Appropriation in the Land of Enchantment

AP Photo/The New Mexican, Abel Uribe

New Mexico is one of the least populated states in the U.S., and it remains one of the most beautiful and culturally diverse. But thanks to a growing desert chic fueled by Coachella and Burning Man, newcomers are pouring into gentrifying Taos, treating Santa Fe as one giant spa getaway, and consuming Indigenous culture as something that can teach them to be more spiritually centered.

There are the neo-hippies, the crystal healing people, the Burners, the outdoorsy REI set. There are the fake urban shamans, the moneyed folks who love the museum gift shops more than the museum exhibits, and the young hip urbanites drawn to the desert as a kind of aspirational lifestyle. But sporting turquoise Navajo jewelry isn’t bringing any of them closer to the land.

For Jezebel, native New Mexican Anna Merlan writes about the tensions that this growing breed of visitors and new arrivals have elicited in the ancient Land of Enchantment. The state is having what Merlan calls a reckoning with its history, as Native communities vocally tackle the complexities of property rights, colonialism, and appropriation with marches and protests.

But why the Southwest? “People who came to New Mexico and Arizona were coming almost as a reaction to the urban environment,” explains Meredith Davidson, a historian based in Santa Fe and an expert on the counterculture movement in the region. “It was a way to get out of the Haight Ashbury or get out of these overpopulated areas and pursue this kind of, mythologized, sometimes true but definitely romanticized image of a back to the land utopia.”

And of course, she says, “A lot of that ‘back to the land’ utopia myth has to do with images of Native Americans.”

Davidson’s research has shown her two parallel movements. “There was a percentage of people coming out here, getting engaged with people like the Taos Pueblo elders, learning from them, participating in peyote meetings, learning to build adobe,” she explains, a group who were interested in learning while trying not to appropriate. And then, she says, “there are the people you’re thinking about who come out and appropriate this image of a Southwestern person: turquoise jewelry and peasant skirts and this and that. Those don’t seem to be the people who stayed and were engaged in making New Mexico what it is.”

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