Before he was a U.S. senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell was a renowned jewelry maker showing at Indian Market.
How things have changed
When I got elected to Congress, the rules prevented me from making any outside income. So I had to give up my Indian Market booth. But before that, I showed regularly. I think the first time I entered was in the mid-’70s, and I probably did 15 different markets. There have been a couple of major changes since the years I showed. The growth has been incredible. In the old days, it was 100 artists in square. Now it’s something like 1,150 artists and booths filling every hotel ballroom, every side street, the convention center, the Railyard, Canyon Road. The number of people coming to Santa Fe for Indian Market has also expanded.
The other big change
They now give new emerging artists more opportunity to explore and design. Now you can now use computer generation—there’s something good to be said about, and maybe something bad. There’s also the use of new materials: stainless steel and all kinds of different materials. In the old days, it was gold or silver. I can remember a day when gold would get you disqualified. Or diamonds would. I once got disqualified once for using diamonds. John Christiansen was doing Santo Domingo beads. He was told he wasn’t Santo Domingo and so he couldn’t do that, and he was disqualified. Strict rules determined what Indian jewelry ought to look like.
The expanding scene
The expanded opportunities for new artists are great. I really like the expansion into clothing design. It gives the designers and new young models a chance to start modeling. The crowd likes it, too. The fashion show is one of the most popular events of the entire market.
Camaraderie in the old days
One of the things I did like about the old days was that there were only about 100 of us in the square. Now there’s over a thousand, and it’s everywhere. In those days, we knew each other well. If one person had a good show and someone else didn’t and couldn’t get home, we’d take up a collection to get them home and figured they’d pay us back when they could. We knew each other and did things like that for each other.
There was a quartet of us. … A lot of them are gone now. Delmar Adams, Paiute from Oregon; Gibson Nez, Navajo and Apache. Harvey Begay, Navajo, is gone, too. They’re in the spirit world now, but I remember them with great admiration respect and love.
One year, no one remembered to make reservations. The first night, the four of us ended up sleeping in a VW right on the square. I’ve never forgotten to make a reservation since. The hotels now have minimum stays and are expensive.
There was a real variety in the background of the artists. Jesse Monongya, Navajo, Hopi, is a good example of the variety of backgrounds the artists often had. He was a Marine, a Vietnam veteran. Harvey Begay was a pilot U.S. Navy before coming back to his jewelry. I was in the Air Force. Another artist, Stevie Darden, was on the Flagstaff City Council.
The meaning of “Indian made”
Knockoffs and plagiarism is a problem, especially with China and the Arab countries. Indian art is protected to a degree by 1st amendment and the Indian Arts Act, but it’s difficult to monitor and prosecute. For instance, what does “made” mean? The law doesn’t differentiate between handcrafted and assembled, by what is designed by hand and what can be designed by cabcam (if an Indian pushed a button). Indian-made versus Indian-crafted. I helped write an earlier version of the law. As long as the customer knows what they are getting. There are ways to protect yourself.
Some things you can’t protect. I remember a time a man came up to me. He showed me a pendant, asked my opinion, and I told him it was badly designed. He said, “Well, you made it.” He turned it over, and it was supposedly marked by me, but I hadn’t made it. You should know the person who made it and who is representing them. You should deal with people who will stand behind the work.
You meet so many people at Indian Market, and you never know who you’re going to see. Once [Navajo jewelry maker] Ray Tracey and I were side by side in the square. A guy comes down and asks us to gather some jewelry and come up to this hotel to show it to some people there. He said the people were too well-known to be out in public shopping. We first told him we couldn’t leave our booths, but we ended up going over to La Fonda. You want to know who was there? Ann Margaret, Burt Reynolds, Lonnie Anderson, and Don Meredith. It was a big surprise to us.
Wonderful Wes Studi
Indian Market is great opportunity to see old friends. Famous people and celebrities show up. Wes Studi is a good friend of our daughter’s [Shanan Campbell, owner of Sorrel Sky Gallery]. Whenever he’s not on location filming, he hangs around her gallery and meets and greets. Even though he’s famous onscreen, he’s really nice to deal with in person.
You meet interesting people at Indian Market. Before I was in politics and was really doing Indian Market, I remember I was in my booth and here comes John Connolly, the governor of Texas. He was a really tall guy and very recognizable, and he was striding over. He said, “I wanna see a bracelet.” He looked and said, “Let me look at that one.” So I took it out and put it on the glass. Then, “Lemme see that one.” I took it out and put it on the glass. And then another and another. Finally he said, “Oh, hell, I’ll take them all.” Right on, Governor!”
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See Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s work at Sorrel Sky Gallery in Santa Fe and online at sorrelsky.com.