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Southwest art: A testimony to tribal resilience

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Southwestern tribal art is among the most distinctive
of all American Indian crafts. In remote homelands, Indians of the
Southwest became experts in styles of weaving, potting and jewelrymaking
that have remained popular symbols of the American West.

Successful artists like Navajo painter R.C. Gorman, San Ildefonso potters
Maria and Julian Martinez, and Navajo jeweler Deborah Silversmith have
expanded their crafts into contemporary fields in recent decades, helping
to develop economic potentials for Indian artists while consolidating and
strengthening art and artistry.

Wherever there is economic potential, however, there is exploitation.
Thriving markets create markets for imitation. "Authentic" imported crafts
are plentiful in Southwest tourism areas. Imitators flood markets, lowering
prices and diminishing earnings for Native artists, cheating unwitting
buyers out of exquisitely handcrafted art based on centuries-old processes.

A recent U.S. Census survey reveals that the Zuni, Hopi and Navajo are
leading producers of handmade arts and crafts. Eighty-five percent of
families surveyed reported artwork as primary or secondary income sources.
Additionally, the U.S. Customs Office reports that since 1990, foreign
importers ship more than $30 million annually in "American Indian-style"
artwork, including knock-off jewelry, artifacts, pottery and textiles.

Although federal law mandates labeling imitations, copiers shrewdly bypass
laws. For example, one Philippine town, renamed "Zuni," legally labels
exports "Zuni-Made." Consequently, Southwest tribes established trademarks
to certify artists and protect designs in conjunction with the 1990 Indian
and Arts and Crafts Act. Trademarking boosts consumer confidence, assures
authenticity and protects consumer rights.

Laguna/Hopi contemporary artist Joe Maktima said fakery is insensitive.
"Artwork is our heritage." he said. "Misrepresenting our artistry is
hurtful."

Trickery also occurs when dealers advertise "sale" art. This usually means
regular prices are doubled then slashed. Instead of enticing admirers with
beauty and craftsmanship, this unethically induces "bargain buying."

While some traditional artwork is created solely for beauty's sake without
religious, political or utilitarian significance, contemporary Native art
is a direct response to modern living and outside cultural influences. Art
processes acquire new significance with each generational change of hands.
"My father and grandfather taught me to carve katsina dolls as a youngster.
But my art has expanded from modern ideas and the contemporary world," said
Maktima.

IDENTIFYING AUTHENTIC ART

According to Gil Berg of the Museum of Northern Arizona, Southwest Native
art is defined as jewelry, pottery, basketry, weavings and carvings of
tribes of the Colorado Plateau.

Jewelry, often a cottage industry, is usually produced at home. No two
handmade pieces are alike, in contrast to mass-produced pieces easily
recognized through identical markings and uniformly sized stones.

Pottery styles vary. Acoma potters create white ware with matte finishes
and black geometric designs. The Cochiti incorporate clouds, lightning and
rain motifs in black into their work with a "slip" of fine, liquid clay
over surfaces to smooth pores and create a cream-colored base.

Hopi designs include swirled patterns, stylized birds, feathers,
butterflies or distinctive sun motifs. Jemez pots are characterized by red
slips with red, white and black designs. Navajos often use a unique pinon
sap sealant for waterproofing.

Black-on-black ware distinguishes San Ildefonso pottery. White- and
red-based Zuni pots are decorated with black and red designs. Bold florals,
rectangles and chevrons decorate San Juan pots, while tan Taos pottery is
speckled with mica used to temper the clay.

Weaving was initially developed by Puebloans and Hopi men conducted weaving
activities to create ceremonial garments. Later, Navajos incorporated
multiple materials, styles and influences, often weaving "pictorial" images
from daily life. Each tribe has its own criteria for stitching, coiling and
designing baskets.

Two major styles of Southwest carvings are Zuni "fetishes" and Hopi katsina
dolls. Fetish stones are shaped into animal characters and sometimes strung
on necklaces. Varieties of katsina dolls number in the hundreds. Fashioned
from cottonwood root, then painted and detailed, each figure identifies a
particular "katsina" or spirit. Katsinas are representations of sacred
spirits, distinguishable from katsina dolls which are basically toys.

WHERE TO BUY AUTHENTIC ART

Selecting a piece of Native art should be a process based on emotion rather
than a prediction of eventual market values. Collectors should familiarize
themselves with artists and dealers as well as places where the art is
featured.

Established in 1922, the Santa Fe Indian Market is the largest and oldest
juried Native art show in the world. The market regularly includes 1,200
artists representing 100 tribes and attracts 100,000 visitors annually.
There are also many fine smaller shows held around the Southwest each year.

The Museum of Northern Arizona houses a significant collection of basketry,
katsina dolls, jewelry, textiles and folk art, and hosts an annual art
show. "Our purpose is to showcase the best art from the Colorado Plateau,"
said Berg. "We have exciting pieces such as Hopi coiled baskets that
originally sold 55 years ago here at the museum's Summer Hopi Marketplace.
We also have an excellent array of award-winning pottery from pueblo
tribes. It's marvelous to behold these pieces and learn about each artist."

Museum visitors can also view superb pieces of "old pawn" -- often the
finest examples of traditional craftsmanship. Old pawn refers to old,
handmade silverwork that has been pawned or used as collateral for goods
and loans at trading posts, livestock dealers or pawn shops.

Throughout remote Southwestern areas in the 1900s, members of regional
tribes used their craftwork as trade to buy manufactured goods, foods, fuel
and essentials. Prior to harvest or shearing time, cash or credit was
extended to these families against the collateral of their pawn.

Many traders held jewelry in "perpetual pawn," releasing it to their owners
for use during special occasions or ceremonies. This entitled the owner to
a regular line of credit while providing secure storage for valuable
artwork.

Each year, Albuquerque's "Gathering of Nations Pow Wow," a festival
featuring over 3,000 dancers and singers from North American tribes, plays
host to some 800 Native artisans at its Indian Trader's Market. The market
generates more than $2 million in sales for artists and provides an
opportunity to meet artists and experience the amazing beauty of Native
art.