In the 1880s, with the emergence of the railroad and as tourism became a viable source of income for Pueblos in New Mexico, Tesuque Pueblo Indians took to making rain gods figurines for sale to tourists. Women, then the primary makers of pottery in Pueblo communities, fueled production—providing Tesuque families with much needed income.
Pueblo communities became prime destinations for tourists looking to experience the sights and culture of the Southwest. Pueblo potters responded, catering handmade items such as pottery to tourists, adjusting size and type for those looking for a keepsake of their travels. Rain gods emerged as one of those items coveted by tourists. Pueblo vendors usually sold their wares at train stops, highway roadsides, and other well-traveled paths that attracted tourists.
Located just north of Santa Fe, Tesuque, a Tewa speaking pueblo, has historically maintained strong economic ties to the capitol city. Prior to tourism, the Pueblo economy focused primarily on farming, and potters made ceramic bowls for everyday usages such as cooking. Precarious weather conditions made farming difficult in the late 1800s causing Tesuques to rely more heavily on earnings from tourism for livelihood.
Rains gods are one of a variety of seated “god” figurines typically holding pots, children, or animals. Other gods grasp parts of their own bodies indicating a sickness or a vice. For example, the god of pain holds its shoulder. Those holding pots have come to be known as rain gods and became more prevalent then other varieties.
Rain gods come in a variety of colors and designs. Earthen clays and slips give the figures a range of colors: red, brown, cream, and black. Some gods have a glittery appearance due to mica particles embedded in the clay. Painted designs range from natural tones made with earthen paints to bright colors from synthetic poster paints, reflecting the availability of local clays and dyes, and access to commercial dyes. Rain gods have carried over into other Pueblos, reflecting the ceramic tradition of their originating community.
Tesuque rain gods may have arisen out of a previously established figurative tradition at the pueblo. However, some scholars have suggested that rain gods originated in Mexico before Tesuque artists started making them. Curio shop owners and dealers may have played a key role in encouraging potters to make these figurines. At the height of their popularity, rain gods were mass-produced by the Tesuques. In one instance, they were reportedly given to customers in a promotion put on by the Chicago based Gunther Candy Company.
Despite disagreement among scholars on the exact origins of rain gods, Tesuque oral tradition supports that either one or both, Anastasia Romero Vigil, and her sister, Francisgita Romero, are responsible for crafting the first rain gods. Tesuque ceramicists continue to craft rain gods for sale to tourists today.
Anderson, Duane. When Rain Gods Reigned: From Curios to Art at Tesuque Pueblo. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2002.
Babcock, Barbara A., Guy Monthan, and Doris Monthan. The Pueblo Storyteller: Development of a Figurative Ceramic Tradition. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986.
Lange, Patricia Fogelman. Pueblo Pottery Figurines: The Expression of Cultural Perceptions in Clay. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002