The Cause of Every American Artist
The fight over the Bursum Bill and the making of New Mexico as a cultural center
By Oliver Horn, PhD
In May 1921, New Mexico Senator Holm O. Bursum introduced a bill to Congress that would incite a power struggle over politics and culture in New Mexico. Crafted behind closed doors and without any consultation with the Pueblo people, the legislation proposed allowing non-Pueblo people to claim reservation land if they could prove ten years of residency. Ostensibly designed to settle competing claims over land grants, the bill in effect threatened to strip the Pueblo of their land rights and transfer vast sums of their territory to mostly Anglo ranching and mining interests. Similar tactics had proven effective against the region’s Hispano communities, who had lost as much as 80 percent of their land to Anglo interests over the previous generation. Bursum and his supporters expected that Pueblo lands would soon meet a similar fate.
The Bursum Bill instead sparked resistance within New Mexico, pitting a unique alliance of the Pueblo and members of the Santa Fe and Taos artist colonies against the vestiges of the Santa Fe Ring and their supporters in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The Bursum Bill became more than a dispute over Pueblo land; it morphed into a proxy battle over the nature of the region’s economy. To fight this legislation, the opponents of the Bursum Bill fused together art and politics to defend Pueblo land and culture.
The repercussions of the contest were profound. It marked the beginning of the end of the federal government’s deeply destructive assimilationist policies toward Indian communities and it hastened the rise of the tourism industry in New Mexico. At the same time, however, it created new inequalities within the region. This year marks the centennial of the fight over the Bursum Bill, among the most consequential and unique events in modern New Mexican history.
The Bursum Bill emerged within the shifting political landscape surrounding statehood in New Mexico in 1912. Up until that point, a small group of mostly Anglo officials and businessmen, known as the Santa Fe Ring, had dominated New Mexican politics. Key positions in the territorial government (1848–1912) ranging from the governorship to judgeships were appointed rather than elected, which enabled well-connected political insiders to seize control of local governing institutions. They wielded their political power to exploit New Mexico’s predominately non-white population for their own enrichment. Members of the Ring infamously pillaged the territorial government’s treasury, stole pensions from the families of Civil War veterans, and cut backroom deals with mining and railroad interests. New Mexico during this period more closely resembled an overseas colony rather than a U.S. territory.
The Santa Fe Ring’s most notorious and profitable activity, however, was defrauding New Mexicans of their land in the last decades of the nineteenth century. They particularly targeted Hispanos and their ranchitos, which were small, village-based farms. To legitimize their actions, members of the Santa Fe Ring and their allies attacked Hispanos for their cultural practices, and in particular for having communal landholdings. Ring members argued that by appropriating and breaking up community-owned land, they were promoting private property ownership. In other words, they asserted that the impoverishment and displacement of Hispano communities was actually a civilizing act.
The Hispanos fought back, though their resistance was ultimately unsuccessful. The Hispano vigilante group Las Gorras Blancas (“The White Caps”) formed in the 1880s and 1890s to fight the Santa Fe Ring’s predatory practices. Nevertheless, the Santa Fe Ring’s tactics of bribery, corruption, and coercion proved effective in commandeering vast amounts of land. By 1900, Hispanos had lost over two million acres of private property and 1.7 million acres of communal land. At this point, as much as eighty percent of early Spanish and Mexican land grants had fallen under Anglo control.
New Mexican statehood in 1912, however, diminished the power of the old political guard. Most positions in the new state government were now directly elected rather than appointed, which impeded backroom dealing and empowered the state’s majority Hispano population. Newly elected state and local leaders, in turn, sought to develop a new civic identity rooted in Hispano and Native American cultures and expand the nascent tourism industry within New Mexico. In 1912, Santa Fe Mayor Arthur Seligman established a planning committee for the redevelopment of New Mexico’s capital city. The group included staff members from the Museum of New Mexico and School of American Anthropology, and it adapted local adobe architecture to develop what subsequently became known as Santa Fe Style. The state government under Governor William C. McDonald (1912–1917), in turn, underwrote the New Mexico displays at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, which prominently featured Pueblo and vernacular architecture. It also oversaw the establishment of the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe in 1917. These efforts reflected the growing belief among local officials and boosters that carefully curated and distilled displays of Indigenous and Hispano cultures might provide a boost to the local economy.
