The morning I left for the Santa Fe Indian Market, my husband discovered that my gas tank was leaking. But we are Mvskoke (Creek)—and we knew we could find help from one of our many relatives. No early-morning emergency is too much for our network. We found a niece and newly acquired Chickasaw nephew-in-law to meet us halfway between our home in Louisiana and theirs in Oklahoma, where I would link up with other relatives for the drive to Santa Fe. I think that’s what it’s like for most indigenous “art families”: Creativity and collaboration are never confined to the canvas or the page or the sewing machine. They’re in use constantly, especially in August, when it’s time for Market.
In the indigenous art community, there are many art families, and mine is one of them.
The Santa Fe Indian Market is the oldest, largest juried Native American art market in the world. Though it has had its share of controversies involving who gets in and how, the Market has remained one of the most important places for Native artists to show and sell their work. This past August was the 96th annual Market, and as always, hundreds of artists and thousands of people converged on downtown Santa Fe for the art and fashion shows, panels, receptions, performances, and, of course, artist booths that make up the annual event. The 14 city blocks that make up the historic downtown plaza are closed to traffic and lined with over 700 white vinyl booths of carefully curated artists from indigenous tribes across the U.S. Film screenings, lectures, and art openings are held in the week leading up to the weekend market, when Santa Fe is teeming with people from all over the world. Indigenous dancers and musicians perform on stages or on the street. From collectors to curators to art historians and tourists, Native and non-Native, you can hear every language imaginable, from Chinese to German to Anishinaabemowin.
In the indigenous art community, there are many art families, and mine is one of them. We have had professional artists in our family for generations. My mother, Phyllis Fife, and her sister Sandy are graduates of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe. She met my father, Don Patrick, who was a staff member there in the 1960s, when it was at the center of a revolution in Native art. My childhood was full of stories, art, and people from that time and place.
Normally, I’m working a day job as a college professor during Market. But just before my father died earlier this year, he told me to stop teaching and write, so I did. I am a poet and novelist, but I came to Santa Fe as a journalist with four assignments, including one from my dream publication, First American Art Magazine. I was able to fulfill something for my father and for myself.
This year, there were six of us: me, my sister Shelley Patrick (painter), my mother (painter, designer), our aunt Jimmie Carole Fife Stewart (painter, designer), her daughter Maya Stewart (accessories designer), and our aunt Sandy Fife Wilson (painter, weaver, shell carver). Preparation for Market began months ahead of time, but if Facebook is any indication, our family was not the only one still preparing right up to the last minute. I was pitching stories as I rode to Morris, Oklahoma, to pick up Sandy. When we arrived at her house, she said, “It looks like I’ll be weaving all the way to Santa Fe…again.” Which she did. With the yarn ends of an intricate sash taped to the back of the driver’s seat, she chatted the whole way while her fingers moved the strands over and under each other. Occasionally she stopped to weave in a small shell bead. By the time we reached Santa Fe, it was ready to be tied off and finished.
I was able to fulfill something for my father and for myself.
For one of Maya’s runway shows, Shelley had constructed hand-painted, person-sized canvas feathers for the models to carry. As a model reached the stage, she would let the feather drop to reveal her outfit. Each feather, hand-painted in black on white canvas, was backed with thick black vinyl. We immediately joined in sewing and clipping and arranging outfits late into the night.
The next day, we packed up and headed out on our 14-hour drive to Santa Fe. As we crossed the state line, the stunning landscape of New Mexico, with its mesas and arroyos, caused me to keep saying, “Mama, look!” like an excited six-year-old. I was taking everything in despite the headache that was the first sign of altitude sickness that plagued me for the busy first two days of our trip. But I found some relief with medicine, water, and carbs (carbs help altitude sickness).
I had recovered quite a bit by Saturday, when the Market actually opened. At 4:30 a.m., we set up our booth in our assigned tent downtown. As the sun rose, we constructed shelves and racks upon which we hung Carole’s bright paintings and clothing, Maya’s black and metallic purses and bracelets, and Sandy’s yarn sashes and polished-shell carvings. We set up chairs in the back of the booth for the aunts, with Shelley and Maya positioned inside to greet visitors. Many Mvskoke artists were on our street, but there wasn’t time for visiting because customers began arriving when it was still dark—before the sun rose. That’s common at Market: People wait, sometimes all night, outside the booth of artists whose work they covet.
Many artists also enter pieces in the art show that is held the day before Market, and collectors often seek out the booths of winners. All three of our artists had ribbons to attach to pieces in the booth. They also migrate to well-known artists like potter Jane Osti (Cherokee) or sculptor Cliff Fragua (Jemez Pueblo), and popular emerging artists like Crystal Worl (Tlingit Athabascan) or George Alexander (Mvskoke). There is something incredible in every booth, from hand-carved Hopi katsina dancers painted with natural dyes to huge baskets made from willow, pine, or strips of printed-out and lacquered copies of broken treaties. From huge abstract paintings to tiny floral-beaded baby moccasins.
Nobody in the world paints like her, and her abstract expressionist style feels like the natural resting place for my eyes because it surrounded me even before birth.
But I couldn’t stay. I had to walk past all the indigenous dance groups, aromatic food carts, and incredible art to get to more interviews and panels. At some point, still a bit breathless from the altitude, I ducked into the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Art to see my mother’s painting in the Action Abstraction Redefined exhibition. I recognized it from across the room. Nobody in the world paints like her, and her abstract expressionist style feels like the natural resting place for my eyes because it surrounded me even before birth. There was a bench across from the painting, and I sat alone there for a moment. As my breathing worked itself out physically, my spirit mended too.
That evening, all of us except Shelley, who had to stay with the booth, went to the Haute Couture Fashion Show to see the result of all our work in Maya’s runway show. None of us had eaten a real meal all day, and Maya had another runway show that night. But as we had done all week, we showed up, well dressed and articulate like we were raised to be by generations of women artists before us. When I was young, I was sad that I wasn’t an artist, but as I watched my mother and aunts talk with artists who admired them and saw Shelley and Maya networking with gallery owners, I was glad to realize my place in the art world is to write about it all.
Sunday morning at 4:30, we did it all over again. This time, I interviewed artists while they set up. Over and over, I heard, “We take care of each other,” in relation to the indigenous art community. As I helped a young Mvskoke painter carry chairs to his booth, I thought how true it is, in big and small ways. That care for each other is the reason indigenous people, and our art, survive. The Market reminded me how tiring it is, but I want to be tired like that. For all the generations of my family. For all the indigenous artists before and after me.