Santa Fe Fiesta

By Kim Suina

The burgeoning tourist economy and emerging Indian arts market boomed at the Camino Real paraje of Santa Fe during the 1920s. The city hosted the Santa Fe Fiesta, a major tourist event of that era. Tourists from all over the country traveled to Santa Fe to partake in the history and culture of New Mexico’s Native peoples. For Indians the growing popularity of the Fiesta offered an opportunity for economic gain.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, developments in rail transportation added a new dimension to the New Mexican economy. Prior to the railroad, well-developed farming practices had enabled Pueblos and many Hispanos to remain relatively self-sufficient, with the exception of occasional trading excursions to other villages, but farming which had been a stronghold in the New Mexico for hundreds of years was beginning to decline. Most Indian communities could no longer subsist off of internally grown and produced items. Native peoples had no choice but to seek other sources of economic livelihood and this often meant traveling for extended periods of time outside of the home community.

Marketing of the Southwest by railroad companies and other tourism promoters was well underway by the 1880s. The Fred Harvey Company and the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railway had begun promoting the “exotic” sights and cultures of the Southwest in extensive advertising campaigns. In the process, Native peoples, artifacts, and cultural traditions became commodified. Indian handcrafted pottery was transformed from utilitarian objects to pieces of art or tourist kitch. Events like the Santa Fe Fiesta offered tourists the chance to catch a glimpse of these “exotic” Native peoples up close and to buy a part of their cultural production.

In the early twentieth century cultural leaders revived a celebration that marked the retaking of Santa Fe by Diego de Vargas in 1692. The original celebration dated back to a 1712 Spanish proclamation that called for the annual commemoration of Vargas’s re-conquest. The first modern-day Santa Fe Fiesta took place in July 1911, and was repeated again the following year. After a short hiatus, the annual celebration resumed in 1919, under the leadership of Edgar L. Hewett and the School of American Research. By the 1920s the Fiesta, now a major cultural event in Santa Fe, attracted locals and tourists from throughout the country.

Although still a commemoration of the re-establishment of Spanish authority in New Mexico, the Fiesta also celebrated the notion of New Mexico’s supposed tri-cultural heritage: Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo. Each of the three days of the Fiesta celebrated a phase in New Mexico history, “Before Santa Fe Was,” “Santa Fe Antigua,” and “Santa Fe Moderna;” all symbolically associated with each of New Mexico’s cultures. However, the modern Fiesta increasingly focused on the Indian inhabitants of New Mexico, reflecting the country’s current fascination with Native culture.

The multi-day program included Indian dances; an arts and crafts exhibition and competition; Hispanic folk plays, historical romance written by members of the Santa Fe art colony, and pageants in which local Natives, Hispanics, and Anglos reenacted some of the major events in New Mexico’s long history, including the entrada of Juan de Oñate, and the emergence of Anglo traders in Santa Fe via the Santa Fe Trail. Native peoples actively participated in many of these activities.

Weeks before the Santa Fe Fiesta, Anglo organizers collaborated with Native peoples residing in communities along the Camino Real, to secure their involvement each year. Written communications between organizers and Pueblo leaders detail the extensive negotiations that occurred before Native peoples agreed to participate in the event. In these discussions Fiesta organizers assured Indians that ample supplies would be provided for them, as well as adequate compensation for services that they provided. These services included the performance of dances specific to each Native group, as well as Indian participation in historical pageants.

Once Fiesta organizers and Indian leaders agreed upon terms; Indian participants traveled to Santa Fe by horse and by wagon, on the Camino Real, the main thoroughfare leading many of these villages into the city. For Indian participants appearing at the Fiesta entailed a major commitment of time and supplies. The trek to Santa Fe Fiesta took several days, a result of vast distances and geographic barriers that stood in the way. For southern travelers, La Bajada, a formidable hill separating the Rio Arriba (Upper River) and the Rio Abajo (Lower River), impeded the journey. Other travelers had to deal with fording rivers and drudging through sand traps.

For participants, the trip to Santa Fe had to be economically feasible. Once at the Fiesta, farming responsibilities likely fell by the wayside or were passed on to other community members who stayed in the village. Money incentives had to be significant enough to be worth the price of the trip itself and the time spent away from home.

Throughout the 1920s, the number of Indian participants multiplied. In 1923, a reported 200 Indians from throughout New Mexico attended that year’s Fiesta. Wagon trains and horses carrying Indians from communities throughout New Mexico converged on the plaza for several days. Fiesta organizers erected tent cities where Indian participants could sleep, provided makeshift tables to eat on, and even hay for their horses.

