By Sandra Lynch 

Once the Indian wars of the 19th century were over and the remaining tribes were contained on reservations, our country suddenly became nostalgic about the loss of the “noble savage.”  As one result, American Indian-art markets entered the arena of U.S. business in the early 1900s.  Today, that industry produces over a billion dollars in income for artists who produce goods bearing a genuine “Indian-made” label.

Social scientists and many statesmen grew anxious to gather and preserve what was left of Indian culture before it vanished and, around 1900, museum anthropologists became the West’s new Mountain MenInstead of trapping beaver pelts, they scattered across the American Southwest collecting Indian-art.  They hauled their loot back to eastern museums, and where they left their trails – collectors, trains, hotels, and tourists followed.

From these anthropological expeditions, natural history museums created exotic dioramas of Indian villages complete with expansive scenic murals surrounding ancient peoples and the objects of their tribal identities.  Tens of thousands of visitors poured past these exhibits to enjoy a romantic view of the almost vanished past.  The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe soon made the tourist dream of a first-hand view of the American west a reality.  Two primary images pulled tourists down their tracks – the Grand Canyon and Indians.  Along the rails, travelers could disembark for side trips the Harvey Company sold as “Indian Detours,” and encounters with America’s most remote inhabitants.

The Southwest offered awe-inspiring landscapes and limitless horizons to eastern Bohemians longing to escape the industrial revolution.  The allure instigated a Southwest design invasion that mingled New England colonial furnishings with Southwest pottery, weavings, and silverwork in what was named “Santa Fe Style.”  Many easterners migrated towards Taos and Santa Fe seeking what they expressed as “a humble authenticity.”  Their interests could not have come at a better time as the country emerged from the First World War only to sink into a crippling depression.

As early as 1863, U.S. Indian commissioners investigated ways reservations could support themselves. Native art was one direction.  Their focus centered on turning native crafts into manufacturing industries. They envisioned a hive of busy industries in locations such as Yuma, Arizona, where a forest of smoking furnace stacks could produce Indian pottery.  Other thoughts included installing mechanized looms and knitting machines into Navajo homes.

Sympathizers closer to the “Indian problem” objected to commercializing native art and argued this was one more road towards assimilation and cultural extinction.   They believed Indian-produced art and craft at the grassroots level would create more wealth and cultural preservation than governmental sweatshops.  The idea, “Save the art – Save the Indians,” spurred the formation of a number of organizations during the 1920s.  In 1927, a private organization financed a survey of conditions across Indian country.  The findings read like a lamentation.

Certain art traditions were too late to save and salvaging what still existed of native art and culture depended in part upon Indian communities to actively take responsibility to keep and perpetuate their skills and arts.  To be successful though, there still had to be a sustained demand for Indian produced art and craft.  The survey noted standards for genuine Indian-art had to be created and called on the federal government to create a stamp guaranteeing products to be genuinelyIndian-made thus to forestall non-Indians from creating imitations of native work.

In the 1920s, the first Indian-art market was held when Indian dances and art-sale booths were added to the annual Santa Fe Fiesta.  From these beginnings came the Santa Fe Indian Market, now considered the ultimate Indian-art Market with a show engulfing eleven city blocks and a human flood of more than 100,000 visitors.

Museums also have become good places for Indian-art markets.   By nature, museums are aboutpreservation and genuineness.  There are five museums in Arizona committed to the American Indian-art market including Sharlot Hall Museum.  The only difference between the Santa Fe Indian Market and Prescott’s Indian Art Market is scale.  Both markets feature juried artists, and both institutions enforce the Indian Arts & Crafts Board standards and regulations.  Most importantly, both institutions believe in the reason for Indian-art markets – preservation of Indian-arts and their creators.  Sharlot Hall Museum’s 2015 Prescott Indian Art Market will be held July 11 and 12.  Gates open at 9:00 a.m.

“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 ideas for articles to Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at for information.