Shoppers brought a bit of the Southwest home for the holidays from S’edav Va’aki Indian Market
Despite being known by an entirely different name, the S’edav Va’aki Indian Market has been a Phoenix tradition for almost five decades.
Last month, the Pueblo Grande Museum and Archeological Park welcomed city and tribal officials for a ceremonial celebration after the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board unanimously supported its name change in April.
The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and Gila River Indian Community tribal historic preservation offices both agreed that renaming the museum was needed since the O’odham wouldn’t refer to their settlements as pueblos, the Spanish word for villages.
S’edav Va’aki is an O’odham phrase referring to the large platform mound, while also paying homage to the O’odham and Piipaash communities of the Southwest. This historic archeological site possesses strong cultural and spiritual connections to ancestors of the O’odham, the Huhugam.
Although authentic, handmade Native arts and crafts are hard to come by, even for the holiday season, shoppers, both tourists and locals alike, brought home a bit of Indian Country from the S’edav Va’aki site this December.
This market is one of dozens juried by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which is guided by the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.
More than 110 Native artisans from basket weavers to beaders and woodcarvers to silversmiths come to show their wares. “We have rules and regs, and they promise to adhere to that,” says Katherine Shields, who co-chairs the annual market.
“It’s a great place to shop for the holidays. They’re wonderful gifts for all year round,” she added, “and that’s what I do. I buy my gifts for the whole year here.”
Gourd artist Arturo Ramirez, of Apache and Southern Ute ancestry, says he’s been handling the “Tupperwares of ancient days,” at least once a day for the last four decades.
“When they dry, they dry like hardwood,” says Ramirez. “I’m always mystified that people will come up and shake these and say, ‘Well, what was inside?’ I say, ‘There are seeds in there.’ They’re always baffled.”
He’s one of the cultural demonstrators at the market’s Ki:him, an O’odham word for village, a bunch of booths where Native artisans educate by offering interactive learning experiences from beading to shell etching and even hoop dancing.
On top of that, Ramirez specializes in crafting holiday-themed gourd decorations swaying in the breeze.
Tree ornaments are common at the market, making for all sorts of great Native gifts from gourds to “cornaments,” as Melanie Tallmadge Sainz puts it.
They’re blue, white and red beaded corn-shaped decorations, topped with real husks Sainz repurposes from her kitchen.
She’s from the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin, but lives in the Valley part-time, and began crafting them in 1987 while working as an education specialist at the Heard Museum.
A gift shop manager gave her the idea to test out the corn-themed decoration at their Ornament Marketplace. And that year, Sainz says, “I sold out, so it’s like I came upon the thing that’s gonna pay my booth fee every time I set up.”
Corn is a way of life for Ho-Chunks and Hopis like Lawrence Melendez, who loves his corn husk-wrapped dolls, “and how people come about getting involved with kachinas.”
Melendez lives at First Mesa and has been carving wood and painting these little pastel-colored kachina dolls for nearly four decades now. He’s spent hours studying at the Heard Museum to make them look authentic.
Four of his dolls are on display, affixed to a holiday tree: a frog, cricket, Sun and Mother Earth. They’re among hundreds, each of them are, “Teaching tools that we utilize,” says Melendez. No matter whether they’re traditionally on a wall or hung on a Christmas tree.
“I got the shepherd, the three wise men and the couple here,” says Navajo weaver Sylvia Begaye. “It’s just my version of it.”
She drove some seven hours from Fort Defiance to sell her Native-inspired nativity sets, fashioned from velvet and wool fabrics. Even a Christmas shop in downtown Santa Fe carries her popular creations all year round.
Her scenes are staged in wooden mangers. She used to build hogans that housed her plush figurines before Begaye began having problems with her hands.
“This is my latest style,” says Lupita Lucero, from the Pueblo of Jemez in north central New Mexico. “I love it, it’s my pride and joy.”
She has another approach: clay pottery miniatures in a tiny nativity set.
A graduate from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, Lucero never touched the moldable earthy medium until after she finished her studies. She’s been locally sourcing clay from around her pueblo village, and even prays before handling it.
It’s a physically and financially demanding artform, but Lucero says this might be her last year taking an eight-hour trip each way to this Valley market. “You have to think about the travel, the gas, the motel fees, all of that adds up,” says Lucero.
Those unseen expenses to the consumer are reflected in the pricing. Her sets range from $500 to $700 depending on the size and attention to detail.
“That’s why, not only are they expensive, but a lot goes into it,” says Rory Majenty, president of the Arizona American Indian Tourism Association. “You know, it’s their vision, it’s their spirit, it’s their mind and it’s part of their trademark.”
That steep price is based on time, labor and authenticity.
He added cheap knockoffs not only hurt Native Americans, “but it also hurts the industry and the tribes and the culture, because in a way, you’re really an imposter and you’re making fun of something that again, rightfully doesn't belong to you.”
The Indian Arts and Crafts Board insists their rules must be upheld. “That’s part of the rationale behind that, so people can buy with confidence,” says Shields.
Whenever Pascua Yaqui composer and guitarist Gabriel Ayala, of Tucson, isn’t strumming his chords on-stage, he’s pursuing his passion for ledger art.
It’s a popular artform on the Great Plains, where Natives started painting on old parchments: Letters, documents and even sheet music.
Whether it's a political or cultural message, Ayala always has a uniquely Native story to share within the confines of his 10-by-10-foot booth, bringing smiles to those who gaze upon his vividly eye-popping sketches.
Weirdly whimsical visions are constantly dancing around in his head, then to paper, from what if the Beatles were Native and crossing Abbey Road to how an Indigenous Star Wars space battle would ensue in a galaxy far, far away.
Ayala says artists, like himself, “wanna keep creatively engaged.” That inspiration also came in the form of fantastical holiday cards. “So I imagined if I had cards that they saw this Indigenized version of Christmas.”
His second release depicts festively-designed teepees with a feather-wearing snowman and a reindeer-pulled sleigh flying over the mountains — drawn from his imagination and delivered, both in and out of Indian Country, in time for the holidays.