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Buying Native American Arts and Crafts

Authentic Indian art or handicraft consists of handmade items produced by a Native American craftsperson, a member of a federally or state-recognized Indian tribe, using high-quality, natural materials that are not machine stamped. In our state, sales of these items are governed by The New Mexico Indian Arts and Crafts Sales Act.

This article reprinted courtesy of:
New Mexico Office of the Attorney General

Some imported items have entered the Indian arts and crafts market that are not
authentic because:

  • They are not made by Native Americans
  • They are not produced in the traditional manner
  • They are not made of natural materials.

First-time buyers and collectors should not hesitate to ask questions about the origins of these items as well as the materials used in making them. The following guidelines should assist consumers in purchasing authentic Indian arts and crafts.

Jewelry Should Exhibit Natural Metals and Stones

Southwest Native American jewelry is traditionally made with materials ranging from sterling silver and turquoise to pipestone and corn strung for necklaces. Today, natural stones from other areas in the United States and other countries also are used. American jasper, agates and Afghanistan lapis are in high demand.

All metal should be solid, instead of plated or filled. Edges should be smooth and even instead of crudely or sharply cut. Bracelets should be heavy enough to withstand the stress of regular use. Necklaces should be strong enough to support the weight of the materials and should have secure clasp. Ring shanks or settings should support the size of the stone.

All stones should be natural, not cake, composite or resin-treated materials. They should set securely in strong bezels.

Pottery Design Should Display Proportion and Balance

When buying Southwest Native American pottery, consider the materials used as well as balance and design. The various clays used have been dug from special locations for centuries. Paints come from plants and minerals and are traditionally applied with a split yucca "brush." Pottery should be made from natural rather than commercial clay. It should be handmade, not made of commercially molded greenware.

Paints also should be natural, and pottery should be fired in a traditional outdoor manner or in a kiln. The shape of the pot should be well proportioned and pleasing in relation to the painted or carved design. When holding the pot, its weight should feel proportional to its size, not overly heavy. The painted design should be well executed and polished surfaces should be smooth and even.

Pottery from various Pueblos has distinctive differences. Taos and Picuris Pueblos' pottery has a surface that glistens because it is made from micaceous clay. Pottery from the Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos has a polished surface and, depending on the firing technique, will be either deep red or black in color. Cochiti and Santo Domingo Pueblos produce pottery with black painted designs on a cream-colored background. Acoma Pueblo pottery is thin-walled with black painted designs on a white background.

Weaving Should Reflect Quality, Balance and Design

Native American weavings also should be purchased with quality, balance and design in mind. Most traditional everyday wear and ceremonial garments are woven with cotton and are produced by Pueblo weavers, although Navajo weavers also are known for their traditional dresses.

Navajo weavers usually produce wool rugs using an upright loom constructed specifically for each project. Sturdy weavings may be used as floor rugs while weavings with a fine, tapestry-like appearance should be mounted on a wall and viewed as an artwork.

Weavings should be made from homespun or commercial yarns of natural fibers such as cotton and wool. Colors should derive from native plant dyes instead of commercial dyes. Collecting native dyes and spinning yarn is far more labor intensive and, therefore, may cause the weaving to be more expensive.

A good quality Navajo rug should lie flat with even edges and have the same thickness throughout. Its design should be well balanced with colors pleasing to the eye.

The Navajo Nation covers portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Various weaving areas have developed their own characteristic design elements, with imagination and humor often depicted in pictorial designs. Four Corners area weavers may produce textiles with the Navajo Yei Bei Chei. The Two Grey Hills weavers produce pieces using only black, gray and white natural wool yarns. Ganado area weavers use very bold patterns with heavy red backgrounds and black borders. Weavers in the western part of the Navajo Nation continue to make the famous Storm Pattern design.

Baskets Should be Woven With Natural Materials

The key to identifying quality Indian baskets is discovering the materials and process used to make them. Indian basketry varies from coarse construction and minimal design to extremely fine weaving with intricate design. Some baskets are utilitarian, while others are made for ceremonial purposes.

In the Southwest, the market is predominantly represented by baskets made by the Hopi, Navajo, Pima and Tohono'Odham (Papago) of southern Arizona. Handmade baskets that are delicately woven with all natural materials gathered by the craftsperson generally will be more expensive due to the labor involved.

Other Southwestern Arts and Crafts

The Southwestern Indian arts and crafts market is dominated by traditional and contemporary arts and crafts of the Hopi, Navajo and Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. Buyers should understand that arts and crafts of other Indian tribes or articles that are not indigenous to the Southwest also may be found at Indian arts and crafts sales.

Whatever the item, consumers should take the time to inform themselves and ask questions. They should be aware, however, that Native American craftspeople may not divulge certain information related to the process or material sources of some items, especially pottery. It is a matter of respect that certain information must remain a secret to be shared only among those who practice the art.

If you have any questions about Southwest Native American arts and crafts or would like more information, call the Consumer Protection Division at (800) 678-1508. Please note this article is several years old and contact numbers may change.

The above article reprinted courtesy of:
New Mexico Office of the Attorney General

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