***image3***The Portal's history is legendary-but its future is unclear.
"On Saturday mornings in summer the portico before the old governor's palace is gay with their bright shirts and shawls. White tourists pick their way among pots in shiny black or red, pottery animals, drums, bows, and arrows or string colored corn, bright as jewels. No traveler returns to his home State without talking about the Indian market at Santa Fe."
So wrote anthropologist Ruth Underhill of the storied portal that skirts along the front of the Palace of the Governors Museum and the Indian artists who sell their crafts beneath it.
Though Underhill's words were penned in 1944, and the bows and arrows have long since given way to jewelry and pottery, the essence of her description still rings true 72 years later.
For nearly a century, New Mexico's Native American artists have gathered each day on the portal to sell their wares. During the busy summer months, they spread their cloths of crafts among the throng of visitors who flock from all over the world. Through the winter, the artists huddle against the museum wall, their faces peeking out from behind layers of oversized sweatshirts, jackets and blankets.
Indeed, the portal program, overseen by the Museum, is a hugely important draw to Santa Fe. It attracts two million tourists each year, who come for the turquoise pendants, silver bracelets and heishi necklaces crafted by generations of Indians from New Mexico's pueblos and tribes. Sales from the portal are a sole and steady source of income for many of the approximately 4,000 Native American artists registered to sell there.
But beyond the program's popularity, knowing glances and quiet conversations along the portal reveal trouble. Though most tourists-or locals-would never sense it, the portal community is in the throes of a bitter conflict.
The dispute centers on the Department of Cultural Affairs' decision to remove two Native American vendors from the committee that has overseen the portal program since the late 1970s.
The ousted on-and-off leaders claim the state's actions were unauthorized, an affront to Indian sovereignty on the portal as well as the long tradition the program emblemizes.
"The entire reason our program is valued and recognized around the world is because it involves Native people running their own program, making their own art and carrying on the traditions which occur at the pueblo and bringing them to the portal," Glen Paquin, one of the deposed committee leaders, says.
The state and the Museum, on the other hand, maintain its actions were necessary to rein in a program that wasn't being operated properly or governed fairly.
The controversy has cut the vendors themselves into two groups. One faction stands behind Paquin and Merton Sisneros under the banner of increased Indian control over the program; the other backs the Museum and the state's approach to a more collaborative relationship. Tensions have recently grown so hot both sides anticipate litigation.
The conflict threatens to disrupt a program that is both an integral part of Santa Fe's allure as well as an essential economic and cultural component to Indian life in New Mexico.
"The portal program is vitally important to many families' livelihood, and it also plays a huge role in making it easier for Native people to live the sort of cultural life they would like to," Karl Hoerig, author of the book Under the Palace Portal, says. "As one vendor once told me, the portal lets Indians be Indians."
Glen Paquin, a talkative, lumbering man of 67, began selling his
traditional Laguna silver jewelry on the portal in 1979. Merton Sisneros, slight, dark and at 57 every bit as quiet as Paquin is gregarious, started hauling his Santa Clara pottery to Santa Fe over a decade later.
Both men had worked with and known a series of administrators from the Palace of the Governors, the museum that oversees the program and works with the committee that governs the vendors. Paquin and Sisneros had served on the committee in various capacities ever since they first started selling art as young men and had developed a close working relationship with Dr. Tom Chávez, who ran the Palace of the Governors for 21 years.
When Chávez left and was replaced by Frances Levine, an anthropologist and former division head of Arts and Sciences at Santa Fe Community College, relations quickly became strained.
Paquin and Sisneros say Levine and portal program co-ordinator Carlotta Boettcher wanted to micromanage the program. Levine wanted Boettcher to attend all art demonstrations (essentially an audition) by artists applying to the program, a responsibility Chávez often left to the committee, Paquin and Sisneros say. Boettcher also was a highly visible presence on the portal and at committee meetings. The two men felt her presence was not only intrusive but exacerbated tensions among competing vendors eager to curry favor with the new administration.
"It was as if they didn't trust us to manage our own program," Sisneros says.
Finally, and most troubling to Paquin and Sisneros, Levine and Boettcher seemed more willing to use suspensions of vendors as a means of controlling the portal. Suspensions can occur for any number of reasons-fighting with a customer or a fellow vendor, or peddling products that don't pass muster with the inspections by committee members. Typically, the committee recommends disciplinary action against a vendor and the museum metes out a final judgment.
During the Chávez tenure, the museum largely let the committee handle any internal problems and conflicts with customers.
Now, however, Paquin and Sisneros thought Boettcher and Levine were pressuring the committee to suspend portal vendors and creating a gratuitously punitive dynamic.
In September 2004, Paquin himself was suspended from both his role on the committee and the portal for 30 days. In a series of letters to Paquin, Boettcher and Levine allege Paquin failed to perform his duties as a committee member, such as cleaning the portal, conducting demonstrations and performing inspections.
