For years, I’ve been enjoying the Eiteljorg Indian Market. I can remember when it was a smallish gathering, at least by today’s standards; a few white tents giving shelter from the sun (and more rarely, rain) to the Native American artists and their wares: a sea of turquoise and gleaming silver jewelry, burnished clay pots, delicate basketry, meticulous beadwork. The smell of fry bread and coffee and the constant drumbeat and crescendo of rattles were as intoxicating as the objects. None of this has changed; rather, the sensory pleasures of the early markets have expanded from cozy to kaleidoscopic. And yet somehow the event has managed to maintain a sense of community. Artists chat amiably with one another beneath the canvas as the crowds filter past.
This year’s Indian Market, the Eiteljorg Museum’s 15th, was challenged by the threat of rain on both days, at times becoming a reality. But this proved to be a minor inconvenience, at least by outward appearances: The Indian taco stand still ran short (ours was one of the last few served), long before closing time.
And this year, the museum’s banner exhibition — From Totems to Turquoise: Native North American Jewelry Arts of the Northwest and Southwest — was an appropriate complement to the Indian Market art. On tour from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, From Totems to Turquoise is a celebration of adornment and a statement of identity as varied as the hundreds, if not thousands, of tribes native to this continent. As one artist pointed out in an exhibition video, Native Americans have no word for the arts, they’re such an intrinsic aspect to their cultures.
The Indian Market distinguishes itself by the fact that all artists are Native American, and their work is juried to ensure its quality and authenticity. Totems to Turquoise reveals how the indigenous arts of two distinct areas of North America are as richly realized as they were before they were considered works of art. Which is to say, before trading gave way to a market economy.
The Eiteljorg has proven itself not just as a major player in the city’s cultural fabric, but also within the inner circle of like institutions — museums dedicated to the preservation of Native American culture (the Eiteljorg also devotes itself to the West) that are crucial to our understanding of place.
As the sky threatened more rain, and with just one hour or so to go before the market’s close, the crowd, while modest, showed no signs of letting up. We left to the steady thrum of a drumbeat in the distance, an invitation to come back again next year. Rain or shine.
While this year’s Indian Market has come and gone, the exhibition From Totems to Turquoise remains on view at the Eiteljorg Museum, 500 W. Washington St., through Aug. 12. Call 317-636-9378 or visit www.eiteljorg.org for more information.