In the face of these changes, the Bursum Bill became a vehicle for the old political guard to reformulate its power. Bursum drafted his bill in collusion with former New Mexico senator and then-Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, as well as Santa Fe lawyers Ralph Emerson Twitchell and A.B. Renehan. All were former members of the Santa Fe Ring. The privatization of Pueblo lands, in their estimation, would benefit encroaching Anglo ranchers and corporate interests as well as roughly 5,000 Hispano families who had lived on the disputed land for generations. The bill’s instigators cynically hoped that granting these people title to the land would garner support among the state’s newly empowered Hispano voters. Members of the old political elite hoped to wield the Bursum Bill to unite its interests with Hispanos, the same group that they had ruthlessly exploited only a few years earlier, at the expense of the Pueblo.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was a crucial ally of the Bursum Bill’s backers. Since the 1880s, the federal government had pursued a policy of assimilation among Native Americans. In New Mexico, the BIA set up schools aimed at teaching the region’s Indian peoples English, common trades, and Christianity. The Catholic and Protestant missionaries who ran the schools also actively discouraged Native American religious practices and beliefs. They dispatched a series of reports to the BIA between 1913 and 1916 attacking Pueblo dances. The reports contained specious accusations ranging from acts of human sacrifice to bestiality. Then, during World War I, the BIA began to characterize the ceremonies as seditious. Officials labeled Pueblo people who refused to give up such dances as “covertly disloyal to the United States” and “victims of [German] propaganda.” These criticisms played into longstanding stereotypes that portrayed Native American culture as savage, destructive, and anti-American.
In April 1921, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles H. Burke used the missionaries’ reports as pretext to ban all Indian ceremonies “apt to be harmful.” The list of offenses, however, was so long and vague—it condemned “frequent or prolonged periods of celebrations which brings Indians together from remote points to the neglect of their crops, livestock, and home interests”—that it de facto prohibited most ceremonies. Announced just weeks before the Bursum Bill’s introduction to Congress, the BIA’s restrictions on Native American dances provided ideological justification for the legislation’s supporters. It buttressed the assimilationist argument that the privatization of land and the eradication of traditional beliefs would enable Native Americans to integrate into broader American society. The cost, however, was the material and cultural erosion of their communities.
The remnant members of the Santa Fe Ring were not the only Anglos with interest in the Pueblo. Since the turn of the twentieth century, New Mexico had attracted a burgeoning group of artists and writers who had established artist colonies in Taos and Santa Fe. Many had fled to the Southwest from the nation’s major urban centers, most notably New York and Chicago. In their view, the forces of industrialization had gravely damaged American society. They were concerned that manufacturing’s displacement of the previous rural economy had riven American society between a new class of ultra-wealthy plutocrats and impoverished workers forced to live in densely packed slums. They were responding to the large numbers of people enduring substandard living conditions that transformed cities into unhealthy environments and epicenters of disease. Typhoid, cholera, polio, influenza, and most of all tuberculosis flourished in these urban environments.
Many of the artists and writers that came to New Mexico were victims of these stratified, unhealthy industrial centers. They arrived in Northern New Mexico seeking treatment in the salubrious high desert landscape, and particularly gravitated to Sunmount Sanatorium in Santa Fe. Among these artist-migrants were Carlos Vierra (1904); Gerald Cassidy and Ina Sizer Cassidy (1912); Sheldon Parsons (1913); Theodore Van Soelen (1916); Alice Corbin Henderson and William Penhallow Henderson (1916); and Will Shuster (1920). Each suffered from severe respiratory problems that they contracted in cities such as Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. Their concentration in Northern New Mexico marked the unique emergence of a cosmopolitan creative class in a region that had long been geographically and culturally isolated from the rest of the United States.
