Opinion

The Perks and Problems of Santa Fe’s Indian Market

SANTA FE, NM — Indian Market is a fixture of the Santa Fe community. Founded in 1922 by the Museum of New Mexico, the market brings over 150,000 people to Santa Fe each year to view the work of over 1,100 Native American and First Nations artists.

World Champion Fancy Dancer Larry Yazzie at Indian Market 2015 (photo via @lafondasantafe/Instagram)
World Champion Fancy Dancer Larry Yazzie at Indian Market 2015 (photo via @lafondasantafe/Instagram)

SANTA FE, NM — Indian Market is a fixture of the Santa Fe community. Founded in 1922 by the Museum of New Mexico, the market brings over 150,000 people to Santa Fe each year to view the work of over 1,100 Native American and First Nations artists. The market generates millions of dollars in tourism revenue for the region, and 100% of the sales of all works go to the artists.

Managed by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA), the market is juried, and prizes are awarded for each medium and best in show. The winner of the latter this year was Carol Emarthle-Douglas (Northern Arapaho-Seminole), for her woven basket “Cultural Burdens.” The work fuses coiling, twining, and plaiting techniques done in natural materials like silk thread, tree splints, sinew, deer hide, and pine needles, with beading also present. It depicts 22 figures representative of various tribes and the loads under which they’ve metaphorically and physically labored.

Carol Emarthle-Douglas's basket that won Best in Show at Indian Market 2015 (screenshot via Perry Null Trading/Twitter)
Carol Emarthle-Douglas’s basket that won Best in Show at Indian Market 2015 (screenshot via Perry Null Trading/Twitter)

This is the upside of Indian Market: the preeminent showcasing of Native art from across the North American continent to an audience — including collectors and curators — that’s both local and global. The downside is that, although the event is well-intentioned and supports a myriad of artists and artisans, it’s not the best platform for new voices in Native American art. The market fosters stereotypes of “Nativeness” that don’t also take into account the American Indian artist as a contemporary individual who engages with mediums and concepts from both inside and outside their culture.

As someone who grew up in the Southwest, has long maintained professional and personal relationships with individuals from a variety of tribes, and who has ties in my own family to the Cherokee Nation, I have a vested interest in the way that Native peoples are represented. As a writer about and curator of contemporary Native American and First Nations art, too, I think it’s important to note that I don’t believe in a hierarchical system that pits “traditional” Native art against, say, the work of someone like Jeffrey Gibson. Both are innately valid, functioning in different spheres and ways.

Children at Indian Market 2015 (photo by the author) (click to enlarge)
Children at Indian Market 2015 (photo by the author) (click to enlarge)

This year’s visit was not my first to Indian Market, and will most likely not be my last, but in the time I’ve been attending, not much seems to have changed. That is, in a sense, the way the market functions — as kind of constant force, with many of the artists participating for decades. They come to tell their stories, to share and sell their art. Many prepare the entire year, as the market is a central component of their livelihood. These career Indian Market artists embrace the event’s history and traditions, while the younger artists I’ve spoken with are looking towards other fairs and exhibition prospects to be able to show work they feel they have more agency over. Many of them find that the market sits in a precarious place of perpetuating stereotypes of what “Native art” is supposed to look like. One in particular told me they see it as an outdated tradition that needs updating in order to allow artists to create work without expectations of a certain aesthetic or materiality.

The firsthand experience of the market is frenetic, a festival-like atmosphere of crowds making their way through the historic Santa Fe Plaza. It can be hard to have any kind of meaningful engagement with the art when individuals and groups (mostly white) are filing past the artists’ booths, snapping pictures and looking at the stalls as though they were curiosities or specimens to behold. An objectifying gaze feels like the mode of operation among those who attend. While there are more seasoned visitors aware of and sensitive to this dynamic, the procession around the plaza is subverted by the throngs of people.

In a very real way, although the mission of SWAIA is sound and aims to foster an understanding of American Indian cultures, the market feels antiquated — like a form of perpetuated and evolved colonialism. A weird quasi-colonialism, because yes, the artists do maintain agency in the presentation of their work, as well as the marketing and pricing, but all of this gets refracted through the orientalizing lens of commerce and broader cultural power dynamics. Patrons and collectors come to the market to buy a certain aesthetic, something that looks and feels “Indian.” In their quest, they pigeonhole the artists as belonging to a specific, preconceived group and fail to recognize them as simply those who create for a variety of reasons.

The crowd at Indian Market 2015 (screenshot via @rcCola74/Twitter)
The crowd at Indian Market 2015 (screenshot via @rcCola74/Twitter)

There is a cultural conditioning at work here, although it’s not exclusive to Native practitioners: artists often make what will sell in a given setting. The blame here is not on the creators, but such circumstances lead to omissions and somewhat homogenous conditions. For instance, you don’t see film work or installations at Indian Market, because neither would probably sell. The artists realize they need to play the market game. (That said, some do manage to subvert those expectations — Emarthle-Douglas’s award-winning piece, for example, very much examines the plight and struggle of what it means to be Native now, in a fresh, hybrid fashion.)

SWAIA’s mission is admirable, and its work to create a forum for the display and discussion of Native American art is vastly important; however, the colonial overtones of the weekend are hard to ignore — even down to the FAQs on SWAIA’s website, which include queries such as, “That looks like the stuff I can buy at the airport. What’s the difference?”; “I’ve never met a Native person before. Is there anything I should know?”; and “I’ve heard it called ‘Indian Mark-Up.’ Why is it so expensive?” I don’t know what the best solution is for expanding the thinking around the market, but there is definitely an opportunity for more education. SWAIA has programming that attempts to introduce non-Native people to American Indian cultures, but expanding it and incorporating contemporary art across a wider range of mediums and aesthetics could illustrate the vastness of the Native art world, instead of just a small slice. SWAIA has an opportunity be a thought leader — to demonstrate that Native American art is much more than a thing of the past. Native American and First Nations artists are contemporary people, dealing with contemporary issues. Many have very clear voices, and the market is one possible global stage where they can be seen and heard.

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