SANTA FE, N.M. — Tens of thousands of art collectors, aficionados and spectators are expected to converge in and around the central Santa Fe Plaza next month to check out the work of hundreds of Native American artists offering some of their finest jewelry, pots, paintings and other pieces for sale.
The annual Santa Fe Indian Market, which is celebrating its centennial this year, is at once a festive, multigenerational reunion of family and friends; a chance for artists to compete for awards and recognition; a multimillion-dollar economic engine for Santa Fe and New Mexico; and an important source of income for Native American artists and their communities.
“People come from all over the world — Germany, Paris, Japan — to see all of our artists in one spot in a single weekend,” said Ken Williams Jr., who manages the Case Trading Post sales room at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe. Mr. Williams, who is Arapaho and Seneca, used to show his own beadwork at Indian Market.
“It’s a great thing that this is still going after a hundred years,” he said by phone. “It’s a great place for the artist to be.”
This year’s Indian Market on Aug. 20-21 will have close to 650 booths and feature more than 800 artists, according to Kimberly Peone, executive director of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, known as SWAIA, which sponsors the event. These are artists who belong to federally recognized tribes across the United States and Canada and who have applied and been accepted into the juried show. Jewelry is the classification that draws the most applicants, said Ms. Peone, 54, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
At Indian Market, “you really go all out in your designs,” said Ellouise Toya, 53, a jeweler from the Kewa Pueblo tribe (also known as Santo Domingo Pueblo) in New Mexico. Her work includes reversible pendant necklaces with multiple strands of handmade heishi beads that she cuts from raw serpentine or turquoise stones or other materials such as ironwood or seashells, and then grinds and polishes.
“That’s the time to show your most outrageous piece, and people are loving it, and it inspires you more,” she said in an interview in her workshop just south of Santa Fe. Her parents, the now-retired jewelers Don and Nancy Crespin, started taking her to Indian Market when she was 10. “They’d take me to help them do sales, because I was very talkative,” said Ms. Toya, whose business is called Ellouise Originals.
The jewelry category at the market is broad enough to encompass a rich variety of styles — traditional to contemporary, abstract to figurative — but artists must meet detailed standards related to materials, techniques and tools. For example, limited, signed editions of some types of cast jewelry are allowed, with disclosure, but artists may not use color-treated materials such as blue onyx or synthetic opal.
Last year, the best-of-class award for jewelry went to the Alaska Native artist Denise Wallace of the Chugach Sugpiaq people, for “Origins, Roots and Sources,” a five-piece belt that incorporated different masks and figures to explore issues related to women’s rights, gender equality, social justice and the environment. She used materials as diverse as fossilized walrus tusk, lapis, red coral, silver and gold.
“I sometimes think of myself more as a storyteller than as a jeweler,” Ms. Wallace, 65, said in a video interview from her home near Hilo, Hawaii.
Indian Market, she said, tends to bring out artists’ best work and push them to do better, maybe even to go in a new direction. “It’s about the ability to stretch yourself. It gives you that focus,” she said.
SWAIA calls the Santa Fe Indian Market the world’s largest and most acclaimed Native American arts show. Other high-caliber Native American markets take place throughout the United States — including one held in March at the Heard Museum in Phoenix; in June at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles and at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. Many artists participate in multiple shows every year.
But the SWAIA market stands out, not only because of its sheer size and long history but because it takes place on the Santa Fe Plaza and in the surrounding streets, becoming the nucleus for a host of parallel activities. These now include Native American markets at local hotels and museums; the Free Indian Market, a few blocks from the plaza; and the Pathways Indigenous Arts Festival hosted by Pojoaque Pueblo, just north of Santa Fe. For days, the city hums with gallery receptions, museum exhibits, music performances, dances and occasional protests around Indigenous issues.
“I always call it Mardi Gras for people that love Native art,” said America Meredith, 50, in a video interview. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who participated in Indian Market as a painter for many years and is now the publisher and editor of First American Art Magazine.
A study done in 2018 for the city of Santa Fe by the market research firm Southwest Planning & Marketing found that nearly 97,000 people had attended the event that year, some more than once; it estimated the number of individual visitors at more than 56,500 and vendors and their staff in the booths at close to 2,000. Based on a survey of attendees, the study determined that visitors had spent close to $56 million on art and that the event had a total economic impact of $165.3 million. The artists also spent money, the study found — including an average of $652 on lodging for out-of-town vendors and $574 on fees to SWAIA. (This year, booth fees range from $440 to $770, depending on size, SWAIA said.)
A Return to Normal
After two atypical pandemic-driven years — the event went virtual in 2020 and had about 150 fewer booths in 2021 — organizers and artists said they were eager for it to return to normal. This year, the market will be free to the public, after a year in which organizers charged admission to cover what SWAIA said was the cost of Covid-related crowd control and contact tracing.
Nanibaa Beck, a second-generation Diné of the Navajo Nation jeweler and self-described “booth baby,” has memories of Indian Market going back to her early childhood. Her father, the silversmith Victor Beck Sr., and her maternal grandmother, the rug weaver Rena Begay, would share a booth and other members of the family would help out. As a little girl, she would sometimes just wander around and take it all in.
Ms. Beck, who calls her business NotAbove, said she would be taking part this year for the eighth time as a juried artist and will share a booth with her grandmother. (Ms. Beck said that her father, who took part in Indian Market last year, died in February of Covid and that her mother, Eleanor Beck, who began making jewelry in later life, died in 2016.)
In her years of doing the show, Ms. Beck, now 40, has come to cherish the moments just before Indian Market opens for business on that Saturday, when she is walking to her booth at first light, before the sun fully breaks over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
“It’s great that you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Ms. Beck said in an interview from her home studio in Tucson. “It’s going to be something that will be worth all the work that you had done in your studio up to that point.”
