SANTA FE, NM — This summer, hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected to convene in New Mexico’s capital city, where the centennial edition of Santa Fe Indian Market is scheduled to take place in person on Saturday, August 20 and Sunday, August 21, 2022. According to the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA), the juried Native American art fair features approximately 1,000 Indigenous artists from over 200 federally recognized tribes selling works ranging from pottery and textiles to jewelry and paintings.
It’s a far cry from its beginnings 100 years ago, when the market’s organizers didn’t allow participating Native American artisans to be seen by the buying public. Today, the country’s largest Native American public event, which features contemporary and traditional Indigenous art from the United States and Canada, is organized and produced by Kim Peone (Colville Confederated Tribes/Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), who’s supported by a staff of mostly Native American women. Throughout its history, the market has often responded to the country’s changing sociopolitical climate and the evolving creative output of Indigenous artists.
“It originally came from a preservation perspective of cultures and now it’s evolved into this place of sustaining and supporting living cultures,” says Peone, who became the executive director of SWAIA, the nonprofit that helms the market, in 2020.
The market’s debut in 1922, a smaller affair presented under the mouthful title of The Southwest Indian Fair and Industrial Arts and Crafts Exhibition, was held indoors rather than the bustling Santa Fe Plaza. The event, which included Navajo rugs and Plains Indians beadwork and basketry, focused on ceramics in an effort to revive Pueblo pottery making, according to Cathy Notarnicola, curator of Southwest history at the New Mexico History Museum. (The Santa Fe cultural institution, in partnership with SWAIA, is set to open the Tradition and Innovation exhibition on August 7, 2022 that chronicles the history of the market; it’s scheduled to remain on view through August 2023.)
Notarnicola adds that the event borrowed influences from the Panama–California Exposition, a World’s Fair-style shindig that took place in 1915. Edgar Lee Hewett, an archeologist and director of the Museum of New Mexico, attended the San Diego fair and later co-founded what would become Indian Market with Kenneth Chapman.
The market attempted to capitalize on New Mexico’s burgeoning tourist industry — tourism remains one of the state’s largest money-making enterprises — that brought visitors to the Land of Enchantment via the Santa Fe Railway, Notarnicola explains. It was also in response to the various failed US government policies — including removal, reservation, and assimilation — that attempted to wipe out Indian Country.
“It was like salvage ethnography in an attempt to try to save what was left of Indian cultures after all the devastating policies,” says Notarnicola.
“The first market came at it from an anthropological perspective, thinking that they were going to preserve Indian arts because we were on the brink of extinction,” adds Peone.
Native artisans weren’t allowed to sell their works in-person at the market until 1931, which predated the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, a federal government policy that attempted to reverse the damages of cultural assimilation.
The post-World War II federal Indian policy of termination and relocation — the US government ditched its relationships with tribes so that Native people could be “civilized” into mainstream White society, often in the big cities — did a number on Indian Market.
The cultural event bounced back in the 1960s with the beginning of the self-determination era and the 1962 establishment of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Notarnicola says IAIA, founded by Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee) and George Boyce, is often credited for the inception of contemporary Native art. Fritz Scholder (La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians) and Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache) taught at the Santa Fe school; alumni include current US poet laureate Joy Harjo (Muscogee/Creek), sculptor, ceramicist, Indigenous food activist, and gallerist Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo), and the late painter and printmaker T.C. Cannon (Kiowa/Caddo).
“Another major shift occurred with regards to the mission of the market, which, in its origination, preserved traditional designs and technologies of the past,” says Peone. “Today, the market honors and encourages innovation in its works of Native artists.”
In the 1970s, the market became a predominantly Native American-represented organization, according to Jamie Schulze (Northern Cheyenne), SWAIA director of operations, and has steadily grown. Today, the annual summer event attracts upwards of 150,000 visitors, who can talk with and purchase work from Native artists throughout approximately 17 city blocks in and around the historic Santa Fe Plaza.
“There’s a camaraderie that happens with artists and collectors where every year they get to see each other again and catch up on what’s happened in the past year,” says Notarnicola, who adds that she’s seen the children of artists and collectors grow up together at the market over the last 30 years.
Moving forward, Peone says Santa Fe Indian Market, which also produces a yearly winter market, will continue adapting to the contemporary moment while fostering personal and cultural sustainability for Native artists.
“We are definitely pivoting,” she says. “We really want to get away from an organization that only concentrates on two markets. How that comes about really comes from the perspective of partnerships and how we want to not only be a part of this community, but contribute to this community 365 days out of the year.”
Editor’s Note, 03/18/22, 10:50am EDT: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified the year Native artisans were allowed to sell work in person at the market as 1933. This has been corrected.