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Santa Fe: where customs and culture mix.

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We consider ourselves pretty creative, this trusty trio of girlfriends packing bags in three divergent cities. But we figure there's a lot we can learn and enjoy on our long-anticipated trip to the Southwest. Santa Fe, here we come!

Originally settled by Spaniards before 1607, America's oldest capital city is also her first member of the U.N. Creative Cities Network, joining Montreal and Nagoya, Japan. The honor recognizes Santa Fe's long heritage of indigenous folk art and its ongoing support of art, design, and creativity in whatever surprising forms it takes. It is actually the unique blend of cultures and dramatic landscapes that attracted hundreds of artists to the Santa Fe area until a community formed, giving birth to an economy based on creative arts and arts-based tourism.

We link up in Albuquerque and set the GPS north for Encantado Resort. We drop our bags, take turns banging on the ceremonial drums in our rooms, and hop the next shuttle to the Plaza. We're women on a mission: museums, galleries, boutiques-and don't forget a chili relleno dinner or two.

Santa Fe, now the third-largest art market in the country, overwhelms visitors with more than 200 galleries. We decide to anchor our creative quest in some of the city's major museums.

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The Museum of Indian Art and Culture sweeps us along 12,000 years of native life in the Southwest. We learn that a pot, as one elder says, is "part of the ceremonial essence of who we are." We marvel at the tightness of basket coils, the closeness of beadwork.

Next we bit Canyon Road, Santa Fe's granddaddy of gallery rows. At Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery, we find cousins to the baskets and pots behind glass at the museum. Things are up for sale here, from Hopi and Navajo baskets to the pueblo pottery that lures buyers from around the globe.

One of my friends is drawn to the subtle blacks and grays of the Acoma Laguna Pueblo pots; the other gravitates to the vibrant ochres of the San Juan Pueblo. We all laugh at the little Cochiti Pueblo frogs, their mouths open to the sky.

My museum time helps me spot Avanyu, an ancient Pueblo deity and guardian of water, represented as a serpent, insinuating himself around a voluptuous black bowl from the Santa Clara Pueblo, his lightning tongue flashing. In a place that may see 14 inches of rain a year, water has been celebrated in art for millennia.

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But it's not all traditional forms. Navajo jewelry artisans Irene and Carl Clark are micro-inlaying gold earrings, showstoppers in turquoise, coral, and lapis. If we all cash in our plane tickets home, we can buy a pair among us.

Things are much more affordable under the portal of the Palace of the Governors, the oldest continuously occupied public building in America, back to 1610. For generations, Native artists have spread their blankets and their silver work in the shade and invited the public to come shop.

Inside, the Palace traces the four centuries since Santa Fe was christened capital of Nuevo Mexico. Wander the cool adobe rooms and feel the years fall away.

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The Palace is the place to savor some grand Southwest oddities: the clock that Pancho Villa's gang shot, freezing time forever at 4:11; the office where, in the late 1800s, territorial governor Lew Wallace filled his idle hours writing the classic Ben-Hur; and the violin that some desperate frontier musician--an early creative force, no doubt--fashioned out of rawhide.

Santa Fe's churches have a long pedigree, too. San Miguel Mission, said to be America's oldest church, is a place for lingering. I watch the afternoon sun cast a shifting cross on an icon of Mother and Child. People come and go as I stand mesmerized, tracing the sun in its infinitesimal movements.

I sense that someone else would have loved this light show. Georgia O'Keeffe, we haven't forgotten you.

Her namesake museum in Santa Fe has the world's largest display open to the public, and again, we can only hit highlights. The ruffle of a petal on her giant flowers, the ferocious white of her bleached skulls.

The painter first visited New Mexico in 1917 and lived here full-time for more than 35 years. We're heading north to her home and studio in Abiquiu, a large adobe house whose core goes back to 1760.

A guide leads us through the patio with the famous black door O'Keeffe committed to canvas again and again. We walk gingerly through the house that she rebuilt from rubble, jars of her homegrown sage and tarragon still lining pantry shelves.

