Weaving through a sea of humanity at the Santa Fe Indian Market, I can’t help but think of a line from the Navajo Beauty Way prayer: “With beauty around me I walk… .”
I’m one of about 100,000 people who have descended upon City Different for the annual buying frenzy that is the Santa Fe Indian Market, the oldest and most prestigious organized sale of Native American art in the world. Everywhere I look I see the finest examples of Native American art from all over the country, along with their creators. I’m a beginning collector with Champaign taste and a beer budget, but today I’m determined to meet Zuni artist Agnes Peynetsa and take home one of her pots. The stepped edges of her pieces, adorned with sleek lizards peaking over edges and tadpoles hiding inside the bowl, are traditional but evoke a timeless humor and whimsy that have captured my imagination. I’ve long admired her work in books and galleries, but I can’t pass up the chance to meet the artist herself and buy directly from her. Nor can the thousands of other art lovers I’m politely shoulder to shoulder with as they search to meet their art heroes.
Created in 1922 by the Southwest Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) to encourage Native Americans to continue making their art and to provide economic opportunities for the artists, this year the 82nd Santa Fe Indian Market is Aug. 23 and 24. Santa Fe’s famous Plaza and side streets are striped with row after row of open white tents that shelter the artists and their creations that run the gamut from silver jewelry to contemporary clothing from the August sun. More than 1,100 artist share 600 coveted booth spaces and offer everything from $15 earrings to $30,000 pottery that my 3-year-old daughter and 60-pound golden retriever could fit inside. This is by far Santa Fe’s largest annual event – estimated to bring in $93 million dollars to the local economy – and second largest event in the state after the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. But while famously cynical Santa Feans sometimes refer to the event as “Indian Markup,” I’m surprised at how easily affordable much of the art is as I spot a small Jeméz pot for $55. I can feel my Visa trembling as I get sidetracked in my search for Peynetsa’s booth. I’m acutely aware that no where else in the world is there a gathering like this as I pass the booths of Roxanne Swentzell, Yellowman, Estella Lorretto and other famous artists that are being crowded like rock stars. The opportunity to meet such luminaries in one place and ask them about their work is heady, but so is the opportunity to speak with other artists from all over the United States and learn about their tribes, history and future. Without pulling out my wallet once yet I’m acquiring a wealth of information about tribes from across the country. New Mexico’s 22 tribes are well represented, but Indian Market is open to members of all federally recognized Indian nations. From Arapahoe to Zia, Tonawonda Seneca to Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux, artists from more than 100 tribes show their work that is juried in by art experts. This process guarantees not only top quality, but also that each piece is handmade and authentic, even down to the type of beads and dyes used. Each artist is happy to discuss his or her art and tribal history, not to mention sports, food and whatever other common ground that is so easily found at Indian Market. As I make my way through the mass of happy humanity that includes celebrities such as country music star Randy Travis, I realize it’s the vendors who are having the most fun.
“Everybody wants to do Santa Fe,” says Tim Audiss, a Rosebud Sioux ledger and hide painter from South Dakota who’s been selling at Indian Market for the past 16 years. “The sales are good, but it’s fun to see old friends and catch up. And we like Indian art, too.”
“I’ve been doing Market since before I was born,” Cavan Gonzales of San Ildefonso Pueblo tells me as I stop to admire his black-on-black pottery. He explains his mother was pregnant with him when she was showing at Indian Market. “My family has had six generations show at Market. My great-great grandmother was Maria Martinez.”
I instantly recognize the famous potter’s influence on her great-great grandson. Maria Martinez and her husband, Julian, are credited with revitalizing the black-on-black technique and bringing the art world’s attention to Pueblo pottery in the 1920s. As a result Indian potters began signing their work as art, not just utilitarian pieces. Gonzales tells me each of the five generations above him taught him how to make pottery.
“I had the good fortune of being able to travel with my great-great grandmother to shows and exhibitions,” he says. “I learned much from her. She was so kindhearted and really gave a lot to San Ildefonso.”