Paquin says the charges were exaggerated and that he missed a day as a "duty officer" on the portal to see family members dance at a feast day on Santa Clara Pueblo. Angry over his suspension, Paquin even filed a notice of claim against the state for lost revenue during his time away from the portal.
In 2005, Paquin and Sisneros were voted chairman and vice chairman in the portal program's annual elections. Shortly thereafter, Paquin and Sisneros say their committee began facing pressure from the Museum and Cultural Affairs to sign a code of ethics-a promise to abide by professional standards of conduct on the portal.
"We were suddenly told that we had to sign this document, and none of us had seen it before. We had no idea what it is about and there was no discussion among the committee members on it either," Sisneros says.
Paquin, who calls the code "demeaning," says the committee decided not to sign the document until there was further discussion.
"On the one hand we're not employees of the state-and we're constantly being reminded of that-yet we were told at that time that this is what the state was forcing us to do," Sisneros adds.
The code was never signed, and over the next nine months Paquin and Sisneros continued to clash with Levine and Boettcher. Levine and Boettcher wanted the two portal leaders to be more diligent about inspecting other vendors' work; to ratchet up the number of demonstrations reviewed by the committee each week; and, most importantly, in the eyes of Paquin and Sisneros, Levine and Boettcher wanted to be included along every step of the way.
For the committee leaders, Levine and Boettcher's vision of the portal program as operating under the relentless scrutiny of the Museum was in direct conflict with its roots.
"This is a traditional Indian program run by Indian people in a traditional way," Paquin says. "If that's not what goes on out there then our program doesn't look different than anything else at the Museum."
The widening rift between Paquin and Sisneros and the Museum culminated just after the holidays. In early January, 2006, Cultural Affairs Secretary Stuart Ashman asked Paquin and Sisneros to come to his office for a meeting. On Jan. 19, when the two men arrived, Ashman handed them a letter stating that they were being removed from the committee; the letter listed 11 complaints about their behavior as grounds for their ousting.
The complaints ran the gamut, from failing to follow committee rules to publicly denouncing the Museum to condoning violations of the portal rules to refusing to work with Boettcher.
Ashman's letter also made note of a petition signed by more than 200 active participants in the portal program asking for both men's removal.
Paquin and Sisneros were shocked. In their minds, the charges were vague, and arbitrary. They might have missed a handful of demonstrations or inspections, but that was because they were busy selling their own art. They might have discussed their concerns about the program with fellow vendors, but that was their right. They might have disagreed with Boettcher, but they still met with her every week. Finally, the petition only represented one faction of portal vendors and none of Paquin and Sisneros' supporters had seen the document being circulated.
"It was shocking," Sisneros says. "The charges were so general. I never get on any podium to speak out against the program. And it was Carlotta who didn't seem to want to work with us, not the other way around."
Paquin terms the accusations "lies" and says the charges were incomprehensible.
Still, given the gravity of the situation, the two men thought they'd be afforded due process.
"We never had the opportunity to explain our side," Sisneros says. "Mr. Ashman was hearing everything from Fran and Carlotta and other former committee members. But that was the first time I'd seen any of the charges. I feel it could have all been cleared up if we'd just been allowed to defend ourselves."
Paquin, ever the outspoken one, called his lawyer. In his view, this was an overall push by the Museum to change the old Indian ways of selling art on the portal, to render the committee powerless and to exert a non-Indian hand in the day-to-day operations instead.
"They were treating us like dumb Indians, for god's sake," he says.
The relationship between the Palace of the Governors and the
portal has always been a complicated one.
Though the Plaza itself has served as a marketplace since the 17th century, the portal program didn't take shape until the 1920s.
At that time, the Museum of New Mexico (of which the Palace of the Governors is a part) began incorporating the Native American artists who frequented the portal- technically Museum property-into a formal program under its charge. It's not the most comfortable concept; the artists gathered on the portal were essentially a living museum exhibit-as if frozen in the black-and-white pages of Edward S Curtis' The North American Indian -but it made sense to both parties.
Eventually the Museum decided the portal could only be used by artists from New Mexico's Native American pueblos and reservations. The policy was upheld during the late '70s by a series of court decisions.
Though considered a Museum program, the portal relies on extensive collaboration between the elected committee of vendors and museum administrators.
"You have 1,500 Indian families out on the portal. There are marriages, divorces, fights, childbirths and all the vendors know about it," Carlotta Boettcher says. "You have a full community unlike anywhere in the world."
Though it's almost unheard of for the museum to interject in a committee election, state officials say they felt they had no choice in the case of Paquin and Sisneros.
