Know your neighbor: Janell Lujan

Perfecting a new craft with a traditional crop


Many Taoseños ponder about the perfect gift for a special person on the holiday gift list. Janell Lujan of Taos Pueblo recently decided to share her love and creativity by offering her corm husk ornaments and dolls for sale during the Christmas season and throughout the year.

“I was working at Red Willow Farm at Taos Pueblo, and as part of the staff, attended a Food Summit Conference in Wisconsin. We visited various farms to learn about their styles,” Lujan said. “At one of the farms, I enjoyed a demonstration of the creation of corn husk dolls. I learned how to make them and other things as well. This stood out to me the most because, as a child, I played with corn husks and tried to make a doll. I felt that I had traveled full circle, going back to my roots through this activity.”

“For a time, I had felt that I was missing out on my past,” she added. 

Growing up, Lujan learned to harvest corn for food. Now Lujan wants to share the knowledge of corn husk dolls with youth participants at Red Willow Farms’ projects. “It’s too cold right now, so our plans include the summer months. I think teaching the kids to use the husks for something like dolls is a good way to introduce recycling grown corn,” said Lujan.

Upon her return from Wisconsin, Lujan also felt eager to share the new tradition with young family members, specifically her daughter and niece. Lujan differentiates between her traditional knowledge of harvesting the corn and the new applications she learned at the conference. “In Oneida, I remembered what I used to do through my experimentation. From my elders, I learned to deal with the corn directly as food, not ornamentation,” she said.

Now, the corn husk ornaments she makes vary in size from 2 to 6 inches. They closely resemble angel-style figures, with wings and a halo. Upon request, Janelle handpaints the figures. However, some people prefer the natural colors of the husk.

The dolls usually stand at 12 inches tall. “I decorate the dolls in every-day situations. For example, a female doll may carry a baby. A male figure might use a traditional wrap and/ or carry a bow and arrow. It all depends on what the customer desires,” said Lujan. 

It is no accident that Lujan’s thoughts include a strong inclination to traditional values. She described her grandfather John Marcus as one of the first Water Protectors at Taos Pueblo, traveling to Washington, D.C. to petition the return of Blue Lake from the federal government. “He taught us how to respect the river and the water. I always respected him. He was a very humble man who didn’t want to be glorified,” Lujan said.

Janell Lujan grew up around powwows and comes from an artistic lineage. Between the ages of 8 to 12, she participated in the Fancy Shawl Dance. Then the family moved to Albuquerque for eight years, where Lujan said she lost some of her Native traditions, language and teachings.  “In Albuquerque, who was there to talk about traditional things,” she said.

Her exposure to the art world through her late uncle Max Michael Marcus provided inspiration that remained and continues with Lujan no matter where she lives. Her paintings, also for sale, include vibrant colors with characters painted in silhouette style. Lujan has painted for 15 years.

Besides art and tradition, Lujan learned a strong work ethic from her parents and brother. Janell’s mother, Joann Romero, teaches at Taos Pueblo Headstart. Her father Anthony Lujan is a construction worker who many consider a “jack of all trades.” Janell’s brother Anthony Ray Lujan serves as a fiscale for the Governor’s Office at Taos Pueblo.

Janell Lujan currently works on her goal of teaching traditional values to her daughter Mataiya.

Her traditional values reflect her career work and community activities. She cared for her grandmother Santana Marcus prior to the elder’s death. Lujan also worked as a security  guard at the Taos Mountain Casino. She has also worked at McDonald’s. Lujan realized that farm work included more of her traditional values than other jobs, so she worked at Red Willow Farm when funding was available. Today, she volunteers at the farm.

Like her grandfather John Marcus, Janell Lujan joined the Water Protectors. She greatly approves of the sustainable living and environmental water protection in Taos. Along with her friend Sheryl Romero, Lujan helped found a summer camp for the youth of Taos Pueblo.

With the Christmas holidays fast-approaching Lujan provides a special wish for the Taos community. She hopes that the citizens become more aware of their surroundings, including the environment and drugs such as meth and heroin. She hopes to speak with Native children in the schools regarding these issues.

After the opening of the Christmas season at the Taos Community Auditorium tonight (Nov. 30) at A Taste of Taos, Lujan plans to enjoy the holidays with family, participating in traditional activities and helping her mother prepare meals with chile, potato salad, jello, oven bread, green chile stew, posole and prune pie.

She also plans to make more corn husk dolls so that others may enjoy them. Prices vary according to size and ornamentation. To discuss or place an order, call Janell Lujan at (575) 776-4557.