support Centre, 2002), 22.

[25] Ibid., 23.

[26] Ibid.

[27] “Tesuque Rain Gods,” New Mexico Historic Women Marker Initiative.

[28] Nancy Harmon Jenkins, “In Pueblo Food, Deep Respect For the Earth,” New York Times, Nov. 22, 1989.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Priscilla Vigil (1919—?),” Summerhouse Indian Art, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.summerhouseindianart.com/s1032-priscilla-vigil.html.

[32] Warren, “Priscilla Vigil Makes a Classic Tesuque Rain God,” 7.

[33] “Priscilla Vigil,” Eyes of the Pot, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.eyesofthepot.com/tesuque/priscilla-vigil.php.

[34] Warren, “Priscilla Vigil Makes a Classic Tesuque Rain God,” 7.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., 12.

[37] See: Priscilla Vigil, “Christmas in Tesuque,” El Palacio 79, no. 3 (December 1973): 3-5.

[38] “About Us,” El Palacio, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.elpalacio.org/about-us/.

[39] Ibid.

Priscilla Vigil & "Rain Gods"