"The bottom line is that we didn't feel these guys were effectively fulfilling the role of committee members," Stuart Ashman says, smoothing the ruffles from a stylish brown suit, while sitting in his office. "They were being disruptive, and the portal committee is better served without them."Ashman is joined by Frances Levine, a slight, energetic woman with glasses, and Sarah Manges, the chatty legal counsel for the Cultural Affairs Department.
Ashman, a heavyset, charismatic man with a white beard and burgeoning bald spot, was raised Jewish in Cuba, came to New York City during the 1960s and his words are still dusted with a Cuban inflection.
An artist and former museum curator, Ashman characterizes the portal as "the most important public program the Museum of New Mexico has."
Though careful with words, Ashman, Levine and Manges relay their view of the circumstances leading up to Paquin and Sisneros' dismissal.
To start, when Levine took over the Palace of the Governors in 2002, she wanted to bring more structure to a program that, in her view, was too loose.
For example, the inspections of portal art and enforcement of program rules by committee members needed more diligence. The complex set of regulations on the quality of jewelry on the portal began during the '70s when the hippie movement sparked a craze for Indian jewelry. During that time, some vendors on the portal began "jobbing," or assembling an assortment of factory-made materials and passing off the finished product, to unsuspecting tourists.
Subsequently, the Museum and the committee devised strict rules dictating precisely how each piece of art could be crafted. Because the Indian art process often changes, the rules are constantly updated; each change must be reviewed by the committee, Museum administration, the board of regents of the Museum of New Mexico and the attorney general.
"The tradition of Indian art in New Mexico is not actually static, so the materials used by the artists sometimes change," Levine says. "We need to constantly look at what is appropriate for the portal and make sure we're inspecting the art."
In the view of the Museum, some committee members, including Paquin and Sisneros, weren't inspecting as frequently as the rules required-if at all.
Levine also was concerned about the list of more than 60 Indian artists waiting to demonstrate their craft so they could sell on the portal.
"There were too many different waiting lists going around, and it was too casual for every artist to know exactly where they were in the demonstration process," she says.
Carlotta Boettcher says she was most shocked by the disorganization of the program's record-keeping.
"It was all over the place," Boettcher says. "Things were being stolen, in disarray, documents would go missing."
Despite the Museum's desire to step up its demonstrations and inspections and restore order, Levine and Boettcher say Paquin and Sisneros consistently resisted their directives. Most disturbing, they seemed to be actively trying to keep the Museum at bay.
Boettcher says the two men didn't like her walking the portal or requesting they professionalize their conduct as portal leaders.
"They couldn't bamboozle me because I pay very close attention. I wasn't just sitting there like I didn't give a shit," Boettcher, a visual anthropologist by trade, says. "They weren't acting in a professional manner and there was a continuous obstruction of the process of the program."
Sometime in May, not long after Paquin and Sisneros were elected, Ashman himself attended a committee meeting. He describes the meeting as contentious and says some vendors openly criticized Paquin. After the meeting, Ashman says Paquin approached him and told Ashman that he shouldn't have been there and the vendors could handle things just fine on their own.
"He also told me that they didn't recognize the Museum's authority over the program," Ashman says.
Paquin and Sisneros also kept switching meeting times, Levine says, making it impossible for everyone to show up, a source of frustration for both Museum administrators and other committee members who traveled to Santa Fe from distant pueblos.
"Clearly we couldn't work with them to establish a clear, collaborative program," Levine says. "It became really frustrating. No matter how many times we said it, they were not responsive."
The petition with more than 200 signatures calling for Paquin and Sisneros' removal made it a done deal in Levine's mind. This seemed the strongest message yet and it was from the portal itself. She presented the petition to Ashman in late October and told him she wanted Paquin and Sisneros out.
Even then, Ashman wanted to wait and speak with more portal vendors. Finally, after further discussion with Levine and additional complaints from vendors and other committee members, Ashman made the call.
Ashman points out that he consulted with two Native American government officials, Sam Cata, tribal liaison for Cultural Affairs and Benny Shendo, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs, before he decided to get rid of Paquin and Sisneros. SFR's calls to Cata and Shendo were not returned.
"During those nine months of their leadership, we'd reached an impasse in terms of being able to deal with them," Ashman says. "It culminated in the petition, and we made our decision."
In the old days, the artists gathered on the portal in the middle of
They found a choice spot to sell, set up their cloths and caught a few hours of sleep until the first flash of morning sun brought an early straggle of tourists to the Plaza.
Cheryl Arviso stares at the midday bustle along the portal and continues her history lesson.
"In the '80s, they used to have us line up on the Plaza and at eight in the morning, we'd all run to the portal to find the best spots," Arviso says with a chuckle. "I saw people throwing each other's cloths so that they could get ahead!"
Though she was just a little girl helping her mother and grandmother sell their Navajo jewelry, Arviso remembers those days well. She also remembers a time when the portal was less divided than it is now.