Continuing on my way, I don’t make it far until I find myself at Don Tenoso’s booth. Tenoso, a Hunkpapa Lakota who is Sitting Bull’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandson, creates what might best be described as seriously humerous art. His bespectacled beaded dolls ride miniature motorcycles – Indian motorcycles, of course. But it’s his chess set that tempts me to max my Visa. Each beaded doll stands alone as a work of art, with Sitting Bull and his warriors on one side and Lt. Col. George A. Custer and the 7th Cavalry on the other. “Crow Indians are Custer’s pawns, of course,” he says, referring to the Cavalry’s scouts. Tenoso explains that on June 25, 1876, Custer was trying to oust Sitting Bull and his Lakota Sioux from the Black Hills despite a treaty because gold had been discovered there, something I never knew. The rest of the Battle of Little Big Horn is history.
“It’s funny, nobody ever wants to be Custer when they play me,” Tenoso says with a grin.
Making my way to the Plaza, I catch a bit of the Native American Clothing Contest, which is Sunday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Santa Fe Plaza Stage this year. Part fashion show, part history lesson, participants model outfits (don’t call them costumes) from their tribes. Daniel Howard wears the stickball player outfit of a Mississippi Choctaw, complete with a half-moon metal breastplate borrowed from the 1700s British military. Austin Box demonstrates Southern Ute warrior regalia that marries an 1880s U.S. Cavalry officer’s uniform complete with spiked helmet with traditional Ute wear. Tanabaw Nohani wears a traditional married Navajo woman’s dress, and the MC explains that the more buckskin leggings a woman has, the more successful her husband is as a hunter. As each category is presented, I’m fascinated by the diversity, history, beauty and spirit displayed in Native clothing from across the country.
Tearing myself away from the competition, I continue on my quest. Soon, I see Peynetsa’s booth and am elated to see she still has several pieces left. I approach the same way I would a celebrity for an autograph, and tell her how much I enjoy her work. She thanks me shyly with a beaming smile. Scanning her table, I feel almost paralyzed. How to choose? A larger, honeydew-sized crème and sienna pot bowl with four lizards peering over the edge catches my attention, as does the $500 price – extremely reasonable but a little more than I should part with. Still, the pot’s balance and lines have worked their way into my heart, and I reach for my wallet.
“Oh, why don’t you give me $450, OK?” Peynetsa says as she bubble wraps the pot. I appreciatively hand her the cash and carefully take possession of my newest treasure.
Peynetsa’s pot now sits on my mantle and makes my heart sing every time I look at it. I always justify buying art as an investment, but I know I’ll never sell anything I’ve ever bought. Instead, I’ll take my daughter to this year’s Indian Market and start instilling in her a love of Native American art. Hopefully, she’ll inherit quite a collection.
For more information about this year’s 90nd Annual Indian Market, Aug. 20 and 21, and a complete schedule of events, logon to www.SWAIA.org.
1) Buy what you like. This is the cardinal rule for all art purchases. Beyond significance, fame of the artist and resale value, do you like what you’re buying? Will you enjoy it for years to come? Are you really ever going to sell it?
2) Pretend like you’re going hiking in summer, because you are. Comfortable shoes, a good hat, sunscreen and water are as necessary as your checkbook. A small backpack will come in handy, and packing a lunch or snacks will save time in long lines and money, though there’s nothing quite like having Navajo fry bread with honey from one of the food vendors located at the Sweeney Center parking lot, 201 W. Marcy Street.
3) Know how much you’re willing to spend. It’s easy to get carried away and spend far more than you thought you would. $500 dollars becomes pocket change next to an $18,000 piece of art. Before you get caught up in the buying frenzy, remember what your budget is.
4) Get there early, stay there late. If you’re serious about getting the best pieces, get up before dawn. Though artists can’t begin selling until 7 a.m., people start lining up at booths as early as 5. Some people camp out in front of booth spaces the night before as if they were buying tickets to a rock concert. Also, some of the best deals can be made at the close of Market at 5 p.m., especially on Sunday.
5) Talk to the artists. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the artists. They are proud of their work and enjoy educating people about it and their family history.