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Dodging Death and Seeking Love at the Santa Fe Indian Market

One Native writer takes in the scene of the 99-year-old festival.

Traveling at 90-mph with little to no sleep, relying on black coffee, Red Bull, the booming bellows of Maynard James Keenan, and the roar of the wind to keep you alive and on the road, is truly evil business, and I don’t recommend it for anyone who suffers from anxiety or sudden blackouts. But this is how it was, at least for me, all the way to Santa Fe.

There are people who go on road trips to regroup, reflect, calm the nerves, or so I’ve heard, but I am not one of them. Driving from Minneapolis to Denver to Pine Ridge and then finally to Santa Fe is a maniacal scene straight out of a Rob Zombie horror movie: empty coffee cups spill out of the driver-side door as I stop at another seedy, middle-of-nowhere desert gas station; dodging darting deer and murderous loners in the dead of night; there’s the constant fear of eyelids getting heavier and heavier when the highway is too dull, too stretched for too long. That’s the moment when the Grim Reaper appears, sometimes in the middle of the road, sometimes in the backseat. And, jeezus, do I know him well.

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“You’ve got about 10 minutes before you’re mine,” he growls.

And that’s when you pull over …

This time, however, it was sunset when I trundled into Santa Fe completely on fumes – no food in the belly and no gas in the tank. The assignment: drop into Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico and take in the scene, eat the fare, play, plot, and maybe find a wife or at least a ”snag,“ which is Indigenous speak for the one who’ll keep you warm, if only for a night.

Almost every Indigenous fella, fine lady, or non-binary beauty there was bedecked in medallions, bolo ties, and black wide-brim hats, each beaded or brandishing a feather. I, though, showed up with holes in my T-shirt and wandered around in ripped jeans.

“Don’t mind me,” I said. “You should see the other guy.”

1. Joe Toledo is an artist from Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico. He is best known for his watercolors which are exhibited in US, Canada and European collections.© Tira Howard Photography for SWAIA 2. James Johnson is an award-winning Tlingit Artist and Carver, born and raised in Juneau, AK. He belongs to the Tlingit Ch’áak’ Dakl’aweidi Clan (Eagle Killerwhale). You can view his art and learn about him by visiting his website

Santa Fe Indian Market is an annual gathering of Natives and a gaggle of white folks, some of whom seem to have a weird, desperate desire to feel like they’re back in the Old West. But the market was canceled in 2020 because of Covid, which means oodles of artists, designers, dancers, and baby-makers had nothing to make: No love. No babies. No money. Those were the dark days, and well, we’re not out of the woods yet. I don’t mind seeing the Grim Reaper in the middle of the road or the backseat of my car, but not here, I thought. We have none to spare.

And while Death didn’t rear his nasty head that day, a white man wearing a Cavalry lid did, and I could see that my friend, Rae, an Alaska Native and Navy vet, wanted to rip the nasty, settler-colonial cap off his skull and knee the jackal square in his berries. “You should count coup on some people, but not all,” I recall saying, “and especially not that sonofab****. Have at ‘em.”

White folks with bags of art, goodies, and jewelry hide from a brutal sun. Natives in masks look for a presence of a wedding ring or a tan line where one was this morning. The frybread line swells. Rae is looking for the sot in the Cavalry hat. Money is being spent hand over fist, and you can see the sigh of relief on the faces of the artists and elders who rely on those dollars to see them through a brutal winter. You trundle to the plaza. Traditional dancing on the stage.  A white woman reaches to touch a Native’s braids and is swiftly shot down and given a what-fer.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the Native woman asks the privileged blond.

“I’m just admiring your hair,” she says. Blue eyes is completely shocked and confused.

“You can do that without reaching for my body,” the Native says.

Hot damn. White guys in Calvary hats. Blue-eyed women reaching for braids. I’ve heard Santa Fe Indian Market is like this, but my god, here it is, happening before me:

Ten-thousand-dollar sculptures are purchased like pears at a farmers’ market. Sixteen dollars for three tacos is highway robbery and a clear indication that brown people don’t own the joint. Hippies and hipsters are weighed down with too much turquoise and they move like wealthy snails. And then, suddenly, the aroma of good weed creeps around the corner. The old white man with dreads offers you a hit. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Right. Santa Fe Indian Market is an agglomeration of the disgustingly rich and the free-love types of the 1960s. Some are here to feel like it’s Woodstock and sex in the rain all over again. Others are here to spend thousands of dollars on authentic Native art to show off to friends who’ll visit from places like the Hamptons and Malibu.

Indian Market 2021© Shayla Blatchford for SWAIA

Meanwhile, the Natives are still in line waiting for frybread, posing for photos with strangers, and saying to their snag, “I’m so glad we’re not related.”

And the Indian Market is an all-weekend gig, which means it’s an easy thing to forget to eat and sleep. Coffee back in the veins. More money dished to support the people. “I know your face but not your name,” is said all day, every day, from Native to Native. Braid-grabbers keep blowing coin to festoon their walls and satiate their guilt. Next year, I’ll bring my typewriter and set it up at the center of the plaza with a sign that reads, “Let a Native Writer Write You a Rhyme. Warning: Explicit Material — $20.”

The sun soon submitted to the moon, and all manner of musicians, writers, painters, dancers, and night owls went down the road at a nearby venue to rap, sing, snag, paint, play, and hell yes, I was one of them.

ShanDien Sonwai LaRance is a champion hoop dancer, instructor and artist. She grew up immersed in Native American arts and traditions and shares her culture around the world. Her family, the LaRance Family Dance Troupe has traveled for many years around America showcasing hoop dance and performing at pow wows and festivals.© Tira Howard Photography for SWAIA

Beauty. Beautiful. Badass Natives. Santa Fe Indian Market and then the after-parties. Sitting alone and listening to Native laughter 520 years after the white man first stumbled here. We live. We strive. We’re alive. Have I eaten? Are there tacos? Who’s on the stage? It’s Morningstar Angeline, the actor and musician, and Ashley Moyer, the beatboxer, and I fall in love all over again. Dangerous.

“Have you found your snag?” a Native beauty in braids walks to my table and asks.

“I’m on the market.”

“Well, then …” she whispers. “Hi.”

Stacks of fluffy frybread, good weed, and rows of over-priced tacos later, I’m back in the rez van, back on the road, with too little sleep, too much Red Bull and coffee again, off to teach my first class at the university the next state over. I didn’t find my snag, but I did get a full legal pad of notes and a tale to tell.

“How’d it go?” Death asks from the backseat.

“I’m already parked. See you next time, babycakes.”