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Native American Art

Native Americans and Hispanics in New Mexico have made use of the market for ethnic art to express their cultural values. The two cultures have been interacting since 1539, when the first Spaniards arrived in the region. The interactions were sometimes violent and sometimes benign. But the remarkable thing is that each culture has been able to preserve its unique character in the face of American mass culture. The unique character of the American Indians and Hispanics living side by side along New Mexico's Rio Grande Valley--the region between Santa Fe and Taos--has remained intact and is reflected in such crafts as pottery, weavings, jewelry, and carvings. Today, these crafts not only link the past with the present, but they provide a much-needed source of income.

The Santa Clara Pueblos, descendants of the Khap'on--ancestors who first came to live along the Rio Grande about 1350--traded clay pottery with the peoples from the high plains of Texas, the coast of California, and Mexico well before the arrival of permanent European settlements in 1598. Among the Santa Clara Indians, the family has traditionally been the center of pottery-making. The tasks surrounding pottery-making were shared--from digging the clay and preparing it for use to building, decorating, and firing the pots. Mothers and aunts taught children distinctive family styles of pottery.

The Hispanics of the mountainside village of ChimayĆ¹, settled by the Spanish who displaced Indians after 1695, are known for their weavings. They thought of themselves as farmers until the early 1900s and bartered with villagers like themselves as well as the Pueblo Indians and traded with Apaches, Comanches, and Utes. They were also skilled woodworkers and blacksmiths.

During the 1900s, Anglo-American investors and promoters "discovered" and exploited the cultural practices and products of New Mexico's Pueblo Indians and Hispanics. In turn, both groups have sought ways to convert the tourism trade to their own uses. While relying on the tourism market for income, many contemporary New Mexican artists use their work as a way of reaffirming cultural values. Pottery-making by the Santa Clarans in particular is still done by families, but pottery is also just as likely to be made by individuals as a means of self expression.

As far back as 1900, New Mexico's tourism market provided some American Indian and Hispanic artists with a small, but uncertain, income. The overall demand for goods produced by Native Americans and Hispanics increased somewhat between 1920 and 1960, as investors and promoters from eastern states became more successful in attracting visitors to New Mexico. From 1960 to 1990, the popularity of Native American and Hispanic art created a major market in Santa Fe.

The tourist trade has altered many traditional craft practices. The first popular tourist items were Navajo weavings and silverwork. Rugs were woven in sizes and colors that appealed to Anglo visitors, and dealers provided Navajo silversmiths with patterns that made their work look "Indian" to tourist eyes. By the 1920s, Pueblo potters were experimenting with new forms and glazes, including the famous black-on-black finish developed by Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso, who became the best known of all Pueblo potters among collectors.

Initially, demand for Native American crafts proved to be much greater than for Hispanic crafts, due to the Anglo-American idealization of all things Indian. To encourage and stimulate production of Hispanic weavings and furniture, craft schools were established in the 1930s in the hopes that they would develop into profitable village-owned craft cooperatives. Even today, market pressures continue to influence what is created by Native American and Hispanic artists. Basically, items come in and the "system" says, "We love this and don't like that. Oh, by the way, we'd love this if it had an arrowhead on it. Water jars are great, but we'd prefer dinnerware." But some dealers and collectors are becoming more knowledgeable about the crafts, the traditions they represent, and the cultural values they express.


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