How five Bryn Mawrters changed common perceptions of culture, art and Native America


Historically, the American Southwest attracts people escaping other regions of the country, especially those associated with commerce and industry. It is seen as tolerant of individuality, tending to accept freedom from convention in terms of gender, sexuality and spirituality.

Northern New Mexico was so even 80-odd years ago, when five Bryn Mawr graduates moved to Santa Fe in search of alternatives to European-derived concepts of culture, widely popularizing Native American art in the process. Margretta Stewart Dietrich, Elizabeth Sheply Sergeant and Martha White, all from the Class of 1903, Elizabeth White '01, Martha's older sister, and Gertrude Ely, 1899, made an enormous difference in the marketing, collecting, appreciation and connoisseurship of Native American art, while aiding Pueblo communities in their struggles to maintain legal rights to land and water.

How the Bryn Mawr quintet helped reverse the exploitation of Native Americans and their art is the subject of the book, Culture in the Marketplace: Gender, Art and Value in the American Southwest, by Molly H. Mullin, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Albion College (Duke University Press, 2001). Culture in the Marketplace, noted in the Books section of the fall 2001 Bulletin, traces the history of a network of highly educated middle and upper class white women, among them Willa Cather, Mary Austin and the Bryn Mawrters, in order to reveal the social construction of value through the patronage of Native American art in New Mexico throughout the 20th century. The book recounts the evolution of Indian art markets-where Indians sold their wares to white tourists and collectors-crediting the women with the "tournament" model of creating value. That is, prizes were given to the best work after very serious judging. These prizes became important marketing tools because they justified steeper selling prices.

Most of the Bryn Mawrters could have led lives of idle pleasure. The White sisters inherited a fortune made in newspapers. Dietrich was the widow of a banker, governor and U.S. Senator (the father of Gertrude Dietrich Thompson '03). Ely was the daughter of the vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Only Sergeant, in contrast, struggled to support herself as a journalist, receiving financial assistance from her sister Katharine Sergeant White '14, editor of fiction at The New Yorker (and spouse of E.B. White).

But the usual philanthropic work of "ladies" held little appeal for them, nor the accumulation of European antiques. They sought a new scene, one where they could do good as well as discover, collect and create value where little existed before. In promoting Native American arts and welfare, the women saw themselves as championing new ways of thinking about culture and the continent's native inhabitants.

Mullin does not portray the Bryn Mawrters as heroic or even especially virtuous. Nonetheless their actions and attitudes, she says, should be understood in relation to an ugly history of colonialism and class privilege. "My intention," she writes, "is not to reduce their patronage of Native art to a struggle to improve their own status; their philanthropic and political concerns were sincere, and taste … was not just a tool to gain status and influence, but was an important means by which these women invented and reinvented their identities as well as their relationships with one another."

When Mullin first heard about the Bryn Mawrters in Santa Fe, she was surprised by how they were remembered locally, "often chuckled about as 'spinsters' and as 'eccentrics.' " While many of the women were indeed single and regarded as eccentrics even among their peers, says Mullin, "they were remembered more for these things than, for example, for being college graduates at a time when that was most unusual, and suffragists. And when people talked about the history of local institutions like Indian Market and the Indian Arts Fund, they tended to ignore the very powerful role that women played in developing those institutions. I wanted to understand that influence in the context of the early 20th century, its legacy in the present, and what motivated them."

Wanting to serve
To the Bryn Mawrters, one important motivator was the ethic of public service. Many turn-of-the-century women's colleges encouraged a sense of mission among their graduates. While researching the book, Mullin suspected that, historically and currently, this was especially true at Bryn Mawr; friend and fellow anthropologist Anjantha Subramanian '90 confirmed Mullin's hunches. Mullin's own undergraduate years at Wellesley—whose motto is Non Ministrari, sed Ministrare—were similarly grounded.

"M. Carey Thomas and her students were determined to demonstrate their usefulness," writes Mullin. Elizabeth Sergeant specifically acknowledged Thomas as having shaped her political commitments as a Bryn Mawrter, a woman, according to Mullin, "selflessly and idealistically devoted to improving the welfare of others." One of Sergeant's articles for McClure's magazine condemned the exploitation of Eastern European immigrants as they produced, in crowded tenement houses, such items as artificial flowers, cigarette wrappers and wigs. "A Bryn Mawrter raised by M. Carey Thomas must try to right these terrible social wrongs," Sergeant wrote, "which blistered and festered under the shiny urban surface of Manhattan Island."

