Above: Ira Wilson. Photograph by Andrew Kornylak.

IRA WILSON GREW UP among a family of artists. His father was a painter, his grandmother a weaver, his uncle a jeweler. When he moved to Albuquerque from Teec Nos Pos, in the Navajo Nation, he began a career buying and selling Native American art. As lead buyer at Shumakolowa Native Arts, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s gift shop, Wilson championed Native artists and collaborated with collectors and gallery owners. After 26 years on the job, he took on an even greater challenge in February 2018 as executive director of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts. His first task: “righting an unsteady ship”—namely weathering the response to the organization’s 2017 discontinuation of the tenure system that had allowed veteran artists to participate in Santa Fe’s annual Indian Market without having to go through the jurying process. With more than a year in the rearview mirror, Wilson is working to secure SWAIA’s financial future, planning a yearlong party for its 100th anniversary, in 2021, and jamming on his guitar.

I grew up in the Four Corners area surrounded by art. I saw my dad’s struggles as a painter. Many days he left with a stack of paintings under his arm and came home with the same stack. I became connected to Native art.

I’ve been coming to Indian Market since 1986. When I was a freshman in high school, I was curious to see what it was about. My aunt dropped me off on the Plaza and I walked around for half a day.

SWAIA is this very established entity, and to learn all the moving parts takes much longer than a year. We’re at the stage of putting pieces in alignment with our mission. We’re in that planning mode, but it’s going to take time. There have been really cool changes—new sponsorships, new financial support, partnerships with educational institutions. We’re on much more solid ground than last year. And right now the plans we have for year 100 are ambitious.

The theme this year is celebrating indigenous women. We are hosting the Rise and Remember: Honoring the Resilience of Native Women gala on August 17 and honoring our missing and murdered indigenous women, as well as those women who are still with us. Congresswoman Deb Haaland will be there as a guest.

I toured with the band Red Earth, playing rhythm guitar and singing lead vocals. We used to call our genre “tribal stew”—funk, hip-hop, heavy metal, ska, jazz. We’d mix it up with indigenous music. I still play music. Without it, I couldn’t do this job. I can escape into it. We may see a reunion soon, but we’re scattered across the country. We used to jump around a lot on stage. We’re all adults in our late forties now. We don’t jump around anymore.

I like to sing karaoke.

I saw Selena in 1992 or ’93. Her band was playing a small tour at one of the malls in Albuquerque before she really got famous. She was one of the artists on the bill and sang four songs. I remember noting they had a female drummer—her sister, Suzette.

In the nineties, Red Earth founded the concert series Electric 49. For Natives, “49” means powwow or after-party, where there would be a drum circle. This was the electric version of that. It featured contemporary Native musicians we were hungry for. We were looking for punk rockers or ska musicians on the reservation, reggae … Natives that weren’t being played on mainstream radio. It’s been on hiatus, but we wanna bring it back. It was at the Gathering of Nations.

We’re working on the financial side of SWAIA. We’re trying to secure the future for ourselves, to better SWAIA, and to stay around another 100 years.

Story Sidebar

SWAIA’s Winter Market occurs December 14-15 at La Fonda, in Santa Fe.