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Shopping for Authentic Native American Art in Tucson

A colorful woven basket by a Navajo artisan.
A colorful woven basket by a Navajo artisan. Photo © Quinn Dombrowski, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Despite being hundreds of miles from the Navajo and Hopi Reservations in northeastern Arizona, Tucson has long been known as a center for Native American arts. One of the finest, and now the oldest, dealers of Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo arts in Tucson is Mark Bahti, owner of Bahti Indian Arts (4330 N. Campbell Ave., Ste. 72, 520/577-0290). In his small shop, Bahti sells several very useful books and guides on identifying and collecting Native American arts, including his own recent book Silver + Stone: Profiles of American Indian Jewelers. Bahti is currently in the process of researching a similar book on Native American pottery artists.

It’s often difficult to know what is authentic Native American art and what isn’t. This has been a problem from the very beginning, but if you learn a bit about the history of the art form, you’ll likely conclude that words like authenticity are pretty slippery when it comes to this kind of art. According to Bahti’s book, it was during the golden age of Southwestern tourism that the authenticity of Indian jewelry became an issue.

The artists were, of course, encouraged to create work specifically for tourists, who flocked to the reservations and pueblos on the Fred Harvey Indian Detours. Bahti writes that these pieces were often lightweight, with “horses, tipis, arrows, thunderbirds… designed to fit the tourist notion of what Indian jewelry was ‘supposed’ to look like.” But, as Bahti points out, what was Indian jewelry actually “supposed to look like?” Nobody could really say, and they still can’t.

By the 1920s, manufactured copies of Indian arts were being made outside the Southwest and then shipped in to be sold as authentic, spurring the native artists to join together in co-ops and guilds, many of which are still in operation and still training new artists. The 1970s brought about a boom in the market for Pueblo and Navajo jewelry, and today there is a really diffuse sense of what is traditional and what is innovative, and innovation— the artist responding not only to tradition but to the world around him or her—can be seen everywhere at Indian markets around the Southwest, including February’s popular Indian Arts Fair at the University of Arizona’s Arizona State Museum.

Because it’s made by Native Americans, many people approach this art with a lot of preconceived notions; especially prevalent are notions about authenticity and tradition. Some people expect every Indian artist and artisan to be adhering to some ancient set of guidelines set down before real time began, a method that washes each squash-blossom necklace and kachina carving with some undeniable spiritual patina. Like most artistic movements, however, the provenance of the Southwestern Indian arts and crafts tradition is far more complex.

Think of these artists as working within similar confines as did painters and sculptors of the Western European tradition before and during the Renaissance. Such artists were bound more often than not to paint and sculpt imagery from the Bible or Greek and Roman mythology, and they could count on their public immediately recognizing the scenes and characters they depicted. However, within this rather narrow tradition, there existed astonishing variety.

Authenticity is a particular concern if you’re looking to purchase a katsina doll. Only dolls made by the Hopi and other Pueblo Indians are real katsinas, while those made by the Navajo and other tribes are intended for the tourist trade and will not hold their value. The general rule, unfortunately, is that if a doll is inexpensive, it’s probably a fake.

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