It is rare that a person has both the wisdom and curiosity to envision how cultures will evolve and more so, understands how and why cultures change before they do. Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora (1876–1947) was one such person. He documented what he saw as a shifting American West with artistic accomplishments that weave through the past like a rattlesnake through sagebrush.

As a young child growing up in the eastern United States, Mora was fascinated with the American cowboy and Native American cultures. He wrote and illustrated numerous stories, filling notebooks with chaptered tales of those inhabiting the West, recognizing—even at an early age—their way of life was changing as more people moved to the frontier’s open ranges.

Inspired by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and his father’s interest in native cultures, Mora set off to explore the West. His travels brought him to California, where he spent time on the Donahue Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley. Mora bought his own horse and rode with the local ranchers and vaqueros in the area. He was a quick learner, spoke Spanish as well as English, and learned the ways of the Californios with such depth that it would inspire his creativity throughout the rest of his life.

Sculpture by Jo Mora shown in 1915 at the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

Mora’s long-held desire to witness the Hopi Snake Dance then took him to Arizona, where he became captivated by the Hopi and the Navajo, living with them for more than two years and learning their languages. Mora fit right in as a skilled hunter and marksman, and the Navajo bestowed him with the name Nalje, meaning, “Hunter.”

This immersion manifested in numerous expressions: watercolors of Hopi Kachinas, pen and ink drawings of Hopi mesas and dwellings, paintings of Navajo citizens, and photos of Hopi ceremonies that few outsiders saw.

Later, Mora created dynamic bronze sculptures of horseback cowboys, and (most notably to the cowboy culture) wrote and illustrated two remarkable books: Trail Dust and Saddle Leather and Californios, still considered reliable references of the vanishing West. His illustrated posters of cowboy and Native cultures are also among the most definitive for the period.

Jo Mora’s life and artistic career are worthy of a lifetime of research. He truly exemplifies the dedication of a committed artist and a lover of the history of the American West.

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