Indigenous artists hit hard as gig after gig is canceled

The cancellations and postponements have a rippling economic effect across Indian Country.


Leah Mata Fragua remembers how the cancellation emails just kept coming. Soon, all five of the shows where she’d hoped to sell her abalone earrings, dentalium necklaces and dolls dressed in Northern Chumash regalia had been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Mata Fragua, who is self-employed, has been making and selling jewelry since 2009. She started her career in the middle of the last recession, so she’s used to challenges. But this time, she said, the financial impact has been more extreme. 

“It wasn’t as sudden, and it didn’t affect almost every part of the economy,” she said, remembering the 2009 recession. Mata Fragua lives in New Mexico at Jemez Pueblo with her husband, Cliff Fragua, who is also an artist. The state said she wasn’t eligible to file for unemployment, though the office did tell her to call back. Now, she’s weighing her options.

Mata Fragua, who is yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini Chumash, is one of thousands of Indigenous artists impacted by the recent closure, cancellation and postponement of cultural events, shows and gatherings. The effects have rippled across Indian Country since the pandemic shut down public life and a large part of the economy. Many are now scrambling to make ends meet even as the ever-changing medical crisis makes it hard to plan for the future. 

Althea Cajero, from Santo Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico, prepares her stall for the 98th annual Southwestern Association for Indian Arts annual Indian Market (SWAIA) in 2019. With the SWAIA market and others closed in 2020, Indigenous artisans are losing significant income.

In early March, the World Health Organization declared that the new coronavirus was a global pandemic. The cancellations began immediately: The 46th Annual Denver March Powwow, originally scheduled for March, was postponed, and the Gathering of Nations called off its April annual Powwow in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Then the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts annual Indian Market (SWAIA), an institution approaching its 100-year anniversary, announced that its annual Indian Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, would be postponed until next year.  

The resulting income loss is having a profound impact. Vanessa Roanhorse of Roanhorse Consulting asked makers and small businesses to complete an online survey about how the cancellations and closures were affecting them. “We heard from hundreds of people and businesses within days of putting out the survey, who said that they had very little in the way of a safety net and that, even though their business is small, people depend on them,” Roanhorse said.

“It’s just been difficult to get on solid footing.”

In early March, Mata Fragua had just finished exhibiting some of her dance dresses and regalia at the Heard Museum’s Indian Market show in Phoenix. It was one of the last shows held before the global pandemic essentially shut down the economy. The market wasn’t as well attended as usual, but she thought she could make up for it at the Abbey Museum show in Maine. Then that was canceled, too. “It’s just been difficult to get on solid footing,” she said.

Choreographer and Yupi’k performance artist Emily Johnson said that her entire income is going to suffer for the next year and a half due to cancellations and postponements. And finding any relief has proven difficult. The emails about the cancellations didn’t even mention the fees associated with the loss of the gig — “nor make any mention of all of the prep work that had gone into it, whether that be weeks, days or years,” said Johnson. Yet she needs that documentation in order to apply for unemployment. 

These cancellations will impact more than just the artists involved. More than 100,000 people visit downtown Santa Fe during the two-day Indian Market. The event brings $165 million in tourism dollars to northern New Mexico, and some artists earn 90% of their yearly income during this weekend alone. A 2018 survey found that visitors spent $55 million buying art from vendors at the Santa Fe Market. Meanwhile, according to its website, the Gathering of Nations Powwow attracts more than 75,000 visitors to the city of Albuquerque and brings in over $4 million in revenue.

When Congress passed the $2 trillion CARES Act on March 27, it appeared that relief was on the way for self-employed people like Johnson and Mata Fragua. But when Mata Fragua called the unemployment office, she said, “They told me to wait.” Altogether, the coronavirus relief response has been confusing, she said. 

In the coming weeks, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts will unveil plans for a virtual market. Its main component will be an e-commerce platform that connects SWAIA’s artists with buyers, but the group plans to do other things that will make it interactive, educational and fun. The Gathering of Nations also went online. During the last weekend in April, it held a virtual powwow and market. “We put all our eggs in this one basket called Indian Market,” said Amanda Crocker, SWAIA’s public relations and marketing director. “But I’ve been thinking about how we can support artists year-round.”

As it is, 90% of SWAIA’s income and expenses are directly related to the summer market. Crocker said that basically, “Our budget does not exist without a market.”

There’s been a lot of attention given to Indian artists and businesses, and their struggle to survive and thrive. Fundraisers and donations have been organized to help those in need.

Recently, NDN Collective, a Native-led nonprofit, stepped in and pledged $10 million to help those who have been impacted by cancellations due to COVID-19. 

Things like that help, but some worry if it will be enough. “There’s no way to ignore the fact that even if we are able to have a market, the economics, the economic situation, our country right now is rough,” said Crocker.

Allison Herrera is Xolon Salinan from the Central Coast of California and serves as editor of climate and environment for Colorado Public Radio.

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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