These peripatetic painters and poets perceived New Mexico in a strikingly different manner than the Anglos associated with the Santa Fe Ring. Rather than a landscape with natural resources to exploit, the high desert appeared to them as a stunning and unique example of wilderness that had already receded in other parts of the country. In addition, they did not view Hispanos and Pueblo people as poor and culturally retrograde, but rather as ascetics who placed community and spirituality over individual self-interest and materialism. The artists, as a result, came to believe these New Mexican communities maintained crucial values that Americans elsewhere had lost.
Capturing the inhabitants and environment of New Mexico and the ideals they represented became the major focus of the region’s burgeoning creative class. In the process, they envisioned themselves as performing a new, dynamic social role. Taos painter Walter Ufer expressed these sentiments in a 1916 El Palacio article when he described the wave of artists and writers as an “advanced guard of a new conquering host which is doing more than merely occupy the land, a host that is taking hold of the imagination of men and creating in them a new and nobler spirit.” Ufer and his colleagues chauvinistically believed that their purpose was to interpret, express, and spread the region’s unique cultural dynamics to a broader American audience.
The purpose of this artistic project was twofold. First, the artists hoped to inspire Americans in other parts of the country to adopt elements of Pueblo and Hispano ways of life as an alternative to the prevailing industrial lifestyle. Second, they hoped to change the nature of the arts within the United States. They believed New Mexico offered them an aesthetic foundation that would liberate them from European cultural hegemony and establish a uniquely American form of art. The artists sought to refashion New Mexico into a haven of the avant-garde, and in the process portray the region as an alternative to the political, economic, and cultural norms in the core of the United States.
With the Pueblo aesthetically and ideologically vital to their own work, the artists emerged as vociferous opponents to assimilationist policies in the years leading up to the Bursum Bill. They refuted the slanderous accusations against Pueblo ceremonies, and helped organize and publicize Pueblo dances in 1917 and 1918 to raise money for the Red Cross. In 1919, Marsden Hartley wrote about the dances in El Palacio and noted, “The Pueblos patriotically offered their services for the Red Cross and gave … certainly one of the most beautiful spectacles, brief though it was, which I have ever witnessed.” Such accounts recast Pueblo ceremonial dances as positive and significant acts that contributed to a broader shared community within New Mexico and the United States.
The pro-Pueblo activities of New Mexico’s creative class angered government officials, who began to label them as “anti-American, and subversive” as well as “agents of Moscow.” Thus, contrasting visions of culture and its connections with local politics and the economy had created battlelines within the state at the time of the Bursum Bill’s introduction.
Despite the growing tensions within New Mexico, word about the Bursum Bill took months to reach the state. The proposed legislation languished in Congress, as it passed through a series of Senate subcommittees and underwent multiple redrafts. Nevertheless, Senator Bursum and Interior Secretary Fall skillfully managed to keep the matter out of the press. They also began to drum up support for the bill among other Republicans by promising that its passage would guarantee New Mexico’s support for the Republican Party in the next presidential election. Through these closed-door machinations, Bursum succeeded in scheduling the bill to be brought to the Senate floor in September 1922 without a public hearing. The bill thus appeared poised for passage into law.
Despite Bursum’s best efforts to keep the legislation under wraps, news of the Bursum Bill finally began to reach New Mexico that summer thanks to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC). Members of the philanthropic organization had recently begun organizing to support Indian rights, and caught wind of the legislation from their Washington lobbying circles. They dispatched sociologist and community organizer John Collier to notify the Pueblo, who were caught completely by surprise. Pueblo leaders initially reached out to Fall and Burke to ask why they had been neither informed of the bill’s existence nor consulted about its provisions. Fall’s and Burke’s offices in the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs, however, sent contemptuous statements in return. Pueblo leaders also met with a government attorney in Albuquerque, who dismissed them as “ungrateful” and “no good.” Collier and a small group of Pueblo representatives then traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet directly with Bursum and negotiate an alternative bill. The New Mexican senator replied that it was too late to revise the legislation. At this point, Pueblo leaders recognized that the governing institutions charged with protecting their welfare were instead colluding against them.
