Exposition and Gem Show bring tourists to Tucson

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TUCSON, Ariz. – Timing is everything and sponsors of the American Indian Exposition use that truism to their advantage.

The independent exposition, a festival of Native arts, music and dance, is held annually in early February, timed to coincide with and be a part of the largest gem and mineral show in the United States – two concurrent events that bring a buzz to downtown Tucson.

“Native American artists come to the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show to collect high-quality or difficult-to-obtain semi-precious stones, gems and beads which they later incorporate into their jewelry and other works,” said exposition organizer Fred Snyder. “Over a 14-day period, 200 tribal nations representing 10,000 years of culture also display the finest collection of American Indian art and arts and crafts for discriminating collectors.” The expo and the gem show have worked together since 1990 selling one-of-a-kind works by tribal artists from all over America, Mexico and Canada, and providing artists a forum to demonstrate their centuries-old trades.

The gem show is actually a number of shows that work together to make it a world premier event. The overlap between the gem show and the expo works well, especially when it involves beads and beadwork. “For centuries, Native Americans used porcupine-quills to decorate everything from moccasins to head dresses, but use of quills required a great deal of effort on the part of the Native artisans and were quickly replaced when Charlotte-cut beads were introduced. These beads, the original antique ones, are exceptionally lustrous because they have cuts on all sides.” Beads and gems, trucked in from all over the world for display and sale at the gem show, can frequently be found in indigenous arts and crafts at the expo.

Typical items found at the expo include all kinds of jewelry, paintings, pottery, baskets, blankets, Hopi kachinas, flutes and quill work. Prices are modest for smaller items like a child’s whistle or a little dream catcher and range into the thousands of dollars for paintings and bronze sculptures. “The show is more than an exhibition,” Snyder said. “It’s a cultural experience involving art and craft demonstrations, live music, social dancing and food. Artists are happy to answer questions about their culture or explain how natural materials are prepared, how a particular item is made and its cultural significance. You can watch artists making things by hand – weaving blankets, beading gourds or working with gold and silver.

“While handcrafting can be a slow process compared with assembly-line production, the finished products are unique, durable and a reflection of the spirit of the individual who created the item. Prayers of the artists go into everything they make.”

In keeping with the Native American tradition of maintaining harmony, each day of commerce begins with a quiet, non-public, blessing ceremony where artists give thanks for the materials. A drum maker may bless the spirit of the animal who provided its hide while a flute carver will bless the tree for sharing its limb. “Visitors don’t seem to mind a delay in opening the doors because they understand the symbolism of this ritual,” Snyder said.

For those who like to plan ahead, the 2010 event, the 56th annual show, is slated for Feb. 11 – 14 at the Tucson Convention Center with the theme, “Gems and Gem Minerals.” American Indian Exposition coordinator Snyder, who presents several American Indian festivals in the Tucson area, is already at work on the 2010 expo.