A QUESTION OF INDIAN CRAFTS
Articles by Marc Simmons
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Read Marc Simmons's
"Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism
on the Rio Grande" (University of Nebraska Press).
Articles by Marc Simmons