Native American art was introduced to mainstream collectors through Indian trading posts, such as Indian Plaza in Gallup, N.M., which opened to take advantage of tourist traffic on Highway 66. The famous highway, completed in 1926, gave souvenir hunters the opportunity to buy the work of highly talented crafts people, many of whom are now recognized as outstanding artists.
For tourists who didn’t choose to get in on the ground floor by collecting the art, there were many postcards featuring artists and their works. It’s still possible to study and enjoy many types of Native American art through the large number of cards purchased and saved by travelers. Silver jewelry, such as squash-blossom necklaces and concho belts, were popular favorites in the Southwest.
Early silversmiths learned their craft from Spanish and Mexican examples in the mid-19th century, melting down pesos and American dollars to obtain the silver.
Da-Pah (later known as James Dapah) was a well-known Navajo artisan who appears in the 1930s. He was known for sand painting and silversmithing, and his work was sold in Gallup, N.M. He also exhibited his work on the East Coast. Da-Pah died in 1977 at the age of 82.
Another highly valued craft was weaving. Legend says that the Navajo learned it from Spider Woman, one of the Holy People of the Underworld — or from the Pueblos in mid-17th century.
One outstanding weaver, Elle of Ganado, was chosen to make a red, white and blue blanket and present it to President Theodore Roosevelt on a two-hour stop he made in Albuquerque in 1903. She became well known for this honor and for her excellent work, making her a popular subject for postcards.
Baskets were also popular with early tourists. The first baskets were attributed to First Man and First Woman and had ceremonial uses in the underworld. The colors used in this ancient craft were very significant, with black representing mountains and red related to clouds and darkness.
Postcards from both Eastern and Western tribes feature basket making. The most famous Native American artist is Maria Montoya Martinez (1881-1980) who perfected a black pottery that is highly sought by collectors today.
Inspired by broken bits of polished black Neolithic pottery found in the New Mexico desert, she developed a highly complex method for making black-on-black ceramics. Her husband, Julian, helped in the process, although at the time pottery making was considered women’s work. Their fame grew, and postcards showing Maria alone and with her husband are fairly common. She won many awards and exhibited at world fairs, passing her skills on to family and tribal members.
Collecting the art of these early 20th century artisans is costly.
Pieces that once sold as tourist souvenirs now command tremendous respect. Fortunately, the best Native American work can be enjoyed on postcards. The cards showing these talented artists at work document their unique place in the art world. They’re likely to become more valuable as more people are attracted to Native American art. ?
Barbara Andrews has contributed postcard articles to Antique Trader for more than 35 years. She’s an author of women’s fiction, working on her 50th book in partnership with her daughter. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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