History of Indian Market

Visitors attended the first Southwest Indian Fair in 1922. Photo #39516 courtesy the Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe. southwest art.
Visitors attended the first Southwest Indian Fair in 1922. Photo #39516 courtesy the Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe.

By Jo Ann Baldinger

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.

Exhibitors display their art outside the Palace of the Governors at the 1938 Indian Market. southwest art.
Exhibitors display their art outside the Palace of the Governors at the 1938 Indian Market.
Photo # 135034 courtesy the Museum of New Mexico.

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.)

An array of works on display at The National Guard Armory at the Southwest Indian Fair, c. 1922. photo #1499 courtesy the museum of new mexico. southwest art.
An array of works on display at The National Guard Armory at the Southwest Indian Fair, c. 1922. photo #1499 courtesy the museum of new mexico.

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.”

Native American art on view at the Southwest Indian Market in 1925 at the National Guard Armory. Photo # 22951 courtesy the Museum of New Mexico. southwest art.
Native American art on view at the Southwest Indian Market in 1925 at the National Guard Armory. Photo # 22951 courtesy the Museum of New Mexico.

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. Tonita Roybal has an ordinary size bowl priced at $12!” The bowl sold for $13.20 within half an hour of the fair’s opening.

The first Indian Fair succeeded in demonstrating that there was a market for Indian arts, and it became a regular part of the annual Fiesta. Over the following years a variety of special features were introduced. Prizes were given for the best chile and other Indian-grown vegetables, and there were fashion shows and demonstrations of sand painting, pottery making, weaving, painting, and fireplace-making (the two women who tied for this last prize subsequently were contracted by numerous home builders in Santa Fe). A contest to select the finest Indian baby, held for several years in the mid-1920s, was also a disguised program to medically examine babies and give advice to their mothers. Infant and child mortality was still very high, particularly since the influenza epidemic of 1919. This feature of the fair was abandoned in 1926, however, because, one observer noted, the Indians did not trust white medicine.

The Santa Fe Fiesta Parade in 1926. Photo # 4415 courtesy the
The Santa Fe Fiesta Parade in 1926. Photo # 4415 courtesy the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives.

Even before the advent of the Indian Fair, Santa Fe Fiesta weekends had featured performances of Indian dances (despite the U.S. Indian Commissioner’s attempt to ban such dances because they were “evil and foolish”). Since the city was a full day’s journey by horse and wagon from most of the pueblos, the Indians stayed in “encampments” adjoining the Armory building. Here, one observer wrote, the public could view “a segment of life in the Indian pueblos including domesticity, games, religious ceremonies, and crafts.” In 1930 a tent camp was set up in the orchard behind Sena Plaza, with an outdoor kitchen staffed by women from Jemez Pueblo. A violent storm and flash flood forced everyone to flee to the Exhibit Hall, where they slept on the floor. “They took it in good spirits,” one observer wrote, “and far from being exhausted, cleared an open space in the middle of the Armory and danced the night through for their own pleasure.”

From 1931 to 1935, the Indian Fair took place not in Santa Fe but in nearby pueblos, at tribal fairs, and at government Indian schools. The fair returned to Santa Fe in 1936 in a new guise, as a weekly public market at which Indian artists could sell their own wares. Held under the portal of the Palace of the Governors—built in 1610 on the site of an abandoned Indian village the market was the brainchild of Maria Chabot, executive secretary of the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs, forerunner of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, presenter of today’s Indian Market.

This new format was modeled on the outdoor markets Chabot had visited in old Mexico. Each summer Saturday over the next four years, the United Pueblos Agency sent school buses to the Pueblo villages to transport the artists to Santa Fe. Chabot later wrote, “At that time there were no Indians selling goods under the Portal, and we ran into an immediate controversy with Plaza traders who felt that this was an encroachment on their regular tourist business.” The Saturday markets also marked the beginning of what eventually became the daily practice of Indian artists selling their wares under the portal.

As with the Indian Fair, the goal of the summer markets was to encourage the production of traditional arts and crafts and to educate the public about Southwest Indian cultures. NMAIA set forth standards of quality and published brochures about what to look for in each category, which were sold to shoppers for 30 or 40 cents each. Likewise, prizes were awarded by non-Indian judges; according to one observer, the Indian people were reluctant to assess the quality of one another’s work.

But the new format signified one enormous change: The artists now represented themselves, setting their own prices and selling their own wares rather than going through intermediaries. Authentic Indian-made goods could be purchased at trading posts and curio stores throughout the Southwest, but only at Santa Fe’s Indian Market could the public deal directly with the makers of these goods. This format was created with input from the artists. “We wanted Indians’ real opinions,” Chabot explained. “We didn’t want to do something for them; we wanted to do something with them.”

World War II and the immediate post-war period put a damper on Indian Market, as gasoline rationing made driving to Santa Fe difficult or impossible. In 1962, as the market grew in popularity, it was separated from the Fiesta and moved to mid-August. The late 1960s saw booming public interest in all things Indian, creating a corresponding growth in the size of Indian Market. It has tripled in size since 1970. The vibrant market of today is evidence of how well the efforts of its founders have transformed our understanding and appreciation of Indian arts and culture.

Market Memories

Marie and Juan Lovato, husband-and-wife jewelers from Santa Domingo Pueblo, remember selling their jewelry on the portal at the Palace of Governors across the street from the Plaza in Santa Fe before Indian  Market grew to its current size and status.

