Collection shows Alamo owner's affinity toward Native Americans
Don Phelps received a depiction of Custer's last stand from a friend for his 10th birthday.
It was hanging over the family's bar in their hotel, sent by Anheuser-Busch Brewery to all the establishment that sold their products, recalled Phelps. "I asked for it and he got it for me."
The vibrant portrayal of soldiers and Indians fighting in full battle gear would appeal to any 10-year-old boy. But Phelps, who grew up in Colfax near Grass Valley, was fascinated by everything Indian. At the same age he sold his baseball card collection to buy a kachina doll, the icons carved by the Hopi, at a shop in an old cabin in downtown Tahoe City.
"I had an aunt who was a Native Daughter of the Golden West," he said. She bequeathed him her love of Indian art and artifacts as well as much of her collection.
"My grandmother in Colfax used to feed Indians; they were really poor," said Phelps. In return they would give her pieces of art they had created; but unfortunately she didn't appreciate it as his aunt did.
"She would crumble the baskets and feed them into the fire," he said.
However she saved a papoose basket given to her by a grateful woman who had entered it in the 1948 California State Fair and won first place for weaving.
This and other artifacts are in Phelps' "Indian room" in his home in Alamo. He also has a Pomo gift basket from the 1840s.
"I like everything," he said - baskets, pots, kachina dolls, totem poles, headdresses, mortars and pestles.
His totem poles are a few feet high.
"They are 'model' totem poles," he explained. "When they were to make big ones, they first made models." This way the trading post or whoever ordered the totem pole could approve it before it was made in full size, usually 10 to 20 feet tall. These models are now collectibles worth from $5,000 to $15,000. His were made from 1920-40 in Canada and Alaska.
Phelps, 65, taught for many years in Concord and is now an adjunct professor at Saint Mary's College in the education department. But his other vocation is a collector of Indian art and artifacts.
"I go to Native American shows and Indian art shows and sell and trade," he said. Indians sell to visitors on their reservations during the summertime but in the winter they go to shows with their art, he explained.
Phelps calls his business Todos Santos Trading Post, and he once had actual stores in Pleasanton and in Monterey. But he said quality Indian art is costly and most visitors were interested in less expensive, "touristy" items.
He is taking part in the Heartland Danville Antiques & Art Faire on Feb. 15, and his granddaughters, Ally Tegner, 10, and Amanda, 7, will be at the next table selling "pow wow" Indian items. He will also be at the Alamo Native American Indian Antique and Art Show being held May 16-17 at the Alamo Women's Club. It will feature baskets, fine jewelry, pottery, totem poles and more.
"A trading show and Indian art fair will have quality items," he explained. "A pow wow is a contest for dancing." And a pow wow offers inexpensive jewelry and other items for sale.
Phelps keeps documentation with his artifacts when he can, such as the beaded baskets of the Piutes. One shows it was purchased in Carson City in 1932, made by Maud Allen. The Indians were assigned numbers as they dealt with the trading posts, and accounts were kept of the art they brought in to be sold.
His small beaded baskets are "dream" baskets, Phelps explained, because Indians wove their dreams into them with beads, using traditional symbolism.
He also has modern pieces in his collection such as a Zuni water bowl, decorated with two snakes inside, which he purchased in New Mexico in 1971 for several thousand dollars. "They are really used to catch water," he explained, pointing out the edges of differing heights.
Another pot was designed to be carried on the head. Phelps recalled finding it at a Reno chili cook-off in 1980. An Indian woman had traveled to the cook-off from New Mexico, expecting it to be a trading event. He discovered her on the second day, sitting among the stands of chili, and she hadn't sold a thing. But he recognized the quality of her pots and bought all six.
Today the picture of Custer's last battle has a place of honor over the large stone fireplace in Phelps' Indian room.
"I kept it through college, my first house. Sometimes it was in the attic," he said. "Now it's over the mantle."
On the floor of his Indian room is a shaggy buffalo robe.
"It was a gift for helping as a tutor," said Phelps. About 10 years ago he helped an Indian boy with his math and the father presented him with the robe.
"When they give a gift, you take it," he explained.
Once an Indian was in his home and was pleased to see a pipe in the collection from his tribe. Phelps made the man a gift of the pipe, telling him, "I'm giving it back to your tribe."
What: Heartland Danville Antiques & Art Faire
When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 15, rain or shine
Where: Railroad Avenue
What: More than 50 merchants and artisans, including Indian art collector Don Phelps
Other: Appraisal clinic in front of Cottage Jewel; $10 per item to benefit Tao House