Southwest: 20th Century to Present

Part of the Totems to Turquoise exhibition.

New Connection: Creating Art for Today

During the 20th century, Native people of the Southwest faced many challenges as they strengthened ties with the outside world. Village economies shifted with the arrival of trading posts run by outsiders, where local products such as wool, rugs, baskets, and jewelry could be exchanged for manufactured goods. While most Native groups continued to live from the land, individuals often took paying jobs in towns or on commercial ranches. In the 1930s, Navajo and Hopi sheepherding suffered a heavy blow when government officials reduced flocks to prevent overgrazing.

Today, some Navajo and Pueblo people live in modern houses, and some work in cities, far from their grandparents' homes. Yet Native cultural traditions remain strong. Visual arts long associated with the Southwest, such as weaving, pottery, and jewelry, have evolved and expanded in recent decades, helping long-depressed Native communities and earning widespread acclaim. Native and non-Native worlds connect as stories, songs, and prayers from the past find expression in modern forms.

Tourist Attraction

In the 1880s, the Santa Fe Railroad carried its first passengers across the Southwest, opening a new market for "Indian-made" jewelry. Many artists forged bracelets, earrings, and beads for the Fred Harvey Company, which sold jewelry at its chain of hotels, at stations and even on board the trains. Tourist silver was typically thinner and lighter than pieces made for Native customers. Souvenirs such as ashtrays and letter openers became part of the silversmith's trade.

Variations in Style

Traditional Southwest jewelry forms such as the concho belt have endured for more than a hundred years. Some contemporary artists remain faithful to the classic styles developed in the early 1900s. Others experiment, playfully mixing in new motifs for an ironic twist on a familiar form.

Learning Together

Community programs helped support Southwest arts in the 20th century. The Hopi Arts and Crafts Silvercraft Cooperative Guild, a Native-run organization, was founded in 1949. The Southwest Indian Art Project, a series of workshops held in Tucson in the early 1960s, introduced contemporary techniques and ideas.

Tradition and Change

Many of today's Southwest artists use ideas and images from contemporary life to reshape traditional forms, sometimes as satirical or political commentary. In a brass pendant by Chiricahua Apache artist Bob Haozous, three snakes interlace to form a dollar sign.

Southwest Beadwork

While Navajo artists shaped new styles in silver, the Apaches learned to make decorative forms from glass beads, a Native art form first mastered in the Eastern Woodlands and the Plains. Since the early 1900s, Apache girls have worn beaded T-necklaces to mark their passage into maturity. Navajo artists adopted the beadwork tradition more recently.