New Mexico has a long history of Native American traditional art that stretches across the kaleidoscopic canvas of our land. Weaving, pottery making, silversmithing, Kachina doll making, and other arts have been in existence before New Mexico was proclaimed a state in 1912, and much longer, even before Spanish colonists came from Mexico in the early 1600s. Using tools handed down from generation to generation, Native American artists spend countless hours to perfect the craft and preserve the tradition of their ancestors. New Mexico, also known as the State of the Arts, has more working artists, open studios, artist owned galleries, Fine Art galleries, specialty and artisan oriented shops than any other state in the union per capita, which means the time-honored craft of Native American art is readily available in every region.
Scholars theorize the Navajo learned to weave from the Pueblo people, the region’s first weavers, around 1650. The Pueblo people made baskets, robes, sandals, and plaited and twined mats from fibers, and decorated them with feathers and rabbit fur. Around A.D. 700, the Pueblos began loom weaving with indigenous cotton, often using a backstrap loom, belted around the waist. Hopi and Pueblo weavers advanced the art with these materials, producing pieces of higher quality woven more tightly and with more detailed designs. Although they are generally distinct in patterns, colors and weaving techniques, some of the Pueblo, Navajo and Rio Grande weaving styles overlap due to contact among the cultures.
One of the most striking characteristics of Pueblo Indian pottery is its variety. With endless variations of texture, color, form, and style of decoration, diversity is one of the qualities of Pueblo Indian pottery that often appeals to collectors. From gourds to stones, the makers of traditional pottery continue to use age-old tools for the creation of each desired vessel. Materials local to their own Pueblo, including fuel for the fire and clay dug up from the ground, must be gathered. Impurities are removed by hand. Paints are prepared by grinding rocks or clays to create a colorful palette, or boiling plants to produce black carbon paint. Artists in virtually every one of the pottery-making Pueblos are reinterpreting traditional forms, creating new styles or even reviving old ones.
Silversmithing was introduced to the Navajo people in the early 19th Century by a Mexican silversmith who taught the craft to Atsidi Chon. By the mid-19th century, Chon had mastered the art and introduced it to his friend Lanyade, a Zuni Indian. Prior to this time at the Zuni Pueblo, copper and brass were the only metals crafted. Chon introduced the technique of stamping with designs based on Mexican leather craft. The cross-cultural relationship has made it is nearly impossible to distinguish early Navajo and Zuni silver jewelry. By 1910, the whole design of Zuni jewelry was oriented toward cluster and channel work, mosaics, and the display of gems. Today, almost all silver is signed or marked, or the maker is identifiable. It is illegal in New Mexico to proffer non-Indian made jewelry as Indian-made. A reputable dealer should be able to provide proof of authenticity in writing.
Kachinas (also spelled Katsina, the plural "katsinam") exist in Hopi and in Pueblo cosmology and religious practices. In Hopi, the literal definition of the word Kachina (Katsina or Qatsina) means "life bringer" and can be anything that exists in the natural world or cosmos. The Zuni believe that the Kachinas live in the Lake of the Dead, a mythical lake, which is reached through Listening Spring Lake, located at the junction of the Zuni River and the Little Colorado River. Kachinas are actually stylized religious icons, meticulously carved from cottonwood root and painted to represent figures from Hopi and Zuni mythology. For generations, these figures have been used to teach children about their religion. There are more than 400 different Kachinas in Hopi and Pueblo culture.