A wooden platform stage set up on the plaza in front of the Palace of the Governors served as the main performance space for Indian dances. By 1924, organizers fenced in the area in front of the Palace and began to charge admission to the Fiesta activities. There different Indian groups presented dances that they had negotiated with Fiesta coordinators to perform, including the Eagle Dance, the Corn Dance, the Matachines Dance, and many other dances that were not typically performed outside of the village with the exception of events like the Fiesta. Wearing costumes appropriate to each dance, the dancers entered the stage and performed for Anglo, Hispano and Indian onlookers. Several dance groups performed each day, with breaks between each performance.

In an article from the Albuquerque Evening Herald, one writer described a typical morning at the 1922 Fiesta:

Far outclassing the dances of last year were those presented this year, and in which the Zunis, Santa Claras, the Tesuques, the San Ildefonsos, the Jemes and the Cochitis took part. Costumes were very elaborate; there was a spirit about the dancing and brilliance in the panorama that swept the audience off their feet with enthusiasm. An appreciative crowd witnessed the parade of the tribes in the morning, the peculiarities of the costume distinguishing the various tribes. Each tribe was as interested in the events of the others as the people in the grandstand were.

Dances like these satisfied White organizers’ and tourists’ yearnings to connect with Native cultures that they believed to be nearing extinction. These activities also allowed for Native people from various tribes to mingle with each other, and observe the dances and culture of other Indian groups. Therefore, just like for Anglo tourists, the Fiesta offered Native peoples sights and sounds that may not have been typical to everyday life, and the chance to reconnect with friends from afar.

Fiesta organizers expanded an already existing Indian arts and crafts exhibition. In 1922, the First Annual Southwest Indian Fair and Industrial Arts and Crafts Exhibition was held at the state armory, next to the Palace of the Governors. Using the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ local offices as a mouthpiece, Fiesta organizers invited Indians from throughout New Mexico to submit pottery, jewelry, and other objects for the exhibition. Responses came from as far away as Hopi land in Arizona, Shiprock on the Navajo reservation, and Dulce on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. Pueblos, Apaches, and Navajos entered countless arts and crafts into the competition. Children from the federal Indian boarding schools also submitted artwork. Anglos judged the entries and awarded prizes to Indian winners. Standard competition categories included those for pottery and weaving, and some of the more unusual included “finest baby” and best “Indian grown chile.”

In the early 1960s the Fair eventually split from the larger Fiesta and became the Santa Fe Indian Market. The Indian Market remains a world renowned event and continues to attract tourists from all over the world. Like its predecessor, the market has become a major economic opportunity for Native artisans. The makeup of these Indian participants has continued to expand, and now includes Native artists from all over the United States and Canada.

At the conclusion of the Santa Fe Fiesta, the tent city was taken down and Native peoples headed back home on the Camino Real. For Indian participants the trip to the Santa Fe Fiesta may have been an annual event, and perhaps the only time that they entered the city. With them they took the experiences of their time in Santa Fe, the revenue that they had earned from their Fiesta appearance, and the material items that they may have acquired while in the city—all of these things they took back to the village.


Sources Used:

Anonymous. “The Santa Fe Fiesta and Centenary of Santa Fe Trail.” El Palacio 23, no. 2 (July 15, 1922): 15–17.

Batkin, Jonathan. “Tourism Is Overrated: Pueblo Pottery and the Early Curio Trade, 1880–1910,” in Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds, ed. Ruth B. Philips and Christopher B. Steiner. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Dunne, Brian Boru. “Indians Easily the Biggest Drawing Card at Fiesta.” Santa Fe New Mexican. September 7, 1923. P. 2.

Hoerig, Keith. Under the Palace Portal: Native American Artists in Santa Fe. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.

Mullin, Molly H. Culture in the Marketplace:Gender, Art, and Value in the American Southwest. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001.

McAllister, Dorothy. “The Santa Fe Fiesta” El Palacio 11, no. 6 (Sept. 15, 1921): 78–81.

Weigle, Marta and Barbara A. Babcock, eds. The Great Southwest of the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railway. Phoenix, Ariz.: Heard Museum, 1996.

Wilson, Chris. The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Santa Fe Fiesta

By the 1920s Santa Fe flourished as a tourist destination. Tourists traveled there for the Santa Fe Fiesta, an annual event celebrating Diego de Varga’s reestablishment of Spanish authority in New Mexico. Native peoples played a major role in the celebration, traveling vast distance from their villages to participate in the festivities.

(c) Kim Suina. All rights reserved.