The interim chairwoman of the committee, Arviso was appointed to the position by Ashman and Levine after Paquin and Sisneros were deposed. A broad- shouldered, soft-spoken woman, Arviso is among the vendors who started the petition against the two men.
"Our program is a collaborative, symbolic relationship with the Museum but they didn't see it that way," she says. "I feel the Museum has been there to help and work with us so we have a more united approach to the portal program."
Arviso adds that Paquin and Sisneros' "slacking" on the inspections, the demonstrations and the perpetually confusing committee meeting changes convinced her that the committee leaders needed to go.
"I feel like this had to be done," Arviso, who was elected chairwoman of the committee for the first time when she was 26 years old, says matter-of-factly.
Paquin and Sisneros' removal by the state is clearly a divisive issue. A chat with a handful of vendors shows how varied opinions are.
Mavis Garcia, who currently sits on the committee, is a staunch supporter of Paquin and Sisneros.
"I'm shocked Glen and Merton were removed," Garcia, who also has been selling jewelry on the portal since she was a young girl, says. "They've done nothing wrong."
Regarding the petition, Garcia says the vendors circulating the document lied to people from her Santo Domingo pueblo to convince people to sign it.
"They were telling people that Glen and Merton wanted to get rid of the turquoise we use to make nuggets, which is the main selling point of Santo Domingo," she says. "That just wasn't true."
Like Paquin and Sisneros, Garcia believes the heavy-handed approach by Levine and Boettcher has compromised the traditional aspect of the program.
"It's problematic. Some people are very upset about it. The committee now has no say," she says.
A cursory walk up and down the portal shows just how high emotions are running.
On one end, an older Navajo woman with dark sunglasses who goes by the name Gracie shakes her head when Paquin and Sisneros' names are raised.
"I don't like what they're doing," Gracie, who signed the petition, says. "The Museum is kind enough to give us this space. We don't come here to fight, and these men are trying to scare everybody into fighting."
On the other end of the portal, Mable Pacheco says the museum overstepped its powers.
"I don't know who had the authority to do this," Pacheco, a jeweler from Santo Domingo, says. "We elected them, and now because of what the Museum did, the whole portal is divided. I'm very upset."
Regardless of where people stand, the heart of the matter for the vendors revolves around whether Levine, Boettcher and Ashman could do what they did without giving everyone a say.
Michael Gorman, a part-Navajo, part-Ottawa, artist says the Museum has the right to remove Paquin and Sisneros, especially because so many vendors signed the petition. Gorman stresses the rules and regulations of the portal program need to be followed to the letter. He says if Paquin and Sisneros want to speak about sovereignty they should go the Legislature.
"Sovereignty? We're Indian artists. I don't understand the correlation," Gorman, a current committee member and past committee chairman, says. "This is a Museum program."
Conversely, Felix Calabaza, an elder from Santo Domingo, says the Indian artists have a right to maintain their own program with as little interference as possible. If any decision is going to be made about the structure of the program, Calabaza says it should come from the vendors.
"We're the ones who placed Glen in the chairmanship, and that needs to be respected," he says. "I wish we could leave race out of this, but Fran is not an Indian. Carlotta is not an Indian."
In Under The Palace Portal, Karl Hoerig uses the portal to
illustrate the co-operation that can occur between Native Americans and state-sponsored cultural institutions.
These days, Hoerig's utopian vision appears to be waning-at least for now.
Even those no longer involved with the portal program have gotten wind of its recent problems. Former Palace of the Governors Director Tom Chávez was shocked to learn Paquin and Sisneros were removed from the committee.
"They're elected by the vendors," he says. "They're not elected by the state, nor are they being paid by the state so the state has no authority to remove them."
Clearly, Ashman, Levine and Boettcher and their supporters feel there was no other choice.
"I know they're talking about sovereignty as it relates to the portal," Ashman says. "But as I said to Glen, 'I truly respect your sovereignty, but every time you get in your car you still need registration from the MVD with you. You still have to abide by the established rules.'"
Hoerig, now director of the White Mountain Apache Cultural Center in Fort Apache, Ariz., acknowledges the intricacies of a difficult situation.
"One the one hand, it is Museum property, and it is their program, and it is their responsibility to see that it continues in accord with the rules that have been outlined by the vendors and the board of regents," he says. "At the same time, this is truly a Native place, an Indian place, so it does demand consideration of the perspective of the vendors."
At one level, Hoerig views the 200 signature petition as "a pretty strong mandate" for the Museum. Conversely, he sees the division as an opportunity to improve the unique understanding between both sides that has proved so powerful for almost 100 years.
"In this case, there has been a long and ongoing relationship between the state of New Mexico and the vendors," Hoerig says. "I don't think the portal program could have survived without a strong commitment from both sides."
Only time will tell if that commitment remains.