In the January Fountain: Valles finds heritage, new venture in retirement
By Jocelyn Stott
As a kid growing up near Minnetonka, Minn., Tom Valles didn't know how much his friendship with an older Native American craftsman would influence his future. The retired semi driver didn't know until later in life that his family's heritage could be traced back to Geronimo, the famous Apache warrior. Nor did he know he'd eventually go into making Native American crafts.
However, after a lifetime of crossing the country and settling in Liberty Lake for retirement, the Vietnam-era Navy veteran has begun T-Apache Native American Jewelry, operating out of his modest condominium.
Valles currently sells his products directly from his home but hopes to eventually move into a larger space. He specializes in jewelry, woodcarving and leatherwork.
One of Valles' favorite creations is a hand-hewn leather pouch containing an "Apache Teardrop," or black obsidian from Arizona. The teardrops are said to symbolize the tears shed by a group of Apache women who discovered their men had been killed in battle. The legend states that enough tears were shed for a lifetime and could replace the tears of those who experience sorrow. An inscription included with the teardrop reads: When you're sad and you want to cry, rub the Apache Teardrop and dry your eyes.
Valles said his mother used to take him to Northern Minnesota to visit family as a child.
"She told me not to play near the reservation that was nearby, so of course that's the first place I went," recalls Valles.
There, Valles said, he met an older Sioux Indian who kept a number of children in his midst occupied by creating bead crafts.
"I never really thought about it until I was much older, but you know, he taught everybody (the craft)," remembers Valles.
Valles said he never really knew his own father, but his sister Anita had done some genealogy studies and talked to a few of their dad's friends in Arizona and Mexico to discover that his father was an Apache Indian thought to be a descendant of Geronimo.
While Valles grew up in Minnesota, he dropped out of school early and joined the Navy, where he worked on a Cold War surveillance ship as a machinist, along with his brother James John (JJ).
After finishing his service, Valles began a variety of jobs as a ranch hand. He also formed a rock and roll band with JJ in and around Ft. Stockton, Texas, and Apple Valley, Calif. Eventually, he got his Class A CDL license and began driving a semi-truck, completed his GED and earned an Associate's Degree in music.
Now, Valles, along with his wife of 12 years, Marilyn DeVeau Valles, enjoys his grandchildren and learning more about his craftwork.
"I like to engrave gunstocks and metal work, too; I have an aptitude for that," said Valles.
He and Marilyn travel to New Mexico and Arizona for inspiration and supplies for his crafts but have also found great resources locally at the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation.
Valles sells most of his products at yard sales, craft fairs and fundraising events.
"I like to walk by the river and find things that are unique," he said. "Then I try to come up with something interesting. It's very relaxing. …
"No two things I make are ever the same."