To Preserve, To Suppress: Education and Economic Influences on Native Art and Culture in Albuquerque and Santa Fe

Ron Cogswell, “Native American Vendors Program — Palace of Governors Santa Fe (NM) 2013.” Sourced from

[Essay originally written for HIST 2660, “Unlearning Native American History” at Cornell University, taught by Professor John Parmenter, May 2019.]

New Mexico is recognized as a center for Native American arts and culture in the modern-day United States, particularly within the Southwest. The state’s two largest cities, Albuquerque and Santa Fe, boast active local native presences as a prominent cultural feature and defining characteristic of their urban environments. This appreciation can be chronologically traced through examination of the Albuquerque-Santa Fe region’s tourism industry efforts to uplift this feature; for example, we may look as far back as the establishment of the Native American Vendors Program of the Palace of Governors following the foundation of the Museum of New Mexico in 1909, the establishment of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe in 1927, or the establishment of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque in 1976. However, outside appreciation of and interest in native culture in Albuquerque and Santa Fe predates these concrete developments. Since white settlement in the region, Native American art and culture in these two cities has operated within a system of opposing forces, struggling to balance desires of some to preserve it and desires of others to suppress it (or, at least, adjust it to better fit within an Anglo-American framework). These contradicting goals may be illustrated and examined through both the histories of the Albuquerque and Santa Fe Indian Schools and within the modern-day, long-standing tourist economy for Native American arts and crafts — two institutions which have had a profound impact on both each other and on the region’s native cultural environment as a whole.

The Albuquerque and Santa Fe Indian Schools are two of the most obvious examples of efforts to regulate American Indian culture in modern-day New Mexico. The American Indian boarding school system began in 1860 after the first of such schools was founded in Washington state. The Albuquerque Indian School (AIS) was founded in 1881, prior to New Mexico’s acquisition of statehood. The Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS) was later founded in 1890. Students at the Albuquerque and Santa Fe schools included Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache children. The goals of the Indian school system were to assimilate native students into the “modern” American culture, “civilizing” them through the promotion of capitalist, white ideals.

Some argue that AIS and SFIS exhibited gradual transitions towards more culturally sensitive educational practices, although not usually due to efforts on behalf of school faculty or administration. At AIS, resistance from native students’ home communities led to the school’s progression from one of strict religious and cultural enforcement to one of more tolerance. Indeed, in Education at the Edge of Empire: Negotiating Pueblo Identity in New Mexico’s Indian Boarding Schools, John R. Gram argues that Pueblo communities “fundamentally shaped the schools that were created to transform them,” therefore retaining, in essence, their ability to themselves mold their children’s educations (Lawrence, 2016). Similar changes occurred at SFIS in the 1920s and 1930s, moving in conjunction with a federal push for protection of Native American interests and wellbeing during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and his promotion of the “Indian New Deal.” However, the boarding schools’ founding values of assimilation and cultural regulation still lingered in the minds and actions of faculty and administration, and efforts to maintain this underlying purpose were certainly reflected in school curriculum and retrospective student testimonies.

At the Albuquerque and Santa Fe Indian Schools, in accordance with cross-country practices, new students were taught about the “proper” (Anglo-American) ways of dressing, speaking, and behaving. This included the institution of military-style school uniforms and enforced haircuts for male students. The practice of forcibly cutting students’ hair is often cited as a traumatic experience for young boys in the Indian boarding school system of this time period; however, testimonies from the Santa Fe Indian School are unique in that many of the boys’ hair had already been cut upon their arrival. Pueblo students often had prior experience at American day schools before arriving at the Albuquerque or Santa Fe Indian School, in which case they had already had to have their hair cut. This was usually done at home by a trusted community member rather than as a shock upon arrival at the boarding school — one of the reasons that testimonies from the Santa Fe Indian School read as less distressing than those from schools elsewhere in the country. Santa Fe Indian School testimonies also reveal that the campus was less strict in terms of enforcing the use of the English language while on campus. While the use of native languages was frowned upon, it does not appear to have been violently prohibited and punished as it was at many other boarding schools. This is likely because the Santa Fe Indian School consistently struggled to obtain students necessary for sustenance, directly competing for students with the nearby Catholic boarding school, St. Catherine Mission School. Importantly, St. Catherine Mission School did not ban native languages. In fact, St. Catherine did expressly the opposite, even allowing Mass to be given in students’ native languages. It would have been unwise for the Santa Fe Indian School to rule with a heavy hand against the use of native languages when there was a more desirable alternative nearby and SFIS needed the students to stay afloat; therefore, we may conclude that this tolerance exhibited by SFIS was primarily an act of self-interest rather than of pure compassion for their students and care toward native cultural preservation.

