“El Portal” at the Palace of the Governors

Keeping tradition—and quality—alive on Santa Fe Plaza


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Occupying the entire north side of the historic plaza, the Palace of the Governors has been a center of activity since Santa Fe's founding as New Mexico's second capital by Governor Pedro de Peralta in 1610.

The oldest continuously-occupied public building in the United States, the Palace has housed Spanish governors, a Pueblo Indian community, the territorial governments of the Mexican and American republics, a federal post office, the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, the School of American Research, the New Mexico Historical Society and, since 1909, the Museum of New Mexico (MNM).

Since its establishment, the MNM has worked to protect, preserve and promote traditional Southwest Native American arts and crafts. Museum policy reserves the portal, or front porch, of the Palace of the Governors for the use of authorized participants in the Native American Vendors Program to display and sell wares they have made.

Items offered for sale include pottery, metalwork, stone and shell jewelry, beadwork, sandpaintings, leatherwork, weaving, carving (both stone and wood), drums, drawings and paintings. Some vendors sell foodstuffs such as oven bread, pies and tamales.

A regularly-scheduled, outdoor public market, dedicated exclusively to regional Native American arts and crafts and located under the Palace portal, was the brainchild of Maria Chabot. Employed by the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs (NMAIA), Ms. Chabot proposed the creation of Saturday Fairs, modeled on fiesta markets she had visited in old Mexico, to be held throughout the summer months. These weekly markets were intended to encourage the production of traditional arts and crafts and to educate the public about Southwest Native American cultures.

Vendors Under the Portal

Image: © Vendors remote under the Portal
Palace of the Governors

Photo by T. Harmon Parkhurst
Courtesy Museum of New Mexico remote
Negative No. 69973

The first fair was held on July 11, 1936. Artists were invited and prizes awarded for outstanding work by the NMAIA. Judges were non-Indians because the Indian people were reluctant to assess the quality of one another's work. The NMAIA seasonal markets continued through 1939 and were a great success. They mark the beginning of what eventually became the daily, MNM-sponsored Native American Vendors Program.

At 63 years, the Native American Vendors Program is the oldest public program of the MNM. It is also the largest, most visited and most visible program. It has been featured in books and magazines, on a postage stamp and in countless snapshots taken by visitors from throughout the world. The Portal has always been there. Its longevity and familiarity obscure what an altogether unlikely undertaking it is.

Jointly administered by museum staff members and program participants, this educational program is a uniquely ambitious, uniquely successful cooperative venture of Native peoples and a state cultural institution. It provides a model for mainstream cultural institutions across the nation striving to find innovative ways to accurately represent and adequately serve our diverse citizenry.

Julian and Maria Martinez

Images: © Julian and Maria Martinez
and family, San Ildefonso Pueblo

Under the Portal,
Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe c1959
Courtesy Museum of New Mexico remote
Negative No. 164605

There are more than 850 authorized participants, approximately 400 households, in the Native American Vendors Program. Vendors travel to the Portal from 47 communities throughout New Mexico and range from 18 to over 80 years of age. The majority live in the pueblos and on the reservations and are deeply conservative people with many civic and ceremonial obligations at home. The Portal as a workplace provides vendors with the scheduling flexibility to fulfill these obligations without jeopardizing their livelihoods.

Members of all nineteen New Mexico Pueblos, the Hopi, the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache tribes sell their work here. While English is the shared language of the program, it is the first language of fewer than half of the vendors. Differences in language, history, tribal organization, spiritual beliefs and ceremonial practices among Native American groups often go unrecognized.

Nonetheless, they are profound and potentially divisive. The Portal, reckoning with these differences daily, is an ongoing experiment in multicultural cooperation. From the reservations, villages, towns and cities of New Mexico, vendors and staff members come together, despite past enmities and contemporary tensions, to form an unprecedented and enduring hybrid community.

There are complex regulations governing the conduct of the program and the quality of the items sold under the portal. Written rules date from 1976, when the MNM's customary Indians only policy was challenged, and upheld, in the courts. New rules, rule changes, and refinements are proposed by vendors and/or the museum administration and voted on at an annual meeting. All participants are required to demonstrate their technical mastery of art and craft skills as part of the application process. The program is monitored, and work inspected daily, by ten program participants, the Portal Committee, elected annually by their peers.

Vendors insist on strict adherence to rules governing techniques and materials, but, like artists in the NMAIA-sponsored markets of the 1930s, they will not comment on aesthetic merit. Unlike galleries or juried shows, the Portal is inclusive and non-hierarchical, nurturing the aspirations of young artists and sheltering older artists, many of whom have been coming to the Portal since childhood.

There are no assigned spaces under the portal. The sixty-nine spaces available are claimed at 8:00 AM, first-come-first-served if there are fewer than 69 vendors or by a lottery when the number of vendors exceeds 69. The system for distributing spaces, devised by the vendors, is homely in its materials, but elegant in its simplicity. Committee members place numbered poker chips, corresponding to space numbers stenciled along the Palace wall, and unnumbered chips, equal to the number of vendors exceeding 69, in a bag and there is a draw. You get a number or you "blank." Fifty-nine of the 69 spaces can be shared so maximum seating is 118.

The evenhanded nature of this process reflects primary shared values of program participants: that procedures be scrupulously fair, that everyone be treated the same. All participants' concerns, large and small, are addressed with dispatch and respect by the program's leadership, the Portal Committee. Such responsiveness takes a lot of time and Committee service is voluntary.

When asked why she was willing to give so much of her time to the program, a Committee member from Santo Domingo Pueblo replied, "I don't know, but it's just in me, I just have this heart for the Portal . . . It feels like my second home." She has been coming to the Portal for more than thirty years. This proprietary feeling, shared by many vendors, can only be described as love.

The Native American Vendors Program at the Palace of the Governors has developed organically over six decades and continues to evolve. The program now offers gift certificates and has a web site. In 1998, satellite markets were reestablished at Coronado and Jemez State Monuments after a thirty-year hiatus.

With an estimated 2.4 million visitors annually, the Palace portal is among the most popular destinations for visitors to Santa Fe. It has provided a reputable and reliable outlet for Southwest Native American arts and crafts for generations. Proceeds from sales made here have been of incalculable economic benefit to traditional communities. To state residents and visitors alike, this incomparable program offers a splendid opportunity to talk to Native Americans in an historically relevant setting and to purchase, or simply admire, a wide selection of fine work.

Thanks to Sarah Laughlin, and the Museum of New Mexico photography archive.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 13

Related Pages

Collecting Indian Pottery article
Glossary of Indian Arts Terms article
Glossary of Pueblo Pottery Terms article
How Pueblo Pottery is Made article
A Sacred Place: Meditations on Corn article

Indian Fetishes article
Pottery: Enduring Styles of the Pueblos article
What Does this Indian Symbol Mean? article
Who are the Pueblo Indians? A Primer article
What is Heishi? article

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