Leekya Deyuse was the head of the famous Leekya family of Zuni fetish artists. As one of the Zunis hired to work on the excavation of Hawikuh Pueblo in the 1920s, Leekya saw first-hand the work of his ancestors and incorporated it into his fetish carvings.
Leekya’s energy and creativity resulted in animal fetishes ranging from simple carved turquoise leaves to fat bears and graceful birds to elegantly carved figurals. Early on, he understood that he must honor and protect his tribal origin, so he purposely refrained from replicating the work of his ancestors, finding a new way to depict the animals and figures that figure in Zuni culture.
Leekya’s early work was targeted at the trainloads of tourists who passed through Gallup, New Mexico each year. Travelers collected Leekya’s happy animal carvings, which became more popular as the years progressed. The whimsical, peaceful countenances on his animals provided travelers with a charming reminder of Native American harmony in their homeland.
During the 1920’s, Leekya produced very little jewelry, concentrating instead on his rock carvings. Because the carvings sold for extremely low prices at the time, he had to create a great many of them in order to make a living. Joe Tanner speaks of purchasing milk pails full of necklace fetishes from Leekya for three dollars apiece!
As was the custom of the time, Leekya's carvings were mounted in Navajo silverwork. As best we know, Leekya did not do his own "Zuni inlay" work. However, he did create elegant inlaid birds. According to Lena Boone, her grandfather Teddy Weahkee was the first modern Zuni to commercialize the Zuni inlay style in fetish carvings. Ruth Kirk, wife of one of the Kirk brothers (whose general stores flourished throughout Zuni, Gallup and Manuelito), has been credited with suggesting that Leekya carve his birds small enough to string on necklaces. Leekya’s Zuni animal and bird necklaces were among the first of this eminently popular style of jewelry.
By the 1930s, most fetish necklaces were strung by traders or their wives. As other carvers began to add fetish necklaces to their offerings, necklace stringers mixed fetishes created by multiple artists into a single necklace. Many necklaces had strikingly carved flying birds (also known as “flybirds”) as centerpieces. Leekya may have done a few of these. There was a friendly competition among the Zunis to see who could create the best flybirds. Leo Poblano was among those whose birds were considered the most elegant. The fact that the flybirds were carved by others does not cheapen the artists’ necklaces.
Leekya Deyuse passed away in 1966; his was the largest wake ever held in Zuni, taking place for three days and nights. Leekya’s heritage continues to influence the Zuni Pueblo and its art. Thankfully, members of the Leekya family continued making art.
Today, Leekya's work is so sought after that other carvers have begun reproducing fetish carvings in his style and selling them as genuine Leekya Deyuse pieces. The urge to ascribe pieces as having been created by Leekya pervades antique markets, the internet, some auctions, and even some museum collections. If you see a Leekya Deyuse that does not have his signature happy expression, a necklace that contains only a few of his carvings, a bird by Sarah Leekya, Bernard Homer or Fabian Homer being sold as a Leekya, a piece of inlay that is claimed to be by Leekya or any other piece that is attributed to him, get the piece validated by a professional in the Zuni artist community.
Leekya Deyuse’s Children
Leekya Deyuse had three children, Alice Homer, Francis Leekya and Sarah Leekya. (We recommend that you consult Kent McManis' book, "Zuni Fetishes and Carvings" for detailed family tree charts.) Alice Homer and Francis Leekya (now deceased) developed styles of their own.
Most of the Leekya family uses a lot of “Zuni rock” as the basis for their carvings. This stone is found only on Leekya family land and so it is also referred to as “Leekya rock.” This lovely tan/grey stone is carved only by the Leekya family (with a couple of exceptions, provided to carvers by permission).
Sarah is the only one of her father’s children who is still carving. In the twilight of her life, Sarah carves only rarely. She strives to create pieces in the old style of her father. Her birds still look a lot like Leekya's; her bears and other animals resemble some of the old Zuni fetishes pictured in historical accounts of Zuni art. Sunshine Studio carries a few of Sarah’s fetishes and fetish necklaces, which Sarah strings herself.
Leekya’s Grandchildren: Hayes, Freddie and Delvin Leekya
Leekya Deyuse’s son Francis Leekya had four children, three of whom have thriving careers as Zuni fetish carvers.
Hayes Leekya carves great happy animals, frogs, livestock and horses. He has also rendered some human figurals such as priests and women. From time to time he does innovative carvings such as chickens on nests with eggs and birds or dragonflies with mother-of-pearl and turquoise inlaid wings. We especially like his happy horses and frogs.
Freddie Leekya's carvings sometimes tend to the offbeat, with lots of personality. This is especially true of his livestock. Freddie also carves elegant human figurals, frequently with an inlaid cane of office, and rabbits dressed up as humans.
Delvin Leekya creates simple traditional fetishes in the style of his famous grandfather. His earlier work was not immediately appreciated by collectors; however, his carvings are becoming both more interesting and more marketable. Delvin’s bears and wolves have whimsical attributes, such as the happy expressions that typified Leekya Deyuse’s work. His shell birds and maidens are known for their excellent use of the shape and form of natural shell.
Freddie, Hayes and Delvin are extremely popular carvers whose work is reasonably priced and fun to collect. Beginning collectors are wise to purchase a few carvings from the Leekya family both because of their ties to history and their unique expressions.
Bernard Homer, Jr. and Juana Homer
Bernard Homer, Jr., and his sister Juana Homer create numerous carvings in the style of Alice Homer. Bernard's eagles and frogs are particularly elegant. Although they are difficult to find, Bernard’s snail shell eagles with skyward-facing beaks look very much like those of Bernard’s grandfather Leekya Deyuse.
Fabian Homer's work is rarely seen these days. A few of his carvings with cowrie shell upper body and ricolite lower body can still be found. In the early 1980s, Fabian carved some great eagles with skyward facing beaks in the style of Leekya Deyuse or Bernard Homer.
Enrike Leekya and Bryson Bobelu
Leekya Deyuse’s great grandchildren are being recognized as great Zuni carvers in their own right. Enrike Leekya has created some great multi-stone inlay birds in delightful pinks and greens. His green frogs with long pink tongues are striking and delicate. Bryson Bobelu has created some fascinating hefty creatures including mountain lions with raised paws. It will be interesting to see their styles develop as they mature.
Ricky and Ron Laahty
Ricky and Ron Laahty are great-nephews of Leekya Deyuse. Ricky’s parents were Morris and Sadie Laahty, accomplished jewelers and carvers. Both his father and mother influenced the carvings he creates today.
Ricky is one of the few Zuni carvers who concentrates almost exclusively on creating one animal, being known for his contemporary whimsical expressive frogs. Masterful skills allow Ricky to carve pieces with tremendous personality. The features (including white or gold eyes with jet pupils) bring out a smile in almost everyone who sees them. He carves a wide variety of materials, making each of his carvings a unique work of art. Ricky occasionally carves other animals besides frogs, but his frogs are what collectors love.
His awards are numerous. At the 2009 SWAIA Indian Market he took 1st place in one category and 2nd in another. His carvings have been featured in several books and articles on fetish carvings. He has also had pieces in exhibits at the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe and in NYC at the Museum of Art & Design.
Ricky’s nephew Ron Laahty is famous for his detailed and whimsical turtles, rabbits and other animals. Ron is also famous for his graceful and stunning wind maidens. Like Ricky, Ron is an award-winning artist and his work is extremely popular in the collecting community.