Around the same time as the establishment of the Santa Fe and Albuquerque Indian Schools, native utilitarian art such as woven blankets and baskets, painted pottery, and jewelry began to rise in popularity within the Anglo-American marketplace. This interest surely influenced the curriculum at the Albuquerque and Santa Fe Indian Schools. Both of the schools provided lessons in the “industrial” arts, hoping to provide them with both culturally Anglo-American skills that American educators believed were essential to the “modernization” of native communities, and “native” artistic skills which would conveniently work well with the rising consumer demand for native-created products. Though these courses were labeled “industrial training,” they was not intended to prepare students for work in factory industry or large-scale manufacturing and production. Instead, these courses focused on small-scale, individual craftsmanship skills for men and domestic labor skills for women. By teaching Anglo-American methods of carpentry, metalwork, etc., the schools effectively enforced Anglo methods as the “proper” way to do things (as opposed to traditional Native methods of completing similar tasks), though toward the same end of producing “native art” for the Anglo-American marketplace. That is not to say that the Albuquerque and Santa Fe Indian Schools completely stifled native craft traditions; in some instances, the administration of the two schools encouraged traditional methods when deemed acceptable. This inherent contradiction in educational methodology exemplifies the dichotomy within the white establishment of a sense of a moral and cultural superiority which drove desires to suppress native culture, and of a simultaneous, market-driven desire to preserve native culture for Anglo-American uses.

There was a noticeable growth in white romanticization of Native culture and communities following the military defeat of the Plains tribes, allowing for a degree of sympathy which mixed with growing “anti-industrial” attitudes that valued handmade Native crafts, leading to the subsequent growth of the native art market. Increasing consumer interest in this work coincided with the introduction of the railroad in the Southwest, which opened the doors for the import of inexpensive household essentials, such as dishes and cooking ware. This, in turn, allowed Pueblo household objects to be viewed as valuable for more “artistic” rather than purely practical purposes. Less traditional household pottery and utilitarian items began to be created in larger numbers, and artisans turned their attention away from manufacturing for personal use and towards the manufacturing of “eccentric wares to be sold directly or through curio shops to tourists” (Brody, 1979).

This particular tourist market for goods, which valued uniformity and adherence to market expectations, remained the dominant focus of Pueblo artisans in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and the surrounding Southwest region throughout the 1920s. Items in this market were shaped by what Native artists were taught through school training and what they were told to produce by market dynamics and “curio dealers at Indian art competitions” (Brody, 1979). Certain crafts thrived in the tourist economy, while others could not survive the often-critical market. For example, the Smithsonian Handbook of North American Indians claims that the craft of blanket weaving had all but died out among Pueblo artisans by the middle of the twentieth century.

In 1930, the Department of Arts and Crafts was instituted at the Santa Fe Indian School, and the Department of Painting and Design was founded two years later. The Department of Painting and Design (nicknamed “The Studio” in student testimonies) was the “first government-run boarding school program for pictorial painting based exclusively on American Indian tribal arts” (Hahn, 2011). Artistic instruction within the Studio was sometimes cooperative with students’ traditions and cultures; for example, some Studio instructors actually traveled to Pueblo communities to oversee courses on art, design, and crafts near the students’ own homes. Faculty who worked on the development of the Studio program at the Santa Fe Indian School were typically of the belief that “valuable” Indian culture, specifically Indian arts, should be strictly preserved in its traditional form. While seemingly tolerant and accepting, such an educational approach could have been just as damaging as approaches which explicitly stifled traditional cultural expression, as instructors generally only enforced strict adherence to what they viewed as valuable and authentic cultural practices. This continued to limit room for students’ individual creativity and authentic cultural expression. Importantly, there were no native administrators or students involved in the process of establishing or running the Studio. Indeed, in published studies of the Studio, two of the most cited administrators of the program are Morrow and Dunn, who were both white women. Therefore, although this program was monumental in the preservation of Native arts in American boarding schools, it was not without flaws, and did not necessarily function with only Native students’ interests in mind. It is likely the case that commercial interests and the needs of the Anglo-American art market were held as high, or even higher, than students’ educational wants and needs.

The Albuquerque Indian School did not establish an arts program on par with the Santa Fe Indian School’s Studio, but it did, along with SFIS, sustain Navajo blanket and Pueblo pottery departments. These programs are worth noting because they were geared towards female students, which deviated from the typical practices of the school (in which female students’ education was largely limited to the domestic arts). The schools even made efforts to hire native women to teach in these programs; however, white women were also hired as instructors.

