Spectacular Art Dominates Santa Fe’s Indian Market:
This former stop along the Old Santa Fe trail is now a vibrant hub of art and culture honoring Native American craft traditions
Growing up in the 1950’s, I was, like most kids, enamored with cowboys and Indians. Much to my parents chagrin, I proudly wore my Annie Oakley guns and holster set everywhere, along with my straw cowgirl hat, red bandana and tooled leather boots.
Despite my get-up, I secretly felt more akin with… the Indians than the cowboys. After all, they were the smart ones, the ones who ‘knew’ the secrets of the mysterious landscape of the Southwest that I longed to visit. I envisioned myself riding bareback through spare, slickrock canyons on a swift, sure-footed pony, scrambling up the crumbling sides of a craggy mesa to reach the top. Thus perched, I could survey across the dry and windswept landscape for approaching enemy.
Fast forward to the present and I still find myself passionately drawn to the history and vibrant culture of the American southwest. As a collector of American Indian pottery, I craved a visit to Santa Fe during Indian Market, the largest and most highly acclaimed juried Indian art and craft sale in the world. Like a call of the wild, this annual event draws 80,000-90,000 museum curators, Indian art collectors, dealers and visitors from around the world to mingle with approximately 1,000 carefully juried Indian artists.
Santa Fe lies north of the city of Albuquerque, and it is an easy drive through the expansive Rio Grande River Valley. Here, the enchantment of this place begins it’s seduction. On the right lay the rugged Sandia Mountains, and to the left, far in the distance, the blue-gray outline of the Jemez Mountains punctuated the horizon. Further along the highway, the Sandia Mountains end and the Sangre de Christo ( ‘Blood of Christ’ ) Mountains began their advance north towards Colorado.
This is dry, high-desert country, rugged, gnarly and genuine. Across the valley, away from the highway, sweeping vistas of sky and land unfold. Rugged, flat-topped mesas and jagged-edged buttes, warm in tones of pink, salmon and cream pass by in an endlessly changing landscape. In the clear thinness of the high-altitude light these mute witnesses to pre-history form a silent dreamscape, magically changing hue and mood from sunrise to sunset.
Set amidst this spare other-worldly landscape, Santa Fe, whose name means City of Holy Faith, is a colorful and thriving city. Over a span of two hundred years, Spanish conquerors, Mexican control and American pioneer-settlers brought strife and discord to the native Indian populations. Today, these cultures each contribute to a rich blending of traditions, religions and an artistic spirit that fuels the dynamic energy of this place.
In late August, New Mexico is blessed with clear, turquoise skies boldly dotted with clusters of vivid white clouds. Here, at 7,000 feet, late summer days are white-hot and bone-dry, but pleasantly cool in the shade and in the evenings.
As I discovered, there is much to see and do in Santa Fe the week of Indian Market. Museums, major art galleries and downtown hotels feature gallery walks, artist demonstrations, fund-raising auctions, special exhibits, talks and musical events. All events are free and are held during the day as well as into the evening.
After arriving, I headed over to the Plaza, the heart of Santa Fe. Spend a day strolling and window-shopping among the stores surrounding the Plaza, and you will discover superb examples of traditionally-made Indian art that are reminiscent of the historic treasures on display in the museums. Local shopkeepers are knowledgeable about their wares and the Indian artists that they represent. In the Santa Fe Indian Trading Co, I fell in love with a collection of exquisitely detailed sterling silver Zuni Katchinas ( spirit deities) made by artist Jeffrey Castillo.
I always find something that catches my eye in these shops, and engage the staff in a conversation about the piece. This is a great way to not only learn about the deep cultural beliefs that influence the various Pueblo artists, but the spiritual connection that these artists have to the earth and their raw materials.
Since 1922, Indian Market has been held every August. By fostering interest in the beauty and timeless design of genuine, handcrafted Indian art, Indian Market has sought to define the traditions and keep them alive. Today, the non-profit group SWAIA -Southwestern Association for Indian Arts-is the catalyst behind Indian Market. According to SWAIA, their organization supports artists from 80 federally recognized tribes across the USA, and includes accomplished and emerging artists.
Indian Market injects the Santa Fe business community as well as the Indian artists with a robust infusion of tourist dollars. Throughout the decades, Indian Market’s economic and artistic impact has blossomed throughout New Mexico and the Southwest and in the lives of the Native American communities throughout the region. Santa Fe’s Indian Market’s total economic impact has been estimated at over $80 million.
As the time grew closer for Indian Market to start, the influx of visitors swelled daily. On Friday evening, the excitement of Indian Market began. The public is invited to the Civic Center to preview the pieces of art that have won the coveted SWAIA sponsored Indian art awards. For high-level collectors and museum curators, these are the choice pieces that they will line-up to purchase in the pre-dawn hours the following morning.
Blue, red and yellow ribbons are awarded in seven categories by a panel of Indian art experts. From these winners, the Best in Show piece tops the list. Winning this award is a distinguished achievement that bestows an artist with prestige and skyrockets a career to a new level of accomplishment.
