By Dr. Sandra Lynch and Dave Lewis

“For centuries, art and handcrafts have played an important role in the religious and social lives of Indigenous peoples. . .  Throughout our Native American history it has been no different.  The images you see in almost all designs used in Native American arts and crafts are religious.  Even the hand processes used in creating such works reflect an individual artisan’s relationship with the tools that begin with a beating heart, mind and spirit.  Our ties to this earth and to our Creator are evident in almost all images in the cultural arts of the Native American artisan.”     (Andy Abieta, Isleta Pueblo)

Beyond the ritual purpose, even everyday objects were made well, with a kind of beauty born out of pride and imparted with a respect for all of Nature’s gifts.  The word “art” does not exist in Native American tongues.  To create something of beauty translates into “make it well.”

These themes are still applicable even with the significant changes of the late 1800s as people of European descent began venturing into Indian lands.  The arrival of the railroad in the 1880s marked a turning point in Indian art.  City-dwelling passengers were fascinated with the canyons and mesas and the people who inhabited this alien land.  They wanted souvenirs, something “authentic,” something exotic to take home.  Better yet, they wanted to see Native people creating and selling curiosities (“curios” for short).  The Santa Fe railway worked with the New Mexico Pueblos, the Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, and others to meet this need.  Some enterprising Natives took the initiative themselves.

The Santa Fe, working with the Fred Harvey Company, built a large “Indian Building” at the station in Albuquerque, complete with re-created Native settings decorated with murals.  “Indian shops” appeared at other Santa Fe stations, Harvey Houses and hotels.  Hopi House on the rim of the Grand Canyon opened in 1905, complete with Native people living on the upper floors and demonstrating weaving, pottery and carving.

Traditional baskets and pottery proved to be too large for tourists to carry, so enterprising artists began producing “suitcase-sized” works.  As trains pulled in, Native hands held up the first tiny pots for sale.   When Natives at San Idelfonso Pueblo were given a book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes, potters created pairs of candlesticks copied from a Wee Willie Winkie story.  The artists had never used candles, but they knew a marketing opportunity when they saw one.  Mojave, living along the lower Colorado River, had no use for a sugar bowl or teacups, but they reasoned that tourists did, and they worked to meet a perceived demand.  (See accompanying photos)


This enterprising spirit remains alive.  Navajo folk-art carvers have long made brightly painted wooden chickens for tourists.  In the sense of patriotism and intense national unity that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks, faster than Wal-Mart could lay in a fresh supply of American flags, the Navajos delivered shipments of proud red-white-and-blue wooden chickens.  Gift shops built huge patriotic chicken displays.  A bit opportunistic, maybe, but Native Americans are equal to their Anglo neighbors in patriotism.

Back around 1900, trading posts and the Harvey Company created good markets for Native art, and influenced the artists to make high-quality goods that their customers expected.  This became an important source of revenue for Natives, and earned them a place in the cash economy.  Natives, who had been subsistence farmers and herders became part-time specialists -- jewelers, potters, carvers, and weavers.  At one point in the mid 1900s, about 80% of Native families relied on the sale of art items for part of their livelihood.

Quality and authenticity don’t come easily.  Turning again to Andy Abieta:  “A Native artist cannot . . . go to the local store and purchase raw materials. . . The process for obtaining raw materials is an invested effort of harvesting either animals, plants, or other natural materials that first need to be processed to usable form.  Even this is premised by a prayer ceremony to the Creator, before taking from the land.”  A weaver might tend her sheep, shear them, spin and dye the wool (often having to gather natural plants and minerals for dyes), before setting up her loom and beginning to transform the pattern in her head, through her weary fingers, to the fibers on the loom.  Most potters dig their own clay.  Some families regard the clay, which they dig from secret, difficult-to-reach sources, in spiritual terms.  Carvers of katsina dolls struggle to find suitable cottonwood root for their creations.  Basket weavers may come home bloodied after scouring the tangled vegetation along riverbanks for their materials.   This is not a hundred years ago; this is today.

Although a few Indian artists make a good living from their art, many could not afford to do it without other jobs or a spouse who earns a living sufficient to support the art.  Why do it then?  The answer most often is that making art is part of who I am; it is part of my heritage.  I am an artist -- I have to make art.

The 19th annual Prescott Indian Art Market will be held on July 9 and 10 at Sharlot Hall Museum. Over 100 Indian artists and vendors will be on the museum's grounds with their wares, along with traditional food, music and dances. Navajo stone sculptor Tim Washburn, a favorite among the local art crowd, is the featured artist. His work will be prominently displayed on this year’s t-shirt. So come out, grab a shirt and some fry bread, and enjoy the festivities! Hours will be 9-5 Saturday and 9-4 Sunday.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International ( This and other Days Past articles are also available at The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at for information.