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After graduating college in 1999, renowned Native American jeweler David Gaussoin travelled the world, touring and backpacking through Europe and Africa. He found new people and new approaches to art and saw the works of Michelangelo, Picasso and the French Impressionists. He brought it home with him to Santa Fe and began to put these new influences into his jewelry—and it looked different.

Now Gaussoin—who is Picuris Pueblo and Navajo, and comes from a long line of native jewelers—makes decidedly modern jewelry. One recent piece: a tufa-cast bracelet with organic offshoots of silver, as if the metal is sprouting plantlike tendrils.

But Gaussoin ran into problems.

“They thought my jewelry was too radical,” Gaussoin says, “that I wasn’t following the established rules of Indian jewelry.”

When Gaussoin and his brother Wayne Nez began to make jewelry in their new style, Gaussoin says both Native artists and non-Native buyers didn’t like what they were doing. Indian Market, as the largest Native American art market in the world, played a role in how their jewelry was received, Gaussoin says—and, through its standards and judging system, was “dictating what was right and wrong” in Indian art.

“I’m an artist,” Gaussoin says. “No one should be telling me what’s right or wrong, what’s traditional or non-traditional when it comes to art. Whenever someone puts standards on what is traditional or non-traditional, I call that censorship.”

Steven Wall, a Chippewa artist and instructor the Institute of American Indian Arts, calls it the Imagined Aesthetic—a concept of Indian art imagined by the non-Indian buyer. Indian art, the concept goes, must conform to certain forms—like the silver and turquoise concha belt or geometric rugs—to be Indian art.

“That imagined perspective is so powerful,” Wall says. “People like David and Wayne Gaussoin fought that imagined barrier and were met with tremendous resistance.”

Wall also points out that it’s not just non-Natives who want the “old style” work to be the definition of Indian art, but Native Americans as well. And maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise. As tribes struggle to retain traditional customs, ceremonies and languages, hanging on to old ways of making art—art that has always been an integral part of Native identity—makes sense.

But artists must also support themselves, and Indian Market is the main source of art sales for many who show there.

“This is people’s livelihood,” Comanche painter Nocona Burgess says. Burgess, famous for portraits of iconic Native Americans—as well as pop figures like Marlon Brando and Jimi Hendrix—estimates he makes over half of his yearly sales at Indian Market. In addition to his pop culture portraits, Burgess paints abstractly. But, Burgess says, “I only take my Indians to Market,” because he knows what the market wants. 

Still other artists, like Rose Simpson of Santa Clara Pueblo, don’t show at the Market at all. Simpson is one of a number of young Native artists making a name for herself. Her ceramic pieces, including a larger-than-life adobe figure curled in the fetal position left to deteriorate naturally in a recent installation, challenge personal identity and how we construct it.

Simpson also has strong views about Indian Market—views that have occasionally gotten her in trouble with other Native artists and relatives who see her comments as disrespectful of what’s come before. Simpson says the struggle with what is Indian in art is a symptom of a collective “post-colonial stress disorder.”

Simpson, who just finished a master’s degree at the Rhode Island School of Design in ceramics, will have her new work “Thesis” on display at Chiaroscuro Gallery on Canyon Road.

“I’m lucky the gallery represents me,” Simpson says. “I don’t like to deal with buyers; sometimes I’m a little too honest.”

Differing viewpoints aside, Indian Market’s strength still lies in its people.

“It’s a living gathering,” Simpson says. “I really love being there and seeing people I love, artists whose work I adore. I know lots of amazing people I’ve met only because of Indian Market. There’s an amazing spirit there.”

David Gaussoin will be there, showing his jewelry. Despite his sometimes rocky history with the Market, Gaussoin—who grew up helping his mother, renowned jeweler Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin, at her Indian Market booth—appreciates the Market for its history. And new direction.

“There have been a lot of changes,” he says. “And I’m excited to see where it’s going. My hope is that they’ll encourage the younger artists—but not forget older artists who made Indian Market what it is.”

Indian Market runs from Aug. 20-21. With the exception of Simpson, all of the artists mentioned in this article will be showing at Indian Market. Gaussoin, in collaboration with Navajo designer Orlando Dugi, will show his jewelry on models in an Aug. 18 show at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art. 

Editor's Note: This is an extended version of the original article. To view the shorter print version, click here.

Santa Fe Indian Market
7 am-5 pm
Aug. 20
8 am-5 pm
Sunday, Aug. 21
The Plaza