By about 1950, consumers grew more interested in individuality among artists and unique differences from piece to piece, rather than the relative uniformity which had prevailed earlier in the century. That is not to say that influences such as school training did not continue to have something of a homogenizing impact on Pueblo art and culture. For example, easel painting retained the distinct style which was taught in the Santa Fe Indian School, “characterized by sentimental and cliché-ridden subjects, flat and decorative paint application, and the use of one-point perspective” (Brody, 1979).

After 1965, consumer interest in the market for Pueblo art shifted yet again towards items which were more uniform in nature as artists’ work evolved to intentionally reflect historic patterns and traditions. This shift coincides with the establishment of the Institute of American Indian Arts by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1962 upon recommendation by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board at the Santa Fe Indian School. The Institute taught Native students in relatively narrow terms how to operate as professional artists, thereby contributing to the revaluation of uniformity within the Pueblo art market.

This dynamic in which (mostly white) actors have dictated the evolution of Pueblo artistic styles through co-operating educational influence and market pressures illustrates how, although it outwardly appears that Native art and culture are celebrated in Albuquerque and Santa Fe’s most visible spaces, it is not without heavy influence and regulation by Anglo-American forces. Pueblo jewelry is another example of items which continue to be manufactured primarily for market interests, but not necessarily in styles which are relevant in artists’ home communities. While technically authentic if made by Pueblo artists, these artists continue production of such items primarily to earn an income, making the work vulnerable to losing meaning for the creator in the interest of building and retaining relevance with a detached consumer audience. A 2008 collection of interviews with native artists in Santa Fe reveals that many have altered their work over time with the aim of appealing to a tourist audience. However, the artists do not usually view this as a negative development. Rather than describing this practice as one in which the artist “sells out,” changing their methods completely for monetary gain, the interviewed artists describe it as one which expands their culture and craft to encompass new artistic methods. Still, the artists stress their responsibility, and the responsibility of following generations of native artists in Santa Fe, to uphold essential and valuable manufacturing traditions in the face of market pressures.

This consumer-oriented art production culture led to the need for, and establishment of, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA) of 1990. According to the Act, it is illegal for vendors to market a product as Native-made when it is not. In order to market an item using the name of a tribe, the item had to have been created by a member “or certified Indian artisan” of that tribe. Since its passage, violations of the Act have already occurred in Albuquerque and Santa Fe’s consumer-driven tourist spaces. In 2017, Nael Ali, a vendor in Albuquerque’s Old Town district, pled guilty to selling counterfeit Native American jewelry, thereby violating the IACA. This illustrates the ongoing threat to native art in Albuquerque and Santa Fe of devolving into little more than a tourist commodity, a process driven by Anglo-American consumer interests and long-term educational influences alike. However, the passage of the IACA and Ali’s subsequent guilty plea represent an effort to protect Southwest Native American cultural heritage from the demeaning pressures of the tourist market.

Native American art and culture in Albuquerque and Santa Fe have faced immense pressures from both Anglo-American educational campaigns and tourist market forces to either dissolve or to conform. In each of these instances, artistic traditions have adapted, but nonetheless survived. In the Albuquerque and Santa Fe Indian Schools, there existed an administrative attempt to suppress native culture and promote Anglo-American values through strict curriculum. Yet, upon closer observation of the evolution of educational models, one also sees the onset of efforts within the two boarding schools to preserve native artistic processes (however limited these efforts were). In the modern tourist-driven economies of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Native art has managed thus far (though, not without struggle) to accommodate consumer tastes while simultaneously preserving underlying artistic traditions. These two forces in Albuquerque and Santa Fe’s local Native American history illustrate the underlying dichotomy within the treatment of Native art and culture in the two cities: there is a deeply entrenched devotion to their preservation, yet there are also nearly constant efforts to mold it to fit the prevailing ideals of the surrounding Anglo-American spaces in which they must function.


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Naho U. Maruyama, Tsu-Hong Yen, and Amanda Stronza. “Perception of Authenticity of Tourist Art among Native American Artists in Santa Fe, New Mexico.” International Journal of Tourism Research 10, no. 5 (September 2008): 453–66. (accessed April 12, 2019).

New Mexico History Museum. “Native American Artisans Portal Program.”

North Plains Reservation Aid. “History and Culture: Boarding Schools.” (accessed April 13, 2019).

Santa Fe Indian School. “About SFIS: History.” (accessed April 12, 2019).

United States Department of the Interior. The Indian Arts and Crafts Board. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. (accessed April 12, 2019).

Student at Cornell University — Urban and Regional Studies, Music, Policy Analysis and Management. Writer and violinist. Albuquerque, NM.