Santa Fe serves a feast of native culture

Toronto Star, Oct 21, 2016: SANTA FE, N.M.-The swirl of red pepper sauce in the spicy corn soup is pretty, and pretty meaningful: “It’s the knowledge of our ancestors spiralling out generations,” says native chef Lois Ellen Frank of the pattern in the bowls she’s placing in front of us at Santa Fe School of Cooking.

Technically, the swirl on the soup is red chile sauce (yes, with an ‘e’) and not red pepper, says the cookbook author and culinary anthropologist. The confusion goes back to Columbus finding America and chiles instead of India and black pepper and renaming the vegetable in a PR move.

We grill green chiles, stuff them with lamb and perhaps learn why they’re so beloved in New Mexico. “Only chocolate, exercise and sex do what chiles do,” says Frank, executive chef and owner of Red Mesa Cuisine. “Your brain feels so good you have to keep eating it.” We happily dig in and ingest plenty more “traditional ecological knowledge” with our chile rellenos.

The meal is just the beginning of our feast of native culture and experiences in and around Santa Fe. We wander through galleries and museums full of native art and history. We head out to the San Ildefonso Pueblo, one of 22 pueblos in the state, each a sovereign nation.

“The cool thing about New Mexico is whether you come here to run a race or you come here to see art or you come here to go hiking and see the Rio Grande you can’t come here without understanding that this is Indian land and that culture is very much alive here,” says Dustin Martin, who helps put on the Santa Fe Thunder Half Marathon, 5K and Mile Walk every September.

There is no native word for “art” but you’d need at least a couple thesauruses to describe all the Indian art you see in Santa Fe. In more than 80 galleries on Canyon Rd., you’ll find sculpture, paintings, ceramics, clothing, turquoise jewelry and more. Visit Museum Hill or walk along the Palace of the Governors to admire the wide array of jewelry Indian artisans lay out on blankets (feel free to ask questions but don’t haggle).

Art is inherently tied to our cultural identity,” says Dallin Maybee, a jeweller and chief operating officer of the Southwestern Association of Indian Arts (SWAIA) the organization that produces the massive Santa Fe Indian Market every year. “Oftentimes utilitarian objects — pots, clothing — were beautified and constructed in a way to reflect the talents and expressions of the artists.

Santa Fe is the largest art marketplace in the U.S., after New York and Los Angeles. But it’s more than business. Art is an important connector between the Indians, the Anglos and the Hispanics in the city. You start talking about a silver necklace on the plaza and before you know it, you’re invited back to a pueblo for dinner.


Or you could stop by one on your own. Many pueblos around Santa Fe have cultural centres and galleries and welcome visitors to their annual feast days. But there is strict etiquette. Don’t even think about hauling out your phone to take pictures of the buffalo or eagle dances — they are prayers, not performances.

You can’t take pictures of the collection at the School for Advanced Research either. For more than 100 years, the organization has been collecting and preserving thousands of ceramics, rugs and other native artifacts. As we tour through high shelves stacked with pots, we hear that Indians have been making pottery from the clay on the hills of New Mexico since the “time of emergence” — a fact as poetic as it is historic.

The poetry continues when artist Dan Namingha describes his painting Passage #43 at the Museum of Indian Arts & CultureMuseum of Indian Arts & Culture. A black butterfly represents hope for healing in Syria and he points to circles, like the spiral in the soup, that represent his ancestors’ knowledge spreading across generations.

“As a native American, I grew up with the symbolism and the culture and I’ve managed to incorporate that into my work but in a very contemporary context,” says Namingha. “I always tell young native American artists, you come from a tribal background that is your foundation but beyond that, you can go much further because the world is your family.”

Santa Fe’s vibrant native culture makes Dustin Martin feel like he and other young people can become whatever they want. “As a native person you feel like Santa Fe is somewhat the epicentre of your opportunity to really voice your identity in modern society,” he says. “And that’s very special.”

As a visitor to Santa Fe, you have the opportunity to hear that clear, strong voice — through food, art, the land and conversation — and that’s very special, too.

When you Go

Get there: You’ll fly through Dallas or Houston to Albuquerque and then grab a shuttle for the hour ride north to Santa Fe.

Get around: It’s a pretty walkable city in the core and even to Canyon Rd., but you’ll want to take Santa Fe Pick Up Shuttle up to Museum Hill.

Altitude: Santa Fe is 2,194 metres above sea level — it’s where the Rocky Mountains begin, so take it easy on the margaritas and drink lots of water to stay hydrated.

Time zone: Mountain Standard, so set your watch back two hours.

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