Cultural tourism has various expectations which aren’t always fulfilled. The Plaza outside the Palace of the Governors nowadays reflects the subtle changes that impact all Americans. Tourists still arrive in Indian Country with outdated ideas about Native life and arts. The Indians they find under the portals in Santa Fe may be as savvy as those who work in Lower Manhattan art galleries. On the other hand, there are still many conservative Pueblo artisans who rely on selling their crafts in a tourist setting. Courtesy and an open mind are needed these days.
Concho belts as we know them — small to huge discs of silver shaped and stamped and made to link together — are becoming fairly rare adornment. Conchos made in the early decades of Southwestern Indian silversmithing are now immensely valuable objects. The best examples appear in museum displays or are hidden in bank vaults. A certain kind of fashionable concho belt shows up on Fashion Week runways and artsy fashion magazine spreads. An even more sketchy type lives in in contemporary western wear.
Indian arts dealers will tell you that these items, originally derived from Spanish and Mexican horse and bridle gear, are hard to sell. Forgeries do abound. Theories about this phenomenon also proliferate. The best concho belts are relatively heavy to wear. What everyone does agree, however, is that when someone models a genuine article that person has made an irrefutable fashion statement!
This Santa Fe institution is preparing for an expansion of its galleries in the next few years. I’ve learned that much of this new space will be devoted to showing Indian jewelry from the permanent collection. This offers those of us who love this art form some new educational opportunities. The Wheelwright has always been blessed with its Case Trading Post, one of the best venues for buying Native arts in Santa Fe. There have been new developments in recent years related to jewelry curio sources (this particular one aided by the museum’s director), hallmarks, production history, and scope of work. These new galleries may become a place with important teaching points.
One of the most fascinating manifestations of contemporary Native art comes from young Indian artists who use manga, graphic displacement, and humor to showcase their street cred. Young—and older—Natives enjoy paralleling the urban disaffection of gangstas and hip-hop heroes. Their works show a wary distrust of non-Native sympathy for Indian “themes.” One young artist who lives in the Phoenix metro area laughs about how puzzled viewers want to know where the horses are in his work. The American Southwest has cities which have grown large urban areas around their centers. In the exhibit Low Rez, which ran in Santa Fe during summer 2012, humor poked fun at stereotypes and misconceptions about contemporary Indian urban life.
One of the most popular images, including for design, in Native art is that of the Apache Gan, or Mountain Spirit dancer. This whirling figure, with black face covering and towering headdress, is somehow enchanting and even endearing. Despite the awesome figure he makes, one senses the importance of his actions: to cure and protect. Apaches occupy an interesting space in the imaginations of tourists to the Southwest. There are reservations for different bands in Arizona and New Mexico; some areas have developed tourist attractions, while others haven’t. The outlaw nature of Cochise and Geronimo lives on in popular culture memory. When I talk to people who aren’t particularly knowledgeable about Native Americans, a mention of the Apaches usually evokes affection and respect. Intriguing, huh?
Page One lives on at its location on Montgomery Blvd. I remember the glory days when it had a sister Page Two shop, but most bookstores these days have become diminished operations. Even UNM’s large store off Central Avenue is not what it once was. Page One, however, provides new and used books, some collectibles, nice paper goods, and a welcoming sense of community. Furthermore, visitors to the region will find that its Local History and Native American book sections have wonderful titles for sale, including some remarkable out of print finds. While it’s located in a sleepy strip mall, don’t underrate this marvelous resource.
The remnants of the Route 66 tourist trade abound along I-40. Some of these remain kitchy and have an old-fashioned air. Others, like the streamlined Route 66 Diner, provide a chance to enjoy the past by embracing its comfort food. It’s interesting to look back and realize that the decades when Route 66 came to life in story and song where the 1950s and 1960s. These years were when the Indian reservations finally got electrification and state-funded high grade tarmac roads for the first time. The television, too, brought a window onto the greater world at large. I lived in Albuquerque briefly in the early 1960s. I visited Acoma and Santo Domingo and was struck by the matter-of-fact ease with which, to my childish eyes, Indians seemingly lived in two worlds at once. Growing up, I realize that analogy was too simplistic. Indians live in the world as any other ethnic peoples do, and their ability to enjoy urban pleasures is equal to anyone’s. Isn’t it time that non-Natives stop referring to Indians as living in two worlds? It’s one world—and still as imperfect as ever.
What traveler to New Mexico ever fails to wonder at the state’s matchless clouds? In a recent visit we discovered it was easier to park along Old Town’s plaza and narrow streets than previously. Later on we heard that this part of the city has attracted gangs and petty crime. It made me glad we decided to park in the thick of things instead of the back parking lots.
One of the most venerable of Old Town’s attractions is the Covered Wagon, which has been selling Southwestern souvenirs since the 1940s. Its Indian arts are Route 66 curio goods, but the store remains fun and good-natured. If you have time for only one place in Old Town, check this store out. The best Indian arts on offer in Old Town are pottery and there are at least four fine shops to serve collectors and enthusiasts.
This year we finally ventured into Old Town Antiques, an interesting little shop with some good vintage jewelry. We also discovered through a friend a previously well-hidden treat, the restaurant Seasons. To better understand Old Town’s enduring appeal, check out the city’s history exhibits at the nearby Albuquerque Museum.
Albuquerque is in Indian Country and the evolution of Pueblo Deco is one of the region’s more enjoyable architectural feats. There is an interesting connection between Indian arts and the Art Deco era. Although Art Deco began in France, its character changed when translated to a different country. In the United States, Art Deco is a proud mode for New York’s skyscrapers and other eastern public works and apartment buildings. When the style came to the Southwest, its creators saw an immediate affinity with indigenous architecture and building details.
The KiMo Theater on Central Avenue is one of the best examples of Pueblo Deco, and echoes can be found in other buildings up and down Central. Art Deco was an excellent style for appropriating folk and local imagery, using cheerful colors, and providing just the right amount of razzle-dazzle to perk up any neighborhood. Its exotic modernity makes downtown Albuquerque even more intriguing.
Over the years I’ve been collecting Indian arts, I’ve occasionally run into individuals who express fascination with Native-made medicine bundles. Most of the time this interest stems from the New Age-shamanistic appreciation of American Indians; it’s a forlorn hope not to expect some of this starry-eyed attitude on the part of non-Indians. It’s certainly true that many spiritual beliefs from Native culture are beautiful, and attractive to pursue.
But I always cringe when I learn that some people believe medicine bundles made for Native individuals are yet another category of collectible. Genuine medicine bundles are made for a specific person, blessed, and have efficacy only for the person who carries them. This “power” is not transferable to any other persons, Native or otherwise. The materials that go into medicine bundles of earlier decades can include remarkable fetish-like carvings. Nevertheless, the collecting of medicine bundles isn’t appropriate. There are those who tell me and others, in quiet tones, that such an acquisition can bring ill luck to the collector.
Another major point to consider: almost all the medicine bundles available on the market are bogus. Don’t go there.