IOWA CITY — As a child, Alicia Velasquez used to sit by her father’s side and watch him do beadwork, stringing the beads and weaving them in and out.
Her father, who is Apache, would be calmed by the practice, Velasquez recalled. He called it medicine.
When Velasquez began facing challenges in her life, she also turned to beadwork to center herself.
And, through it, created her own business.
Velasquez, who is of Apache and Yaqui descent, is an artist and owner of The House of Dotł’izhi, located at 327 Kirkwood Ave. in Iowa City. The boutique, gallery and studio opened Monday, which also marks the start of Native American Heritage Month.
The month is meant to celebrate Indigenous cultures and traditions, as well as contributions made by Indigenous people.
The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports that inside the boutique are colorful, beaded earrings, turquoise rings and other pieces of jewelry, all made by Velasquez. One wall in The House of Dotł’izhi displays framed pieces of art created by Velasquez’s daughter.
Velasquez started Dotł’izhi, pronounced Dot-Cluh-Gee, in 2019 as an online business. When she moved to Iowa City with her family last December, she began participating in art shows, including one in Des Moines and another organized by Summer of the Arts.
People were responsive to her work, wanting to know more about her culture. That interest spurred Velasquez to seek a physical location. She began working out of a small office, so that clients could meet with Velasquez to plan out their custom pieces.
Velasquez soon grew out of that space, leading her to the location on Kirkwood Avenue. As she stepped into the new space, The House of Dotł’izhi’s focus grew as more people began expressing interest in Native American art.
Velasquez already knew one artist: her daughter, Eliana.
“I just wanted to make jewelry,” Velasquez said of Dotł’izhi’s evolution. “But then I’m like, ‘OK, I have this platform.’ I have a platform and how can I use that to help not just me but the community?”
Eliana Velasquez has been drawing since she was a child, using a variety of mediums like graphite and pastels. Eventually, she hopes to use oil paints. But it can be difficult for her to be in large crowds as a result of her autism, her mother said.
The House of Dotł’izhi proved to be an opportunity for Eliana’s artwork to be displayed and sold without causing her stress.
“I’m trying to represent our culture in new ways, in accurate ways, because it’s not represented enough,” Eliana Velasquez told the Press-Citizen, explaining she is both excited and scared to have her artwork displayed.
Velasquez realized her daughter isn’t the only artist that may want to focus more on creating and less on the business side of things.
So Velasquez intends for The House of Dotł’izhi to be a space where Indigenous artists can display and sell their artwork.
“My goal, with the art gallery portion of this space, is to be able to invite different Indigenous artists locally first before I branch out to other states. But I really want to bring the platform here to Iowa,” she said.
According to Velazquez’s website, Dotł’izhi is the western Apache word for turquoise.
Velasquez’s father always told her that Apache women are strong. That sentiment stuck with her as a mother of four.
“With my brand, that’s what I preach to women or men,” she said. “It’s like, ‘remember your strength, remember your beauty and remember your worth.’”
Velasquez learned silversmithing from Indigenous elders as she moved around America. Born and raised in California, she later lived in Arizona, Idaho, Oklahoma and now, Iowa City.
These elders saw something in her, Velasquez said, and handed down their practices. They continue to observe and evaluate her work to make sure she is doing it correctly.
Velasquez uses minimal tools as a silversmith, creating all of her jewelry by herself and making just enough so that nothing goes to waste. If one of her pieces doesn’t sell, Velasquez will take it apart and create something new out of it.
“Sometimes when I’m sitting there creating (a) piece, I’m like, ‘Wow, I have the opportunity to carry on a tradition that’s been around for a very long time,’” she said.
Now that Velasquez has The House of Dotł’izhi, she is hoping another Indigenous person will visit and express interest in learning silversmithing and beadwork so that she can hand down those techniques the way they were handed down to her.
The stones used in Velasquez’s pieces come from Idaho by Indigenous elders who “hunt” for rocks.
According to Velasquez, they recite a prayer to thank Mother Earth for allowing them to take the stones. The dirt displaced in taking the stones is always put back.
These rock hunters send Velasquez only the stones she needs for her work. Velasquez has to show she actually sold the pieces as opposed to holding onto the stones.
Velasquez’s turquoise comes from a friend in Oklahoma whose father had collected the stone over the years.