SANTA FE, N.M. - In her third year as a vendor at Indian Market in Santa Fe, Jamie Okuma, Luisano Shoshone Bannock and Okinawa Japanese, told her mother and herself, if nothing sold this time she was going to look for another way to make a living.
That was three years ago, the same year Okuma's 16-inch intricately dressed, "Sioux man," won Best of Show 2000 at Indian Market.
"Up until then, I was really considering a different career. It's funny, that was the same year I was telling my mom the night before, if I don't sell this year - I don't want to do this anymore," Okuma said while seated at the vending booth she shared with her mother at this year's 82nd annual Indian Market.
Now, different occupations are no longer a question because Okuma is among the artist's ranks who earn the majority of their yearly income during the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, Santa Fe Indian Market. Her "Best of Show" awards in 2000 and again in 2002 have established Okuma, 25, as a maker of fine Indian art.
"These are my little people," Okuma said about her dolls while holding "Sara" up to show how the wooden sticks that keep Sara standing tall are not the typical hard wire rods found holding up other types of expensive hand-made dolls. "I mean, I care about them."
Her care is evident in the details that separate her dolls from the rest. Each little person Okuma creates is crafted with beauty and awe-inspiring attention to detail. Her dolls are bedecked in only the finest of Indian finery. Every tiny stitch, pattern, and tiny silver ring is designed and made by Okuma.
"A lot of times I'll work 16-hour days or for two days straight. But working long hours is hard on my eyes. They get tired. I have to have a day off by then," said Okuma who has been beading since she was 5 and doll making since she was 15.
This year, Okuma acquired "Best of Classification" in "Diversified Arts" to add to her honors for a family of dolls complete with a horse and a travois.
"This is my sixth year so I'm still pretty new to everything. I knew what it was but I didn't know what it meant," Okuma said about winning "Best of Show" at Indian Market. "Now I do, it's given me my career."
Credit for her sudden and successful career also goes to her parents Okuma said.
"If it hadn't been for my parents understanding me by letting me stay home after high school and not being like a lot of parents who are on you to go to college right away, I wouldn't of had the time to stay home and just bead and I wouldn't be here," she said.
But her mother, Sandra Okuma, gives all the credit for daughter's extraordinary talent to her daughter.
"It just comes natural to her. She learned all of it on her own. She's self-taught. Since she was little, I've just been used to her doing this. She likes to pow wow and she did a lot of her own beadwork," she said.
Okuma's mother isn't surprised by her daughter's success or by how well her daughter's work is received at Indian Market. Sandra Okuma is also an artist who shows and sells her paintings at Indian Market. The mother and daughter team feel Indian Market and the Heard Museum Art show, both in Santa Fe, provide buyers who recognize quality.
"It's places like here, where you find collectors who appreciate your work," she said about selling at Indian Market.
Indian Market is the largest and most highly acclaimed Indian arts and crafts show in the world. It brings in an estimated $150 million to $200 million to local merchants, hotels and of course the nearly 1,000 Native American artists, according to a SWAIA spokesperson.
Okuma, who lives in California knows with this kind of money changing hands she can sell her dolls starting at $10,000, without blinking an eye.
"My very first doll was, Lady Macbeth. I made her for a class project," Okuma said. Each of her dolls is given a name of some kind until they are bought.
"Their new family will give them a new name," Sandra Okuma said about the "Plateau Family," who won "Best of Classification 2003." She knows the first names given to each of the more than 20 dolls her daughter has created just as well as her daughter.
Twenty dolls is a lot when considering each doll is hand-sewn, fully dressed and mounted.
"People always ask me, how do you do it, how do you have the patience? I just like to make things small. It's just something that I've always done, it's a part of me," Okuma said. "It's hard to talk about because it's my art, it's my life - it's all I've done."