In response, Pueblo governors organized an emergency meeting of the All Pueblo Council (APC) in November 1922 at Santo Domingo Pueblo (Kewa Pueblo). The convention comprised 121 delegates from twenty Pueblos under the direction of the meeting’s chair, Charlie Kie of Laguna Pueblo. Participants determined that the best means to resist the Bursum Bill was to launch a public relations campaign. They crafted a public statement declaring that the bill “will deprive us of our happy life by taking away our lands and water and will destroy our pueblo governments and customs.” They appealed to the public for “fair play and justice and the preservation of our pueblo life.” With the federal government turned against them, the Pueblo hoped that the American people might come to their aid.
The APC selected a group of delegates that embarked on a cross-country diplomatic tour in January 1923 to rally the public to lobby Congress against the Bursum Bill. Its members traveled to Chicago, where they met with the Chicago Indian Rights Association, and then to New York, where they danced outside the New York Stock Exchange. In Washington, they met with members of Congress and gave testimony before the Senate Committee on Public Lands and Surveys. Isador Abeita, a delegate from Isleta Pueblo, bluntly told the U.S. senators, “We were civilized and lived as such until you came in to disrupt and corrupt our method of civilization.” Such testimony made clear that the Bursum Bill was not designed to help the Pueblo, but rather to strip them of their land and culture.
New Mexico’s artists, in turn, perceived the attack on the key subjects of their work as an attack on themselves, and they rallied to the Pueblo people’s defense. Beginning in the latter half of 1922, they established a series of organizations aimed at championing Native American rights and culture. They organized the New Mexican Association on American Indian Affairs as well as its sister organization, the New York-based Eastern Association on American Indian Affairs. They also assisted John Collier in establishing his American Indian Defense Association the following year. These organizations, which eventually merged to form the basis of today’s Association on American Indian Affairs, launched a nationwide campaign lobbying against the Bursum Bill and the BIA’s assault on Indigenous culture. In addition, the artists established the Indian Arts Fund (1922) and the inaugural Indian Market (1922) to showcase Indigenous artists and promote Native American culture. The artists sought to wield art as a political weapon.
Under the leadership of poet Alice Corbin Henderson, who became head of the publicity committee of the New Mexico Association of Indian Affairs, the artists launched a public relations campaign on behalf of the Pueblo people. Their activities included Mary Austin’s cross-country speaking tour and articles and opinion pieces by other writers and artists in major newspapers and magazines. Elizabeth Sergeant wrote articles for Harper’s and The Nation, Witter Bynner for Outlook, John Sloan for Arts and Decoration, Alida Malkus for The New York Times, Natalie Curtis for The Freeman, and Corbin for The New Republic, The Christian Science Monitor, and Theater Arts Magazine, among others.
The artists’ public argument was twofold. First, they argued that the Pueblo embodied spiritual authenticity that other Americans desperately needed. Corbin expressed such sentiments when she described the plight of the Pueblo in Theater Arts Magazine as “the cause of every American artist, the cause of art itself, as against the materialistic tendency of the age and its lack of vision.” She contended that through their ceremonies, “we could regain some of this older unity, this essential faith.” She and her colleagues argued that the Bursum Bill threatened not only to destroy the Pueblo, but also to damage a unique and significant element of U.S. culture.
Second, the artists cast the Pueblo as the center of New Mexico’s burgeoning tourist industry. In a January 1923 speech to the members of the National Popular Government League, Mary Austin described the Pueblo people’s “value to the average American … as a diversion, as a spectacle, as a form of entertainment, peculiarly our own, not too easily accessible to make them common, but just far enough removed to make seeing them one of the few remaining great American adventures.” Austin portrayed the Pueblo as a valuable economic asset and a potentially pivotal source of amusement for other Americans.
