A QUESTION OF INDIAN CRAFTS

By Marc Simmons

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I read the other day about a man from Thailand who makes American Indian-style jewelry. He came to this country to sell his products, and honestly represented them as non-Indian-made. Not unexpectedly, he ran into all sorts of trouble.

For one, a leading craft periodical refused to publish his ads after Indian readers protested. And then the man attended an Indian-run powwow where he was not allowed to sell his wares with the other vendors. He observed, however, that only about 20 percent of the items being offered by certified Indian vendors was actually Indian-made.

Understandably, perhaps, this entrepreneurial visitor to our shores was perplexed. Believing himself in the land of the free market, he declared, "Your Indians think they are the only ones that can make this style of jewelry, even though they have no copyright or patent. That's called a monopoly, or protectionism."

To a degree, he is quite correct. But as is usually the case, there is more to it than that. With the steady rise in prices for authentic Indian goods, fraud and misrepresentation have become rampant, by non-Indians and even some Indians.

Applications of laws against fraud has provided some check on the problem, as has the willingness of the better craft shows to impose strict guidelines. Those include admitting only enrolled members of tribes and permitting vendors to sell only wares they themselves have made.

Still, lines have to be drawn, and Indians are eager to expand the boundaries in their direction and constrict them in the direction of others, for economic and sometimes cultural reasons. The process invites controversy.

Some years ago a friend of mine took a one-year job in the government hospital at Zuni Pueblo. Because the place was isolated, with little to do, he hired a local woman to teach him how to make and paint Zuni pottery. For him, it was strictly recreational.

He became so skilled at turning out perfect Zuni jars and bowls that the village potters feared he meant to steal their business. In fact, he gave away his pots to friends, but still many people in the pueblo would not speak to him.

The Indian monopoly of Indian crafts, as the Thai jewelry maker complained, is very real. Most people probably would acknowledge that a monopoly in this case is justified. Yet, since large sums of money can be involved, challenges by outsiders have become routine.

Part of the problem lies in determining just who is an outsider. Requirements on the percentage of native blood to qualify as an Indian will vary. At one show, an individual with one-eighth Cherokee blood was admitted to sell his "Indian crafts." Persons with as little as one-16th or one-32nd tribal blood have prospered by palming themselves off as Indian artists or craftsmen.

I happen to be one-quarter Norwegian, but it would be ridiculous for me to suddenly show up at a a Scandinavian  craft fair, representing myself as a Norwegian artist.

In reality, a thriving market already exists for Indian-style goods that can be sold at prices far below genuinely Indian-made items. In Wal-Mart, for instance, I recently saw a stack of Navajo-like blankets offered for sale. The label described them, accurately, as being made by Chichimeca Indians of Mexico.

Now, the Chichimecas have been extinct for a couple of hundred years. They were an assortment of warlike tribes in northern Mexico who regularly plundered Spanish caravans heading for El Paso and points north. Defeated, they were either exterminated or assimilated.

Nevertheless, today many people just below the border could claim, if they wish, to have a dollop of Chichimeca blood in their veins. When they turn to making textiles, imitating Navajo designs, their claims to Indianhood, as indicated on rug labels, are allowed. These imitation-Navajo rugs sell well in New Mexico because they are inexpensive and are relatively well made.

The genuine articles have long since been priced out of the reach of the average resident or tourist. And, too, the Chichimeca rugs can actually be put on the floor and walked on. The heirloom Navajos are simply too valuable for that anymore.

The Indians, no doubt, will continue to protest the "theft" of their arts and crafts by non-Indian competitors, as they have lately begun to condemn New Age medicine men who have been usurping native religious practices.

However, given the nature of today's opportunistic society, there seems little hope that the protests will have much effect in the long run.

For more on this subject, read The Turquoise Jungle by Richard McCord on Santa Fe Always Online. Amazon.com

Read Marc Simmons's "Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande" (University of Nebraska Press).

 

Other Articles by Marc Simmons

Mark Simmons Biography


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