How does a guy from the East Coast making traditional deerskin clothing and objects d’art, appearing authentically Native and Museum quality, come by the name of Whitecrow?
Last week I dropped by Tony Whitecrow’s shop on Guadalupe Plaza – “the little Plaza,” – he calls it, and asked him this question among others.
I first met Tony when I moved back to Taos in 1990. (I had lived here for two years during the early 80’s and continued to go back and forth from Manhattan for a decade), when we were introduced by my good friend Helen (Chaya Vance) Victor, who was a friend and customer of Tony’s. They had met at the Taos Pow Wow, where Helen (now Chaya), was the official (Pow Wow Poster) Photographer.
Chaya was often seen gliding around Taos in one of many pair of knockout cowboy boots and a dramatic fringed and beaded deerskin jacket Tony had made. Chaya, quite a knockout herself, was the perfect walking billboard for Tony’s extraordinary work.
At that time Chaya owned the Casa de Milagros, a century old house she’d transformed into a charming B&B, where the El Monte Sagrado now stands. The Casa was the scene of many a party and gathering of disparate people from far-flung places. Among the many intriguing characters I met coming and going from Chaya’s table, were the actor Samuel Jackson and Tony Whitecrow.
Chaya has since become (an extremely hip), Orthodox Jew who lives with her (extremely hip, Rock and Roll) husband and almost, fourteen year old son, in the Old City of Jerusalem. She traded in the Casa for a Crusader Era house, but back in the day, Chaya was channeling Mabel Dodge, bringing all manner of interesting and remarkable people together around her long breakfast (and lunch and dinner) table. But I digress.
Chaya had met Tony at the Pow Wow where he had set up camp and shop thanks to a couple of Tribal Council members whom he had helped clear the pasture, and set up the stands for the First Annual Taos Pow Wow. But by that time Tony was used to the assistance he often received from Native Americans, both in actuality and in Spirit, which brings me back to how he got his (given), name.
“I was living at a place called the Sassafras Kitchen, which was a commune based on Rudolph Steiner’s teachings, very clean, organic and a very magical place,” Tony explained. “It was there where I met an old Northern Cheyenne woman, Rachael Strange Owl, and she gave me my name, told me it was who I had been in a past life.”
In 1986, Tony decided to take a road trip to Northern Cheyenne country, to search for Rachael Strange Owl and discover more about his naming.
Visiting the Reservation, he learned she had since passed on and went on to find somewhere to camp for the night. Shortly after parking atop what he considered a good ‘lookout’, he was surrounded by Tribal Authorities who were searching for a rogue buffalo bull. Apparently Tony had made camp in a spot long known to the Tribe; a famous Buffalo Jump.
Either Rachel Strange Owl had guided him there or past life memory had resurfaced.
Heading onward, he stopped along the road, noticing a giant eagle perched atop a rock, not moving.
“it was huge,” he said, “about five feet tall, I looked at it and looked in the direction it was looking, and right there through the trees, in a clearing, was the old bull, lying down, surrounded by a herd of cows, hiding him.”
He smiled at the memory.
“It was the day of the Harmonic Convergence,” he told me.
Tony’s adventures eventually brought him to Taos 30 odd years ago and legend has it, that he arrived with two coats he’d made and no cash. Landing a job as a dishwasher at La Cocina and selling the coats at Cowboys and Indians, (Michael Martin Murphy’s old shop next to the La Fonda), he had arrived in the Land of Enchantment.
He soon graduated from dishwasher to bar tender/manager, something he’d continue to do on and off at different locations including the Alley Cantina and the Taos Country Club, which is where he met his wife.
Tony endured the traditional “starving artist” in Taos, period. But it didn’t take too long for his work to get noticed by several celebrities, including the late Lynn Anderson and her longtime partner, Mentor Williams, Goldie Hawn and Billy Ray Cyrus to name just a few.
Tony too is an accidental actor (who literally landed in the field while tagging along to an audition with his friend and partner, Anderson Kee), and has been a SAG member since 1996 appearing in several films and TV shows, including an appearance in Breaking Bad. The day I dropped by to see him, he had just had a visit from former Governor Bill Richardson. He was wearing a jacket Tony had made him years ago.
While we were talking, Taos legend (and old Dennis Hopper cohort), Pepe Rochon showed up in his biker leathers, cigar in hand. Memorial Day Weekend was upon us and the guys were making plans to ride to Red River for the Rally. Pepe’s unbelievably weighty and beautiful Concho belts hang in Tony’s tiny gallery space in the front of his leather shop. The shop is beside Melissa’s Secret Garden (and gallery) which boasts a secret cellar with a blocked door to one of the old and infamous tunnels that run beneath the Plaza area.
“The old timers told me they were used by the Politicians to visit the Whore House,” he laughed. “Ouray Meyers had one is his gallery too.”
“No, I haven’t,” he said, “not here, but I had one experience while working at the Alley which literally made my hair stand on end.”
“I was a bartender there for years but as a side job, Buzz (the bar’s late owner), would have me come in early on Sunday mornings to paint out the scuff marks on all the walls.”
“The first morning it was very dark, around 5.am., and I was going into the back freezer to turn on lights when I felt something on my shoulder and neck, I went into the men’s bathroom with the paint and brushes and turned on the light and saw my reflection in the mirror.”
“My pony tail was standing straight up in the air above my head.” He recalled.
What did you do? I asked him.
“I said, “Roberta, I’m here to paint, I won’t bother you,” and I felt her let go of me.”
“I have no idea why I called her Roberta but every Sunday I’d greet her by name and explain I was there to paint and she left me alone.”
Before I left I asked Tony how it felt to see people in his clothes, like the Governor and the many celebrities he’s dressed for years,
“You know it’s always great, it warms my heart, so much love goes into making them, it’s great to see their owners loving and caring for them well.”
Which seems a fitting end to my little tale (though Tony’s continues and is worthy of a book), Love.
In a highly anticipated Season finale of the hugely popular 90’s TV series, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, starring Jane Seymour (another customer of Tony’s), Quinn and the rugged Byron Sully (Joe Lando) finally tied the knot, with Sully dressed in a Tony Whitecrow shirt.
“That shirt was my claim to fame.” He laughed, as we walked outside into the brilliant Taos sunshine.
For more about Tony Whitecrow please visit his Website linked below.
All photographs of Tony, Pepe and his clothes, care of Tony Whitecrow.
Photo of Dr. Quinn and Sully, stock files.
Editor’s note: Chaya Vance spent all week searching through a pile of boxes for a shot of herself (shooting at) the Pow Wow, wearing Tony’s jacket, to no avail. She says it is hiding from her, but if she eventually finds it, I’ll add it to the post.