Amid the crowd of artists and admiring onlookers, I had the opportunity to speak with Robert Tenorio, a distinguished Santo Domingo Pueblo potter. Robert is a big fan of the work that SWAIA does to promote Indian artists. He told me that ‘ SWAIA allows me to be the artist that I am.’ In return for SWAIA’s support, Robert, like many other important Indian artists, was donating a piece of his work to the SWAIA black tie gala auction to be held the following evening. His piece, a spectacular, traditionally-made, hand-painted pot titled ‘ Going to Indian Market’ was valued at $10,000.
Indian Market takes place Saturday and Sunday, rain or shine, in the streets surrounding the Plaza. Look for the program guides and vendor lists that show where each artist is located by booth number and street. I was told that the ‘ serious buyers ’ begin to congregate at the booths at 3 AM, hoping to be first in line and often arriving before the artists do.
Parking in downtown Santa Fe is a nightmare during this week, so select a hotel that offers parking and is within walking distance to the Plaza. Or, do as I did and arrive by 5 AM to claim a spot in one of the public parking lots.
As I neared the Plaza, the action was well underway. In the gauzy pre-dawn light, people moved rapidly and silently, like ghostly specters. Vendors quietly set up their wares, some bringing only three or four pots, others with glass cases containing splendid pieces of jewelry. Lucky early buyers were already heading back to their cars to unload before continuing the hunt.
Across the Plaza the funky, art deco Plaza Cafe was open, and it was buzzing with high-spirited camaraderie. For me, food and coffee were essential at this early hour. On entering, I could see that this was clearly not to be my familiar New England cup-of-coffee-and-a-muffin breakfast. Plates heaped with omelets, enchiladas, and chunky red bean chili streamed past me as the waiters rushed to deliver orders. Intrigued, ordered a dish called Huevos Divorciados.
It came two eggs on a corn tortilla, topped with earthy, color-contrasting red chipotle and green tomatillo salsas. Additionally, guacamole, sour cream, beans, hash browns and a honey-drenched, puffy fried bread called a sopaipilla rounded out the cowboy-sized platter of food. In spite of myself, I made some good headway in the food. Who ever decided that breakfast needed to be about sweet flavors never had a plate of food like this look them in they eye. And win. Bolstered and fortified by this eye-opening breakfast, I was ready for the action.
Dawn arrived just before 6 AM, and as I grasped the full spectacle of Indian Market, I was overwhelmed. Everywhere around me I saw delicate, intricately painted Pueblo pottery in mono-chromatic earth tones; troves of dazzling silver and turquoise bracelets and necklaces in traditional designs; contemporary silver and gold jewelry inlaid with lapis, coral and onyx; strands of delicate, hand-strung and hand-cut bead necklaces in green and blue turquoise, cream-colored shell and pink and red coral; woolen blankets and rugs, woven in traditional designs in a palate of vibrant colors; intricately carved and delicately balanced wooden Katchina dolls (artistic, figured representations of Indian spirits and deities); hand-made cloth dolls dressed in skin garments and adorned with hand-applied beads, feathers and fur; plus fine art prints, paintings, and photographs of southwestern landscapes and people.
In this normally laid back town, the air crackles with energy during Indian Market. Crowds of visitors swirl good-naturedly around the streets, mingling classic Eddie Bauer and loose American casual with cowboy rustic and southwestern glamour. Glints of silver jewelry encrusted with eye-popping hunks of turquoise flash in the bright sunlight. In celebration, locals and buyers pile on their Indian jewelry, displaying their amassed collection of rings, necklaces and bracelets.
This is no discrete thin-gold-chain and demur-post-earring kind of town. Here, in art-conscious up-scale Santa Fe, personal adornment is serious business. Even urban cowboys wear Native American jewelry, a modern-day convention previously un-heard of in this former rough and tumble town that is filled with ghosts of saloons and cowboys past.
The list of who’s who in Indian arts is truly impressive. Jewelry artists such as Raymond Yazzie, Orville Tsinnie, Joe Calabaza, Jesse Monongya, Na Na Ping Garcia and Anthony Lovato are spoken of in tones underscoring the quality and excellence of their works. Pottery artists such as Sandra Victorino, Diane Lewis, Rachel Concho, Anderson Peynetsa, Barbara and Joseph Cerno, Evelyn Ortiz, Gloria Mahle, Lonnie Virgil and Tammy Garcia have raised the level of their craft while remaining true to the traditions of building and painting their hand-coiled pots.
As the next two days unfolded, a stage assembled in the Plaza provided continuous entertainment, including musical performances by popular Indian artists Robert Mirabal and Joanne Shenandoah. Events such as hoop dancing and a ceremonial eagle chant performed by the Jemez Black Eagle Singers packed crowds of all ages. On Sunday, the eagerly awaited American Indian Clothing Contest showcased ornate and exquisite hand-made traditional attire from competing Indian tribes.
By late Saturday, the buzz was in anticipation of the annual SWAIA fund-raising black-tie dinner and live auction that evening. The opportunity to bid on a top piece from the long list of donating artists brings out the altruism of the serious art community. By the time the auction hammer fell for the last time that night, an acrylic painting by Indian Market poster artist of the year David John titled Rain Chant brought in $11,000; a slick Na Na Ping Garcia sterling silver and black jade inlaid bracelet was deemed a steal at $4,200; a Donna Shakespeare Cummings Arapaho warrior doll was taken home for $2,800; a spectacular Jesse Monongya coral, gold, diamond and necklace netted $38,000. And Robert Tenorio’s pot fetched a cool $9,500.