The campaign notably unfolded during an era when xenophobia and racism were at their zenith within the United States. The Second Ku Klux Klan had as many as three to six million members nationwide at the time, and was in the midst of a racial terror campaign that led to the lynching of nearly 4,000 African Americans. At the same time, nativism had become so popular that the federal government subsequently enacted the Immigration Act of 1924, which reduced the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country by eighty percent.
Remarkably, the Pueblos’ and the artists’ public relations campaigns succeeded in rallying the public against the Bursum Bill. The American public began to flood their Congressional representatives with telegrams and letters in support of the Pueblo. The backers of the Bursum Bill, in contrast, were used to wielding power discreetly and unprepared to fight in the court of public opinion. The bill, furthermore, lost one of its principal supporters as Fall became increasingly embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal (for which Fall was later sent to prison, accused of accepting bribes from oil companies). By the start of 1923, support for the Bursum Bill in Congress began to collapse, forcing the politically weakened Bursum to negotiate with the pro-Pueblo lobby and make major concessions. The outcome of these negotiations was the Pueblo Lands Board Act, which passed into law in June 1924. The bill not only upheld the Pueblo’s communal land titles, but also prioritized Pueblo claims in land disputes. The legislation barred non-Indians from gaining legal title on reservation land, provided those occupying reservation land with compensation, and evicted them from what was now undisputed Indian land. Pueblo rights, as result, ended up expanded and reinforced.
The defeat of the Bursum Bill had a sweeping impact across the country. The public relations campaigns had, according to The Santa Fe New Mexican, “roused the sentiment of the nation” and shifted public opinion against the government’s assimilationist policy. The BIA subsequently retreated from its efforts to curtail Indian dancing. The success of the campaigns also helped pave the way for Collier’s appointment as head of the BIA in 1933, where he oversaw the passage of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. This “Indian New Deal” put a stop to land allotment, permitted the organization of tribal governments, and allowed Native tribes to incorporate and partially consolidate their lands. The defeat of the Bursum Bill marked the terminal decline of assimilation policy and helped spark a gradual shift toward greater Indigenous autonomy. The All Pueblo Council emerged as a formal political body representing the interests of the Pueblo at the national level.
The defeat of the Bursum Bill also hastened a fundamental shift in the political and economic dynamics of New Mexico. As part of their campaign on behalf of the Pueblo, the artists touted tourism as a new economic foundation for the state. They highlighted the Pueblo as an attraction for large numbers of tourists, who stayed in local hotels, ate in local restaurants, purchased Native American handicrafts in local stores, and bought artwork from local artists. Furthermore, the artists’ lobbying doubled as an advertising campaign for the region. In 1923, The Santa Fe New Mexican noted that the movement against the Bursum Bill “has done Santa Fe a great service by advertising the unique historic, science, and the ethnological attractions of this region.” As a result, the majority of New Mexicans began to embrace tourism as a vital element of the state’s economy. This new, primarily urban-based coalition subsequently displaced the old political guard, which was based on rural industries such as ranching, mining, and farming.
The fight over the Bursum Bill, however, created new divisions within New Mexico. Artists consciously chose to support the interests of the Pueblo over the thousands of poor Hispanos who also lived on the contested Pueblo land. In one of her speeches against the bill, Austin recognized that “many of [these Hispano farmers] are as innocently victims of the situation as the Indians themselves, a circumstance which the Indians readily admit.” Nevertheless, the artists accepted the disenfranchisement of these Hispano communities as the price to pay to protect the Pueblo. This decision reflected their artistic sentiments and material interests. Hispanos were never as popular subjects as Indians in their work, in large part because, for the artists, they lacked the mystical appeal of the region’s “original” inhabitants. In addition, Hispano communities were not as popular tourist attractions as their Pueblo counterparts, and thus, in the eyes of artists, lacked similar economic and cultural importance.
The defeat of the Bursum Bill marked a double defeat for Hispanos. Not only did thousands of Hispanos lose their land, but the fallout from the bill’s failure relegated their culture to the bottom of New Mexico’s burgeoning tricultural hierarchy.