For such a prolific artist, O'Keeffe's studio is surprisingly stark. It was tidied after fading eyesight forced her retirement.

Just stepping outside the studio feels inspirational--the plumes of tamarack bushes, the Thanksgiving scent of sage, and long, low clouds whipping past flattop mesas.

This is O'Keeffe Country, and we're searching for modern artists who, as O'Keeffe once did, hear whispering muses on the desert wind.

We find some that evening with the help of our innkeepers, John Johnson and David Heath of Rancho de San Juan, north of Santa Fe. Decorating our casitas with pieces from their personal collections, they spotlight jewelry, sculptures, and paintings by local artists.

Johnson and Heath point us toward the studios of sculptor Star Liana York and her husband, Jeff Brock, sculptor and jewelry maker, at their Paradise Ranch. She's working on a sculpture of a massive cowboy, soon to be a bronze. He'll mosey on down to Texas Christian University when he's burnished and buffed.

York studied and taught in Maryland, but moved to New Mexico for the foundries that bookend Santa Fe. And she continues to sculpt stone. "All of our ancestors were stone workers, not just Native Americans. I'm actively inspired by ancient cultures."

Her husband has his hands on ancient pieces every day in his barn of a workshop. Brock crafts "hearts of fire" pendants and bolo ties from some of the rarest stones on earth: stingray coral from Alaska that's 450 million years old. He carves fossil ivory from 12,000-year-old woolly mammoth tusks, washed out of the tundra each year in Alaska.

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On a dusty road not far from Paradise Ranch, Doug Coffin, Rancho de San Juan's artist in residence, welcomes us to his studio. Coffin, a Potawatami, has created his own amazing life arc, from a tribal college in Kansas to White House invitations.

Coffin is drawn to power images, and his totems are in collections around the world. He works in stone, paint, leather, steel and, yes, coyote skulls.

His studio opens up to the same Abiquiu hills that called to O'Keeffe, and that call still to me and my friends. One day soon, we know we'll return to the high desert of New Mexico, where creativity swirls like pinon smoke on the breeze.

Pueblo People

Like many of the other original tribes of North America, the Pueblo people of New Mexico trace their roots back 12,000 years to the Earth Mother.

Pueblo-dwelling Native People refers to the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico and the Hopi villages of Arizona. They have lived in adobe and stone houses for centuries: the Acoma Pueblo and the Hopi village of Oraibi, both more than 1,000 years old, are the oldest authenticated continually occupied communities in the U.S.

Although the tribes interact, they speak five separate languages: Keresan, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, and Zuni.

Spanish colonizers moved into Pueblo land in 1540, settling into San Gabriel, about 25 miles north of Santa Fe. In 1608, they made Santa Fe their capital of New Mexico.

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Spanish conquerors forced Pueblo families to pay onerous tributes from their crops and work in Spanish households and fields, an echo of the European feudal system. Priests ordered kachina masks to be destroyed and the dancers to be whipped or hanged in the Santa Fe Plaza.

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Po'pay of the San Juan Pueblo, one of the men whipped, organized a rebellion against the Spaniards. In 1680, Pueblo warriors led the first successful revolt by Native People against the Europeans. Po'pay is such a hero that he has his own MySpace page and a statue in the Capitol Rotunda.

The Spanish didn't give up, running repeated forays into Pueblo land. They finally regained the region in 1692, and the Pueblo warriors and conquistadors battled back and forth until about 1700. The Spanish tightened their control, but eventually recognized Native rights and religions and a public defender to argue Indian legal cases in Spanish courts.

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Many historians contend that it was the Revolt of 1680 that helped the Pueblo Indians retain much of their tribal government, languages, religions, ceremonies and art.

Did you know?

Santa Fe is the highest capital city in the United States at 7,000 feet above sea level.
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Author:Marsh, Betsa
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:1U8NM
Date:Nov 1, 2010
Words:1501
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