“When we started going to Indian Market back in the ‘40s, it had been going on for awhile but there weren’t as many artists as you see today,” Marie says. “Today they come from everywhere—you see Plains Indians and members of many other tribes. But back then in the old days, most of the artists came from the pueblos.”

In those days, Juan did the bulk of the work on their jewelry. “I used to sit in the booth and sell the jewelry,” says Marie. “Back then, I was raising kids.” But lately, Marie has been helping Juan out by making chains by hand.

Juan’s work stood out in his first exhibits at Indian Market because he was one of the early Pueblo goldsmiths. “People had worked in silver and gold before me,” he says. “But the style I designed was different.”

Combining stones and metal in his unique designs, Juan earned ribbon after ribbon at Indian Market over the years. “We have a case in his workshop where the ribbons are,” says Marie. “Lots of buyers go for the ribbons-—they want to have the piece that won first prize.”

Because Juan has exhibited at Indian Market for so many years, many longtime collectors seek him out. “Buyers come to look at the artists, especially the old ones like him,” Marie laughs.

Jicarilla Apache basket maker Lydia Pesata first attended Indian Market as a demonstrator rather than an exhibitor more than 20 years ago. Pesata, who revived the art of basket making on the Jicarilla reservation, had come to Santa Fe for a museum symposium, and market organizers invited the symposium participants to demonstrate their crafts at Indian Market.

“I had tried to get in year after year, with no luck,” Pesata says. “So I was pleased to be invited.” She was one of the first basket makers featured at the market.

A particularly memorable market experience happened a few years ago. Among the treasures she had brought to her booth that August was a flat basket with the United States flag in the center colored with natural plant dyes. “As we were setting up the booth at about 7 a.m., some buyers started fighting over that basket,” says Pesata. “I decided right then I should think about raising my prices.”

At this year’s market, Pesata will exhibit new work created to suit her state of mind. “Whatever mood I’m in, that’s the kind of baskets that come out,” she says. “I make them because I want to. If it’s just for business, the fun of it goes away.”

Painter Gary Yazzie, a Navajo artist, says major luck—not a major reputation—landed him a spot in his first Indian Market about 20 years ago. A friend had invited him to share a booth and then decided not to participate, leaving the space to Yazzie.

“My booth was next to those of Rose Chino, a very wonderful Acoma potter; Phil Hughte, a Zuni painter; and Feather Woman, a Hopi potter who has since passed on,” says Yazzie. “Feather Woman used to sell piki bread at her booth before they outlawed it. She turned to me at the end of the show and gave me some bread and said in perfect Navajo, ‘Here, make this your lunch.’”

When he began exhibiting at Indian Fair, Yazzie was among a handful of representational painters whose style showed European influence. In his second year, 1983, he received an award for his painting Proud Americans, which showed a parade of Zuni maidens with a Zuni band, flag bearers, and the New Mexico and American flags in the background. “That award meant a lot, especially early in my career,” he says.

One year, Yazzie had an unexpected visitor at his booth. “Sculptor Allan Houser came by and started looking at my work,” says Yazzie. “We got to talking about my horses, and he said that their necks were too long. He was so gracious, though—that’s the kind of man he was.”

Many of Yazzie’s regular visitors at Indian Market are collectors who have followed his work for years. “Often it appears I’m doing landmark business, but I’m really just talking with people I love seeing,” he says.

Ray and Mary Rosetta of Santo Domingo Pueblo vividly remember the stir they created at Indian Market in the 1950s when they introduced the shimmering sterling necklaces they called “liquid silver.”

“We did real fine silver beads, and people had never seen anything like it,” Ray Rosetta says. “Everybody rushed to buy them.”

Liquid-silver jewelry consists of tiny silver heishi, or beads, threaded together in strands that shimmer like a metal waterfall. The name came from the wife of a friend. “She held it in her hands and said it was so light, almost like water,” says Rosetta. “From there we started calling the pieces liquid silver.”

Now, although most liquid silver is machine-made by Anglos, the Rosettas’ sons craft it by hand using 20-gauge silver.

“My wife and I hardly make any more liquid silver,” Rosetta says. “With the arthritis in my back, I can’t pull the silver any more.”

At the Rosettas’ first Indian Market in 1955, they sold their necklaces from the porch outside the Palace of the Governors. “We wondered if the market would catch on,” says Rosetta with a laugh. “It has changed, but it’s still the best place to sell. It’s a good market for real fine things.”

Ruthe Blalock Jones, a painter from Oklahoma, remembers her first Indian Market well. “It was everything I’d heard and hoped it would be and even more,” she says. “It was such a thrill to meet some of the artists I’d read about.”

But the best part of her first Indian Market experience was discovering a new attitude toward art in Santa Fe. “We here in Oklahoma don’t have the acceptance they have there. But in Santa Fe, it’s really okay to be an artist.”

When she first came to Santa Fe in 1980, Jones recalls, most artists were from the pueblos, and “outsiders” made up a small portion of the market. But then Don Humphries—an art professor and museum professional with Oklahoma connections—joined the board of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, and he helped his former students apply for space at Indian Market.

A Delaware/Shawnee/Peoria tribal member, Jones paints in that tradition’s two-dimensional or flat style. Among the paintings she brought to market her first year was one titled Medicine Woman, which has since been acquired by the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK.  —Anne Hillerman

Featured in August 2001