In the wake of the Bursum Bill’s defeat, New Mexico emerged as the notable cultural center it remains today. The number of tourists coming to New Mexico during the remainder of the 1920s skyrocketed, with as many as one hundred thousand people visiting Santa Fe each summer. In 1927 alone, the number of tourists increased by 169 percent, and occupancy at La Fonda Hotel increased threefold. They came to visit the surrounding cliff dwellings, mission ruins, pueblos, Hispano villages, local museums, and artist studios. The region’s rising tricultural identity became a major engine of the state’s economy.
During this period of flux, the artists assumed a privileged position as the arbiters of local culture. Through the Indian Arts Fund and Indian Market, they not only promoted Indigenous arts and crafts, but also took on the role of middlemen between Indigenous artists and tourists. The lines between advocacy and self-interest, as a result, further merged. The artists’ treatment of New Mexico’s Native population increasingly appeared tawdry and exploitative. Erna Fergusson wrote of this period:
Witter Bynner bought and wore and hung on his friends a famous collection of Indian jewelry. Alice Corbin introduced the velvet Navajo blouse. Stetson hats, cowboy boots, flannel shirts, and even blankets were the approved costume. Everybody had a pet pueblo, a pet Indian, a pet craft. Pet Indians with pottery, baskets, and weaving to sell were all seated by the corner fireplace (copied from the pueblo), plied with tobacco and coffee, asked to sing and tell tales.
In this portrayal, the artists appropriated their relationships with Indigenous people and used Indigenous objects and iconography to enhance their own individual mystique. Native American culture, once mainly a source of ideological inspiration, increasingly became a mere fad for them to enjoy superficially. At the same time, Native American arts and crafts began to reflect the demands of white consumers rather than authentic representations of their culture. Instead of harnessing the region’s character to heal the soul of the nation, the artists had instead made it commercially palatable for the nation to consume.
While Hispano arts never generated the same level of national interest as Native American arts, the artists became similarly active in promoting and marketing Hispano arts and crafts. In 1926, they established a yearly festival in Santa Fe for Hispano artists, woodcarvers, and weavers, which eventually became Spanish Market. In 1929, Anglo artists organized the Spanish Colonial Arts Society (SCAS) to codify, preserve, and promulgate Hispano arts and culture. The development of Spanish Market and SCAS thus mirrored their treatment of Native American artists. They promoted Hispano culture while also anointing themselves as its arbiters.
There were, however, key differences between the treatment of Hispano and Native American arts and crafts. Whereas members of the creative class promoted Native American culture as an alternative to contemporary society, their notion of Hispano products was based on a mythologized Spanish Colonial period that relegated Hispano culture to the past. The artists encouraged visitors to New Mexico to experience contemporary Native American culture, to engage with the community, and to appreciate the vibrancy of their current way of life. In contrast, they insinuated that the attraction of Hispano culture lay only in its Spanish Colonial past. This stance implied its present was not worthy of attention or promotion. As a result, the market for Spanish Colonial goods highlighted the culturally subordinate status of contemporary Hispanos within New Mexico.
The defeat of the Bursum Bill ended the predatory practices of the Santa Fe Ring, but created new disparities within New Mexico. Artists positioned themselves as cultural brokers with power and authority over New Mexico’s Hispano and Native American peoples. Under the guidance of the artists, elements of Hispano and Indian cultures became commoditized to meet the demands of their white patrons and tourists. As a result of this process, a new cultural hierarchy developed with Anglos at the top as gatekeepers and Hispanos devalued due to their lack of commercial appeal among tourists and art collectors.
The promotion of a tricultural identity fashioned new economic and racial inequalities within New Mexico. The fight over the Bursum Bill hastened and entrenched mythologized Anglo views of Native American and Hispano culture while ostensibly protecting and promoting them. The contradictory nature of these activities lies at the heart of New Mexico’s emergence as a cultural center and continues to define the region today.
Oliver Horn, PhD, is the co-founder of Sunmount Consulting, a historical consulting company in Santa Fe, and is a research associate professor at the University of New Mexico’s Latin American and Iberian Institute. He received his PhD in history from Georgetown University.