The first thing I ever bought from a Native artisan under the portal at the Palace of the Governors was for Father’s Day. My dad and I were oddly estranged at that point. I felt guilty and sad about that, and willing now to make some kind of peace offering, I thought I’d send him some really great Thing. But my dad wasn’t easy to buy presents for (even when I was a kid and he was my hero); he didn’t play golf or go hunting or have a special team he rooted for, like other dads. My brothers and I were always at a loss for what to get him.
I combed all the bookstores downtown—in my family, no matter who the recipient is, you always start in a bookstore, and my dad was a voracious reader—but came up empty-handed. Something funny in an unexpectedly whacky way was always a score—he had a quirky sense of humor, but you couldn’t really go out and look for something like that, it had to just jump out. He loved mus
ic, but again, you couldn’t force it. And I had to find and mail whatever it was that very day if I wanted it to get there on time.
“God!” I muttered. Maybe this was a crazy idea, wanting to find him something to let him know that, beneath our arms-distance behavior of late, I still really loved him. I stood still, in the middle of the sidewalk, angst-ing about the whole dilemma, when suddenly I got this very clear hit to go to the portal at the Plaza. On the surface, that made no sense whatsoever: my dad didn’t wear jewelry, and jewelry was all I thought I remembered being offered for sale there. But on the other hand, he’d always been very much in awe of Native Americans. In fact, the first time he visited me here, in 1981, he bought my mom a sand painting, something neither of them had ever seen before. But I was afraid I wouldn’t find anything for him at the Palace of the Governors, or if I did, I remembered with a sinking feeling that nothing there was marked. What if, after seeing something, the price ended up being way beyond my means? I knew people said they bargained with the artists, but that seemed unfair.
The portal kept very clearly announcing itself to me, and since I had no other ideas, I wound up standing on the east end of Palace Avenue, along with throngs of tourists. And looking down the line, I saw that in fact there was a wide variety of work laid out carefully on the blankets in front of each vendor—yes, jewelry, but also pottery, carvings, even paintings and drums! I listened to tourists asking questions; I listened to the answers, which were always polite, no matter what, and I felt very at home with these vendors. They were ready to explain how they made an item, what the symbols meant, even a little about themselves, if the customer asked. So I stopped worrying about what I would ever find; I even pretty much doubted there was anything there for my dad. And then I saw this amazing stone. It was big, a startling green, like a cat’s eyes, like a piece of vibrant jungle transported to the desert. And it was made into a bolo tie. Now, even though my parents had recently retired to Arizona, I couldn’t in a million years picture my dad wearing a bolo. Was I nuts?! I asked the middle-aged gentleman what the green stone was. Gaspeite, he said. He told me about where he’d gotten it, he let me hold the piece, and he told me how much it cost before I had to ask—it wasn’t so astronomical after all. I stood holding it awhile, and the man didn’t pressure me. So what if my dad would never wear it? I was buying it for the stone, which was gorgeous. My dad loved stones; he collected them when he was a kid. The artist, a friendly and kind man, gave me his card to include with it, and he wrote the information about gaspeite on the back. I told him it was for my dad, for Father’s Day, and he smiled. “That’s good,” he said.
I love buying from the portal artists. And I encourage everyone else to do it, too. It’s a Santa Fe tradition. We all have great stories about the artists we’ve bought from there. And it cuts out the middleman—the spaces are free, so all the money from their work goes to the artists. But more than that: I think of this space, all along the north side of the Plaza, as a portal in the “doorway” sense. In this dangerously divided and separated world, we often associate most closely with a small circle of people who are just like us. Here’s our chance to not only buy Native American artwork but meet the artists face to face, person to person, which helps vanish that feeling of otherness. All the work is authentic; the artists have to pass rigorous tests in order to qualify to be there. There are only 69 spaces; if too many vendors show up, a lottery is held to see who gets to stay that day. This valuable opportunity for Natives to sell their work, called the Native American Vendors Program, is sponsored by the Museum of New Mexico. It grew out of a desire that Southwestern Native art have a reputable and reliable outlet, and the program has provided such an opportunity for over six decades. Because Museum of New Mexico members recognize that life in pueblos and on reservations includes many civic and ceremonial obligations, they’ve provided the scheduling flexibility that makes it possible for artists to fulfill these obligations while supporting their families.
“It’s an honor to be here,” says Teri Cajero, a pottery-maker from Jemez Pueblo. “I waited a long time to do this, and I’m proud to have my artisan card!” She usually goes four times a week, often with her mother or her mother-in-law, Helen Garcia. “Lots of people want their picture taken with the artist when they buy something—that happens to me a couple of times a day,” Teri says. “So I always dress the part, wearing nice clothes, because you’ll be in people’s photo albums!” She likes the connection she makes meeting the buyers in person. “I always give story cards to kids when they buy my pottery, so they can read about it for show-and-tell.” Visitors come from all over, Teri says. “I love being there.”
Helen, Teri’s mother-in-law, also from Jemez Pueblo, started coming 35 years ago, with her own mother-in-law, when her son, now Teri’s husband, was two. Back when Helen first started going, there was no lottery because there weren’t as many vendors then as there are today. And they didn’t accept credit cards. “In the winter, it’s so cold we can’t even move!” Helen says. “Many people have to have part-time jobs to make it through the winter.” People are often curious, she says, about how she makes her storytellers and other pottery. “I’m self-taught. I tell them it starts with digging the clay from the Earth, then you build your piece, let it dry, and do the painting and firing. I’m partial to kids in the summer,” she tells me when I ask about bargaining. “I give kids a break when they’re buying something themselves.” And Helen always asks where people are from. “I tell them, ‘Welcome to New Mexico.’ I feel blessed to have a livelihood, and really grateful.”
When I sent the card and the bolo, I wrote a quick story about the man I bought it from. Everything felt so right because I had that connection and I could share it with my dad. He called me as soon as he got it. And he was excited! He loved the stone; he loved my story of buying it; and I could tell he was pleased I’d gone to this effort for him—not just buying any old thing off a shelf. On the card, I’d written, “Don’t worry if you aren’t comfortable wearing this, Dad. You can just hang it and see the stone.” But at the end of the call, he said, “I think I will wear it.” And he did.
Story by Gail Snyder, Photos by Gabriella Marks