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Artists at 100-year-old Santa Fe Indian Market say it's now a place of innovation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

About a thousand Native artists gathered this past weekend for Indian Market in Santa Fe, N.M. This year was the 100th anniversary. Back when it started, the market was conceived by a white museum director, and artists were subjected to rigid ideas about what Native art was. They didn't sell their art directly. As Alice Fordham from member station KUNM reports, they are now front and center.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Santa Fe's Plaza is buzzing as hoop dancers perform and artists booths shine with weavings, paintings, beadwork. It's vibrant, even though it's pouring with rain. Navajo weaver Venancio Aragon says that's fine.

VENANCIO ARAGON: Yeah. All my weavings are, like, associated with rain and rainbows and lightning and water. So it's kind of perfect this is all happening.

FORDHAM: He shows me a piece with a dense, detailed spectrum of woven colors broken up with monochrome forms - his interpretation of New Mexico's monsoon season.

ARAGON: You look to the horizon, and there's all these fluffy, white, brilliant clouds against the colorful sky.

FORDHAM: This market started back in 1922, but it was different then. At the New Mexico History Museum, historian Cathy Notarnicola has curated a show about the centennial whose origins lie in the expansion of rail travel.

CATHY NOTARNICOLA: There was an increase beginning in the 1880s in tourism to the Southwest.

FORDHAM: The first director of the same history museum, Edgar Lee Hewett, saw Native people using traditional techniques to make little pottery figurines to sell to tourists, and that worried him. He thought ancient art forms were being lost or corrupted. He sponsored the first precursor to today's Indian Market so Native people could have a place to sell their art. But what he wanted was what he saw as traditional art, not figurines made for tourists.

NOTARNICOLA: The curators at the museum in the very first Indian Market viewed those as curios and as nontraditional. And so you see a bit of a paternalistic attitude.

FORDHAM: Native artists didn't sell directly to buyers until the late 1930s. Now the market has a Native director in Kim Peone of the Colville Confederated Tribes and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Tradition is still an important part of the event, but she looks beyond that.

KIM PEONE: We are in the fine arts. We are in the contemporary arts. We are those artists. And to keep us in a space of antiquities is incorrect.

FORDHAM: Weaver Venancio Aragon embraces innovation.

ARAGON: A lot of the modern artists today really challenge the conventions of their traditional culture and the things that their ancestors created.

FORDHAM: He calls the market almost a decolonial version of what it once was.

ARAGON: The Native artists are like the forefront of the voice of Indian Market, giving their interpretations of their culture, their art and really speaking for themselves.

FORDHAM: By the end of the day, he sold every weaving he brought. For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Santa Fe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.