An Epicenter for the Arts
Santa Fe has long been an epicenter for the arts in general and Native American arts in particular, and this year several local institutions are marking milestones. The Wheelwright Museum turns 85, the Institute of American Indian Arts turns 60 and the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art has its 50th anniversary, to name a few. Dozens of cultural and artistic institutions, organizations and businesses in the state have banded together to promote these and other events under the umbrella name of Indigenous Celebration NM, or IC22 for short.
In August, the New Mexico History Museum will open a yearlong exhibition to commemorate the centennial of Indian Market. The market dates to the 1922 Southwest Indian Fair and Industrial Arts and Crafts Exhibition, created by the Museum of New Mexico as part of the centuries-old Santa Fe Fiesta. (The market became its own event in 1962.) In the beginning, pottery was the dominant art form; it wasn’t until the early 1970s that jewelry became an official classification in which artists could compete for prizes.
Awards are given within each category — judges include artists and outside experts such as museum curators and gallery owners — and the winning pieces then become eligible for the overall best-of-show award. This year, thanks to an anonymous sponsor, the winner of the top prize will take home $30,000, Ms. Peone said — triple the amount in previous years.
The winning pieces are chosen behind closed doors on the Thursday before the market opens. The awards ceremony takes place on Friday, followed by a sneak preview of award entries for SWAIA members and a public preview for holders of special $40 tickets, before sales officially begin on Saturday.
Last year, Davida Lister entered a Y-shaped lariat necklace of handmade silver beads and stones of a predominantly green and gold variety of turquoise whose colors reminded her of the forests and hills that she sees when she drives from her home in Mesa, Ariz., to visit her parents on the Navajo Nation. The piece didn’t win any ribbons, she said, but it did catch the eye of someone at the preview, who sought her out during the market and bought the necklace for $4,000.
Ms. Lister, 38, describes her designs as “contemporary with a twist of traditional” and chooses to make her silver beads from scratch, even though she could skip some steps by buying prefabricated components. “I like to melt all the silver,” she said in a video interview. “There’s something about it that just connects me with the fire and the silver melting together and then rolling it out.”
The Navajo artist and market participant Cody Sanderson mixes it up, using techniques as old as hand-forging alongside computer-aided design and 3-D printing to make molds for casting. Sometimes he combines them in one piece.
Casting is only one of many steps, he said. Among the jumble of unfinished pieces awaiting his attention in his Santa Fe studio recently was a large dragonfly cuff made of cast silver. He still planned to file details into the tail, solder an 18-karat gold tip on the end, encrust the eyes with tiny diamonds and mount a large piece of turquoise or coral in a gold bezel on top of its body, before offering it for sale at Indian Market for $7,500.
Mr. Sanderson, 57, came to jewelry making about 20 years ago, and he remembers the thrill of his first Indian Market a few years later, when he made about $6,000. “That was all the money in the world to me,” he said in an interview in his studio. “That was so awesome.”
He has since gone on to build an international brand; he said he was much more likely to be recognized in a restaurant or mall in Taipei or Tokyo than in most U.S. cities. Some other Native American jewelry makers and even some buyers frown on his use of modern technology, Mr. Sanderson said, but he believes in using all the tools at his disposal as long as he’s open about his techniques.
“It’s not your grandpa’s jewelry or your grandma’s jewelry,” he said. “It’s mine.”
Mr. Williams of the Wheelwright Museum sees Native American jewelry as an ever-evolving, versatile art form. He noted that the late Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma, whom many consider the father of contemporary Indian jewelry, was shunned in some circles decades ago when he started making more sculptural- or architectural-looking pieces that departed from traditional designs.
Something doesn’t have to be “Indian-looking” to be authentic, said Mr. Williams. “It’s Indian because it’s made by a Native American person.”
Mr. Loloma’s 72-year-old niece Verma Nequatewa, who creates art under the name Sonwai, uses techniques she learned working with her uncle in his studio.
“He would show me how it’s done,” said the artist who lives on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. Today, one of her inlay bracelets of fine gemstones and 18-karat gold might sell for as much as $25,000, she said.
In the next few weeks, she and many other Native American artists will be hard at work creating inventory for Indian Market. Hundreds of others will go to Santa Fe that weekend to participate in one of the many other sales events going on.
The largest of these, called the Free Indian Market, got its start in 2018. Gregory Schaaf, 68, an author and retired university professor of Native American studies who is the show’s founding producer, said the idea was to provide opportunities for some of the established artists who had previously been granted automatic entry into Indian Market but had lost that privilege when SWAIA changed its policy and required everyone to apply.
“The purpose of the Free Indian Market is to serve as a safety net to help those artists who for any reason did not get into the show on the plaza,” he said in a phone interview.
The Free Market — so named in part because the artists do not have to pay booth fees — is an invitational show with no juries, competitions or prizes, and expenses are covered by a benefit art auction, Dr. Schaaf said. More than 500 artists are scheduled to participate this year, he said, with another 1,000 on his waiting list.
Ms. Peone, who took the helm of SWAIA two years ago, said she embraces all efforts to support Native American artists over the course of the weekend because the Indian Market’s physical footprint is limited. “I encourage them to do what they’re doing,” she said of the Free Indian Market. “Those are 500 artists that I can’t capture.”
One of Ms. Peone’s priorities, she said, was to get both SWAIA and Native American artists on more solid financial footing. Part of that involves helping artists strengthen their entrepreneurial and digital skills and expanding their opportunities to do business throughout the year — not just at the Indian Market but through other venues such as an e-commerce platform set to open next month called Indigenous Collections.
“I really feel that we’re moving into the realm of economic development,” she said.