Margretta Dietrich, too, conceived helping others as a civic duty. She had been a staunch advocate of the suffragist movement in Nebraska. In patronizing Indian art, Dietrich promoted what struck her as a natural and wholesome way of life, a hearty, rural domesticity to be envied and preserved. Consider this excerpt from Dietrich's Nebraska Recollections (1957):

I thought my 'promoting days' were over when I came to New Mexico, unless during the early days it could be called promoting to help toward keeping Indians as little demoralized as possible by their contacts with the white man, and to give the poor ignorant white man (of whom I was then one) some appreciation of the value of Indian culture and art. …

In the 1920s and '30s, New Mexico was a good place for a feminist to live, for in the states where Spanish common law prevailed, the wife had joint property rights with her husband. The woman did not need to lose her name when she married. … Descent among the Indians was then and still is in the female line. In the early days the husband came to live with the wife. The house and all that was in it was hers. She could, but seldom did, divorce her husband at will by the simple method of putting his extra moccasins and few belongings outside the door.

The Indian woman led a healthy, busy life. She helped in the fields, plastered the house inside and out, kept the floors in order with fresh mud and goat's blood. She made the clothes, all but the boots and moccasins-did the cooking and, of course, bore innumerable children. But with all this she found time to dance and grind the corn ceremonially, to winnow the beans and wheat in a basket held over her head, to wash the wheat as she stood barelegged in the stream.

She also made beautiful pottery and did accurate, handsome embroidery. One of the best Indian painters in those days was a woman, Tonita Peña, of Cochiti. In the midst of many babies only a year apart, she made exquisite watercolors of Indian ceremonials, pure in color, fine in composition and detail, full of rhythm and movement. Tonita once said, 'The boys wonder at me because I am a woman, that I can paint these pictures better than they can.'

… We have since done what we could through example, even through schools and missions, to spoil the beautiful life of the Indian Pueblo which they preserved through countless centuries.We have taught the Indian the arts of competitive commercialism and that the measure of success is the dollar. Many have adopted the deforming leather shoe, the ugly hat, the coat trimmed with shoddy fur in place of the colorful shawl and moccasin.

Dietrich first came to New Mexico in 1921 and immediately became involved with the Indian art markets. She published a series of articles on Native American arts and crafts in the New Mexico Magazine, later reprinting them as leaflets for libraries and art galleries "in the hope," she wrote, "of educating the buying public to a high standard of Indian art." Her memoir, New Mexico Recollections: Part I, proudly details the impact the markets had on the status of Native American art. When the markets first began, tall black storage jars sold for $15. By the 1950s, they sold for $75 to $100 a piece.

At her first Indian art market, a storm blew down the tents and flooded the campground, forcing artisans to move into the local armory. On a mission to restore their spirits, Martha White sought ice cream and "went to every restaurant and drug store in town and bought them out," wrote Dietrich, "but there wasn't enough ice cream in Santa Fe to fill them up. We thought they would be exhausted and out of humor, but not at all-they cleared the middle of the floor and danced the night through for their own pleasure."

Dietrich also describes the development of the painting department of the Santa Fe Indian School. In the early part of the 1900s, the U. S. government had forbidden the teaching of Native American arts and crafts. "It was the duty of the school to 'civilize' the Indians," wrote Dietrich, "and their native handicrafts were not [considered] 'civilized.' " But at Dietrich's urging, Herbert Hoover created a post for a teacher of fine and applied arts at the school, and by the 1930s it was flourishing. Native students painted murals of Indian daily life in the dining room of the school using traditional techniques. Pots in the paintings were left blank, and potters from the pueblos came to the school and filled them in with their own designs.

Eventually students' paintings sold for $2,000 a piece. "In spite of this evidence of success," Dietrich wrote, "the Education Department of the Indian Service disapproved of the teaching methods; they wanted realism, perspective and shadows, less (if any) of the symbolic, and they thought the students should work from models. In short, they wanted the Indians to paint not as Indians but in a mongrel European manner."

