History of Indian Market

By Baldinger, Jo Ann | Southwest Art, August 2001 | Go to article overview

History of Indian Market


Baldinger, Jo Ann, Southwest Art


Santa Fe Indian Market is the oldest, largest, and most prestigious event of its kind-a unique blend of people and cultures that has launched the careers of scores of renowned artists.

An estimated 100,000 traders, collectors, and lovers of Indian art come to Santa Fe each year from across the United States and abroad to look, buy, and meet the artists.

Today's thriving market contrasts starkly with that of 1922, when the first Southwest Indian Fair took place in Santa Fe. At the time, there was serious concern about the future not only of Indian arts but also of Indian people and Indian culture in general. Poverty, illness, and in some cases forced relocation had taken a huge toll on Indian tribes. This was true even among the Pueblo people, who had not suffered relocation. In 1900, for example, the population of San Ildefonso Pueblo had declined to less than 150.

In addition, government programs since the late 1800s had been aimed at "Americanizing" (synonymous with "civilizing") the Indians and eradicating their traditional culture. The promotion of southwestern tourism in the early decades of the 20th century had also played a part in devaluing Indian arts: The Santa Fe Railway and the Fred Harvey Company, prime movers in the tourist boom, encouraged the mass production of cheap souvenirs and curios that could be sold to visitors to the Navajo reservation and the Pueblo villages.

But in the meantime, a growing community of artists, intellectuals, archaeologists, and anthropologists had come to live in the beautiful and inexpensive towns of Taos and Santa Fe, where they were enthusiastically rediscovering the culture of the Southwest's native inhabitants. Many of them recognized American Indian art as one of the world's great treasures and worried that traditional native designs and techniques were dying out. In addition, they believed that artistic activity was the most promising avenue to Indian self-esteem and self-sufficiency.

Accordingly, in 1922, the first annual Southwest Indian Fair and Industrial Arts and Crafts Exhibition, sponsored by the Museum of New Mexico and the School of American Research, took place in Santa Fe. The fair's stated purpose was to encourage local artists to return to traditional arts and crafts by providing a marketplace for their work; to set standards for that work; to educate the public to appreciate and buy Indian arts; and thereby to help the artists make a living. (No one seemed to have commented, at least not publicly, on the irony of such an event being launched as part of the Santa Fe Fiesta, the annual celebration of the defeat of the Pueblo Revolt and the Spanish recapture of the city in 1692.)

The fair was more an exhibition/sale than a true market. The artists were not present, and all sales were negotiated and handled by the Anglo organizers. Held in the National Guard Armory on Washington Avenue behind the Palace of the Governors, the exhibition combined new pieces with older examples from the Museum of New Mexico's collection, which served as models of what the artists should aspire to. The 3,500 items on display included pottery, baskets, beadwork, blankets, paintings, and silver work from the Pueblo, Navajo, Pima, Apache, Blackfoot, Sioux, and Crow tribes. Some of the items were purchased by the fair organizers in advance at the northern New Mexico pueblos; others were brought by their makers to the fair, where the works had to undergo examination by three Anglo experts to certify that they were "strictly Indian in form, material, and decoration."

A total of $1,018 in prize money was awarded in various categories by a panel of judges-- again, prominent Anglo Santa Feans. Maria and Julian Martinez won a $5 first prize for their black-on-black pottery, and the financial benefits to the artists resulting from sales went beyond the organizers' hopes. At one point, Edgar Lee Hewett, director of the Museum of New Mexico, complained, "Some of the pottery prices are getting out of hand.

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