Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Santa Fe’s century-old Indian Market values tradition

Aug. 14—The Santa Fe Indian Market opened in 1922 with Navajo rugs hanging from the ceiling of the Armory building like flags.

Trophies lined long tables against the wall. No Native Americans sat behind the displays.

Today, ribbons have replaced trophies in this grandfather of New Mexico art markets as it sprawls across the tentacles of the Plaza streets 100 years later. More than 100,000 visitors flock to see the work of some 1,000 artists from more than 200 tribal communities, dropping an estimated $160 million on art, hotels and restaurants. This year’s market runs from Saturday, Aug. 20, through Sunday, Aug. 21.

The New Mexico History Museum is celebrating the market’s centennial with “Honoring Tradition and Innovation: 100 Years of Santa Fe’s Indian Market 1922-2022” through August 2023.

Originally sponsored by non-Native Museum of New Mexico and School of American Research staff, today’s market is primarily helmed by Native people and board members. At first comprised mainly of regional pueblo artists, today’s Indian Market draws Native artisans from the entire United States and Canada.

The market’s early mission of preserving traditional designs and techniques of the past has also shifted to honoring and encouraging innovation, and new technologies. This change has enabled many artists to push the boundaries that define Native art today.

When Mississippi Choctaw artist Randy Chitto first came to Indian Market 39 years ago, he won first place for clay sculptures. Chitto makes clay bears and turtle koshares.

He came home with $1,000.

“It was way cool,” said Chitto, now a Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) board member. SWAIA is the Indian Market umbrella organization.

“I remember buying a nice turquoise bracelet,” he said from his Santa Fe studio. “I still have it. It was $35.”

Today, his work sits in the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Denver Art Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC

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This year he plans to bring between eight and nine clay pieces, but he worries they won’t be dry enough due to the recent monsoons.

The museum exhibition features more than 250 works of art by Indian Market artists from both private and public collections, as well as historic and contemporary photographs and interviews with artists and collectors.

Museum of New Mexico founding director Edgar Lee Hewett and curator Kenneth Chapman launched what they called the Southwest Indian Art Fair and Industrial Arts and Crafts Exposition out of a fear that Native art forms were vanishing.

“They were not only able to preserve and protect Native American culture, but also they were trying to improve tourism,” said Cathy Notarnicola, NMHM curator of Southwest history and Southwestern Association for Indian Arts juror.

“I think the grand prize was $5,” she said.

Notarnicola said Anglo museum officials initially encouraged the artists by showing them museum examples. They discouraged artists from creating what they saw as “curios” meant for the tourist market that were often sold along railroad stops.

“The Anglo museum people were like, ‘These aren’t traditional,’ ” Notarnicola said. “They just put a different spin on it. It was like, ‘This is a real pot.’ “

The favored pots usually loomed large.

“We have this one pot; it takes two people to pick it up,” Notarnicola added.

“I think what they did was they built a commerce to sell our wares,” Chitto said, “instead of a little train stop with small little pots tourists could put in their pockets.”

Innovation was already occurring in the hands of San Ildefonso Pueblo potters Maria and Julian Martinez, who revived black-on-black ware in the 1920s. Maria became one of the most influential potters of the 20th century. She coiled the pots while Julian painted them.

The weekend market took place during the Fiesta de Santa Fe until 1962. The annual fiesta commemorates Don Diego de Vargas’ peaceful re-occupation of the city.

In 1931, the artists moved to the portal at the Palace of the Governors. The change marked the first time they were allowed to interact with the public, now one of the most cherished aspects of the event.

At first, the pueblos and their pottery dominated the selections, but the market soon grew to include jewelry, textiles, carvings and much more.

Its survival often reflected federal Indian policy, Notarnicola said.

“Before the market, you have the removal and reservation period,” she explained. “Because of that, Native American arts were sort of dying. People formed these markets in reaction to that.”

By the late 19th century, 90% of North American Indians had perished due to federal policies, disease and warfare, according to the SWAIA website.

Later government efforts to move Native people from reservations also impacted the market.

“They were trying to get Native Americans to assimilate,” Notarnicola said. “They were relocating Native Americans from their homelands to urban centers. That created less goods — they were supposed to get jobs.”

Demand shifted again with the 1960s’ heightened awareness of Native American history and culture. Tribal members sought to restore their communities, achieve self-government, educational control, and input into federal government decisions concerning policies and programs.

“Self-determination was the policy,” Notarnicola said. “Native American tribes were trying to regain control over their goods.”

The 1962 founding of the Institute of American Indian Arts funneled artists producing more contemporary work, as well as people from tribes outside of New Mexico, into the market.

Sales boomed throughout the 1980s and ’90s as collectors and tourists swarmed the Plaza and its side-street tentacles.

Today’s judges include artists and outside experts, such as museum curators and gallery owners. The winning pieces become eligible for the coveted Best of Show award.

This year, thanks to an anonymous sponsor, the top Indian Market winner will take home $30,000, according to the SWAIA website.

The judging process remains a complicated web, with multiple categories, classes and divisions.

“There’s a lot of gray areas,” Notarnicola said. “The fashion scene has exploded over the past 10 years. It’s like a New York runway. A lot of people are making clothing now. But it’s very difficult to judge something that’s hand-woven versus something that’s sewn. Sometimes, the judges fight among themselves if they just don’t agree.”

The jury works behind closed doors the Thursday before the market opens.

Controversy sometimes erupts. A few years ago, some established artists who had previously been granted automatic entry to the same Plaza booth lost the privilege when SWAIA changed its policy, requiring everyone to re-apply. That prompted the emergence of the Free Indian Market on the grounds of the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, named in part because the artists skirt booth fees.

Before the change, “The people who got in were always the people who got in,” Chitto said.

But the market continued to draw more and more artists.

“There’s still anger involved,” Chitto acknowledged. “We used to have tenure meetings at my studio. A lot of the pueblo (members) lost their tenure. It wasn’t like they were being forced out; it was about numbers. It was hurtful to people. There was no policy written down. They wanted to make it fair.”

Navajo jewelry artist Davida Lister came to the market for the first time last year. Based in Mesa, Arizona, she sold a necklace for $4,000. She sold about 75% of her work.

“I did really well,” she said. “I think I made a little over $25,000.”

This year, she will bring 20 pieces, including a double-stranded natural turquoise treasure necklace.

“It has slices of turquoise that are cut into triangles,” she said. “I strung it with hand-rolled beads.”

The stones represent some 19-20 turquoise mines, she added. Lister plans to enter the piece into the Best of Show category.

“It’s wearable art,” she said.

Indian Market is critical to her success, she said.

“The reason why I do it is to meet new people. The clients I find are not all on social media. I think that’s the most important feature of the Santa Fe market.”

This year’s market is free after two pandemic-driven years. Last year, organizers charged admission to cover COVID-related crowd control and contact tracing. The previous year was virtual.

Today, people flock to Santa Fe from as far away as Germany, France, Japan and Russia. The market has become the nucleus for numerous parallel events, including individual artist shows at galleries and hotels, and museum exhibitions.

WHAT: “Honoring Tradition and Innovation: 100 Years of Santa Fe’s Indian Market 1922-2022”

WHERE: New Mexico History Museum, 113 Lincoln Ave., Santa Fe

WHEN: Through August 2023.

HOW MUCH: $7 New Mexico residents; $12 for nonresidents; children 16 and under free. Free admission for state residents on the first Sunday of each month. Wednesday free for New Mexico seniors with ID. Free for New Mexico foster families and Museum of New Mexico Foundation members.

CONTACT: 505-476-5200, nmhistorymuseum.org

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