Nonetheless, public interest in Indian painting increased. An exhibition of 100 student paintings was shown at the National Art Gallery in Washington in 1953, then at the Art Institute of Chicago, and later toured Europe.

Additionally, Dietrich was instrumental in establishing The Indian Club in Santa Fe in 1938, a "clubhouse to provide a meeting place in pleasant surroundings" for the native artisans who opened their own studios in the city. During World War II The Indian Club was used by recruiting services and the draft board. A monthly newsletter, "Smoke Signals," was sent to club members in various branches of the armed services and to their friends. The club remained in operation until 1952, "when it was thought that Indians were sufficiently integrated into the community and were earning enough to share in the general activities of the city," according to Dietrich.

The White sisters settled in Santa Fe in 1923. They had taken a cross-country road trip and stopped there to purchase a hillside property which they called El Delirio. Before her death in 1972 Elizabeth White would bequeath El Delirio to the School of American Research. The SAR is now a center for advanced studies in anthropology, the humanities and Native American art.

Elizabeth Sergeant founded the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs to protect Indian land rights and religious freedom, as well as to improve health and economic conditions among nearby Indians. It is known today as the Southwestern Association on Indian Arts. Gertrude Ely also was politically active in the community. After working with the YMCA in France during World War I and being twice decorated with the Croix de Guerre for "distinguished bravery under fire," she with Sergeant purchased a crumbling adobe in the Hispanic village of Tesuque near Santa Fe and renovated it.

Making value
The adobe exemplifies the Bryn Mawrters' notion that value could be found in unexpected places by those with the eye to discern it. To see value where many others did not represented a powerful affirmation of individuality and freedom from convention. In this way Dietrich and the Whites, who had inherited enough money to live as "professional philanthropists," approached the activity of shopping as a matter of public consequence. Shopping, according to Mullin, allowed the women to make a new home for themselves in New Mexico as well as advance their adopted causes.

Besides using Indian art as part of an effort to transcend their own domestication, the Whites bred and kept kennels of Irish wolfhounds. Mullin draws similarities between their art patronage and their dogs-similarities of both method and ideological justification. In both cases there was an emphasis on purchasing as an influential act of evaluation, on the power of display and exhibiting highly valued specimens for actual and potential consumers, and on educating consumers about standards to be determined and maintained by experts.

Both art and dogs can be commodities over which people attempt to exert control over boundaries, meanings, value and reproduction. "Art, animals, places-," Mullin writes, "the more distinct their identities, the easier to say, 'I want one of those, or some of that,' the easier to use as a means of distinction, a means of performing identities, as an exercise of taste and judgment. ... Both art patronage and dog breeding merged personal pleasure with public influence." To the Whites, dogs were a project, one that like Indian art and anthropology promised connection to imagined pasts and a way of shaping the future.

A general love of animals prompted Elizabeth to establish the Santa Fe Animal Shelter in memory of Martha, who died in 1937. (Mullin herself has adopted two cats from the shelter.)

Pageantry, too-a taste for which the women had acquired at Bryn Mawr through May Day and other traditions-aided in the women's conveyance of a positive and fashionable impression in New Mexico, thereby gaining legitimacy for their politics. "The Bryn Mawrters applied their theatrical skills," writes Mullin, "to the movement to protect Indian land rights, and to promote a rather colonial version of cultural pluralism, including the development of markets in Native and Spanish Colonial art."

Cultural pluralism included the ideal of religious freedom, according to Mullin. While from Protestant families, the Bryn Mawrters embraced an individualist approach to religion, considering it a matter of spiritual fulfillment, self-actualization and romantic mystery-things that could in a way be "shopped for," writes Mullin, and consumed through sacred objects. Thus attending Catholic Masses at the Cathedral in Santa Fe and Navajo dances and ceremonies allowed them to express their own taste.

And all the while, amidst the Indian markets, the shopping, dog breeding, and social welfare organizing, the Whites filled El Delirio with vast collections of Indian art. Now the School of American Research, its archive is an important resource for contemporary Indian artists seeking to construct their own stylistic identity.

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