He was just a Jersey boy transplanted far from home so — fuhgeddboudit, pal — what did Steve Beiser know about the Southwest? Seriously, what could this kid possibly understand about Native American art? About the rich culture and spiritual practices of the Hopi and Navajo? Heck, had he ever even seen an Indian trading post, let alone worked at one?
This was 1968, an era of reinvention, and Beiser was an incoming freshman at Northern Arizona University, intent on following a pre-veterinary track. Flagstaff must have seemed a long way from his hometown of Dumont, N.J., across the river from Manhattan.
But a chance introduction to a Navajo family that ran a trading post out on Highway 89 changed Beiser’s life for the better — and changed his major, too. Goodbye, pre-vet studies. Hello, cultural anthropology. So long to the cultural cocoon of college life on campus. Yá'át'ééh to multi-cultural outreach and creative new ways of thinking and being.
“They put me to work,” Beiser recalled. “I got to meet so many native people. And, in New Jersey, you don’t get that opportunity. I learned so much, getting involved in the culture. It was a gift to be able to be accepted. I embraced that.”
For six years, Beiser apprenticed at that Highway 89 trading post, before setting out on his own in 1974 to open Puchteca Indian Goods, a gallery devoted to native art. Through good times and bad, the capricious public’s waxing and waning interest in Southwestern art, Beiser provided a space on San Francisco Street that gave native artists exposure and, equally important, provided culturally curious customers a lesson in a society often reduced to cliché or fetishized as exotic.
Now, nearing 69 and admittedly slowing down, Beiser is stepping away. At September’s end, he and wife Antoinette, will close the gallery and move on to other enriching cultural experiences as a world traveler in retirement.
Puchteca, alas, will not survive. Beiser tried to sell the gallery, said he put ads in Indian art newspapers and magazines. But no takers. Its closing, then, will be Flagstaff’s loss. Artists, of course, can sell their wares to galleries in Sedona or Santa Fe, hubs for collectors, but to many it won’t be the same.
“He has been a vital part of my life,” said noted Hopi silversmith Darren Seweyestewa. “Steve’s supported me, and I’ve supported him through a lot of hard times and good times. His is really the last Indian American jewelry shop down there. I used to sell to a lot of shops in Flag, but now they’re all gone.”
Seweyestewa’s more than 30-year association with Puchteca is a testament to Beiser’s commitment to promoting native art and exposing the public to artisan crafters flying under the art establishment’s radar.
He first met Beiser when he was 8 years old and walked through Puchteca’s doors to sell the Kachina dolls he made after school.
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“He bought them at 10 bucks apiece,” Seweyestewa said.
Decades later, grown and trying to forge a career as a silversmith, Seweyestewa brought his jewelry back to Beiser. They renewed their partnership (and friendship), and now the artist’s work sells for much, much more than “10 bucks.” Watching Seweyestewa’s career blossom has been gratifying to Beiser and, for his part, Seweyestewa is grateful.
“This is not an easy business,” Seweyestewa said. “You have to establish your name out there, and (Beiser) was one of the first to help me establish my name.”
And, in turn, Beiser’s reputation in the tight-knit world of native art blossomed. He’s made a steady living from Puchteca (an Aztec world signifying a trading society), but that’s not what he’ll most remember. It’s the spiritual aspect that most resonates.
“You cannot separate religion and art with them,” he said. “In our culture, you can live a certain way and do art in a total different way. But in native culture, it’s part of their belief. To be accepted into that and become part of families, that’s the hardest part for me about retiring, leaving all that behind. The friendship goes on, but the material is left behind.”
On his frequent trips to the reservation, Beiser was seen as a conduit to the white world, not an exploiter of native art. That’s because, he said, he took the time to build relationships with the artists. He fondly recalls many hearty and heartwarming meals with Navajo and Hopi families.
“Sitting down and eating with people breaks down many walls,” he said, adjusting the turquoise bracelet on his right wrist, then the Fitbit on his left wrist. “What’s important is that people embrace other people’s ways. They can learn a lot. We’ve all got something to teach. Every day I come in this store for over 40 years I learn about people walking through the door. But you’ve got to be open to it. A lot of people are afraid of it.”
Soon, Beiser won’t have that daily cultural nourishment. He looked around the store in the midst of a “retirement sale” — 20 percent of the merchandise already has been sold — and said he wishes his visitor had seen it “at its height.” Still, dolls and rugs, paints and jewelry, dot the walls and display cases. Beiser’s 12-year-old dog, Sugar, romps around behind the counter while Antoinette chats up a customer about Zuni rings.
“It’s a loss,” he conceded. “Sure. It’s hard. All the artists and (buyers) I’ve known will not be around. That part hurts. But so does my body.”
Pushing 70, Beiser wants to travel while he’s still up to it. He certainly knows the mind-broadening effects of traveling. Just look at what he gained coming to Flagstaff some 51 years ago.