Native American Artisans Add Touch Of Culture To New Mexico Capitol
Ben Lopez is an artist from Los Lunas, N.M. He is one of many who sells his work at the state capitol in Santa Fe.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
March 14, 2013

SANTA FE, N.M. — Across America, state capitol buildings are known as "the people's house" — open to everyone. But some are more open than others.

At New Mexico's state capitol in Santa Fe, the chaotic process of lawmaking is sometimes interrupted by the scent of Native American fry bread. It's one of few, if not the only, state capitol to allow area artists and food vendors to sell their goods throughout the building.

It's become a tradition over the last 20 years according to Raul Burciaga, the director of New Mexico's Legislative Council Service.

"The Native American vendors come in with their wares ... and they sit down and just show you what they have," he said. "It doesn't take long for staff, legislators, lobbyists and the like to come out, 'Ooo and ahhh' over it and decide to pick up a few things."

New Mexico has one of the highest concentrations of Native American residents in the country, about 10 percent of the total population. The Pueblo Indians and Navajo tribes are heavily represented among the capitol's vendors. They bring items like delicate turquoise jewelry, kachina dolls and handmade pottery.

Kae Warknock, a policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Colorado, has visited capitol buildings across the nation. She says New Mexico's capitol is unique.

"One of the things that's wonderful about the New Mexico capitol is that they are really embracing that artistic nature of the people of New Mexico," Warknock said.

Santa Fe is a mecca in the art world. Not surprisingly, it's capitol building houses an art collection worth millions. But the openness of New Mexico's capitol means artwork isn't just hanging on the walls, it's also wandering the halls.

On Tuesday Ben Lopez and his wife walked the capitol's circular hallways for the first time. He makes rustic crosses from old wood and barbed wire. He wore a black rancher's hat over a thick black mustache that gave him a rugged western edge. In just a few hours he'd already sold a dozen crosses.

"I work construction, but construction is real slow now," Lopez said. "So I'm just trying to make some extra money, just to get by and trying to get my name out and my art so people can see it."

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Phyllis Rodriguez works for the New Mexico State House of Representatives. She's wearing a pearl necklace she bought from one of the many vendors who roam the state capitol.

Longtime staff members at the capitol, like Phyllis Rodriguez, know they need to come prepared with cash on hand if they plan to shop. She works in an office just across the house floor. This week she has a new purchase to show off.

"This beautiful mother of pearl necklace and (the seller) even threw in a pair of earrings for me to match," Rodriguez said.

Lawmakers and staff are often too busy to leave the session, even to pick up lunch. Rodriguez says one of the busiest days for vendors is Valentine's Day, when state employees are eager to pick up gifts for loved ones. In that sense, the ambling vendors are a welcome addition to the everyday hustle and bustle. Rodriguez said they're both a convenience and a temptation.

"They come and they entice us," she said. "And every year I come back and say, 'This is it, I am not buying anymore,' but they have such beautiful things."

And this year, like every other, Rodriguez couldn’t help but give in.