The value of cultural preservation is a foundation of Native American Art. Preserving the ancient techniques, beliefs and concepts of beauty that are central to the heritage of Native American tribes is the lasting contribution of tribal artists and their work. It is also the driving force behind many collectors’ fascination with original Native American jewelry, pottery, baskets and other crafts. Finding a viable market for such pieces along with educating the buying public about what constitutes true Native Art is the mission of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts.
Throughout its long history the Indian Market sought to not only preserve the techniques of true Native Art, but also to provide a way for artists to showcase their work and earn needed income from it. In 1922, the Museum of New Mexico sponsored an Indian Fair as part of the Santa Fe Fiesta. The museum believed the Fair would showcase Indian art “as it had been before its transformation by non-Native cultures into curios and souvenirs.”
Such events were also seen as a way to promote individual artists and encourage their economic gain from their art. Other objectives were to uncover outlets for traditional art and promote fair prices for the artist’s work. Rather than allowing for a generic form of “Indian” art, the objective was to maintain the distinct artistic interpretations of each tribe. In this way the organizers of the Fair felt they could not only preserve ancient traditions but revive them as well. Francis LaFleshe, an Omaha and an ethnologist, spoke at the first Fair, educating those attending about the “need for systematic production, steady markets and the maintenance of adequate prices” if the revival of traditional Indian crafts was to be a success.
Along with the desire to bring attention to the craftsmanship and skill of Native artists, there was also a political reason to want such attention. The same year as the first Fair saw the founding of the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs (NMAIA). The newly formed group’s purpose was to fight the Bursum Bill, an attempt to seize Pueblo lands and give them to non-Native settlers. Reminding the nation of the long history of Native peoples and their traditions would only help their cause. An ethnological display such as the one at the Indian Fair was a good reminder of that history.
The video above is a 360 degree virtual reality tour of the Santa Fe Indian Market 2016. If you have a smart phone simply play the video and move the phone around to see all around you.
The Museum of New Mexico continued to sponsor the Indian Fair until 1926. For several years after that there was no Fair but the promotion of tribal artists continued through judging of their work and prizes awarded. In 1936, NMAIA revived the Indian Fair after having created a series of articles in New Mexico Magazine which sought to educate the public about Indian arts and crafts.
Despite some grumbling from Plaza merchants who resented the artists gathering in front of their establishments, the Indian Market survived under the NMAIA. By 1959, when NMAIA changed their name to Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA), the Santa Fe Indian Market had become the main purpose of the organization. With its mission of promoting the revival and sustainability of traditional crafts, SWAIA’s work educated the public on the cultural importance of Native traditions and the importance of respecting and preserving their heritage.
Today the Santa Fe Indian Market is one of the largest and most respected showings of Native American Arts. The weekend event brings an estimated 80,000 people to New Mexico along with over $100 million in revenue. SWAIA’s mission continues to be to promote cultural preservation and economic opportunites for American Indian artists. They also work to educate the public on Native Art and to promote cross-cultural understanding. The organization remains committed to supporting emerging artists and providing programs for them, including business training seminars, youth markets and a Council of Artists. Their newest program, the Traditional Arts Program, looks to the future by providing a platform which ensures the sustainability of traditional Native Arts in New Mexico. It is the latest in a long line of support for artists.