Why Most ‘Native American’ Art Is Harmful to Indigenous Peoples – NBC4 Washington

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This story originally appeared on LX.com

Walk around a large clothing or homeware store in the United States and you’ll likely see something that looks like it’s Native American culture: patterned blankets or jackets, towels, t-shirts, or jewelry. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that much of it wasn’t created by native artists. In addition, to justify the profits they make from these products, many retailers use deceptive labels with words like “native-inspired”, tell half-truths about working closely with tribes, or claim to honor indigenous cultural traditions.

For independent Indigenous artists like Sarah Agaton Howes, who is Anishinaabe and renowned for her Ojibway designs, this level of competition between companies may seem limited. “For so long, the only loose Aboriginal art that was there was stolen geometric art,” she told NBCLX.

A new generation of Native American artists

Just a few years ago, Howes thought she would never sell her personalized quilts and moccasins except within her rural community of 20,000 and through tribal ties in the Midwest. Today, she is one of the most successful Aboriginal commercial artists in North America.

As more and more people become aware of cultural appropriation, the theft of the art world and other forms of racism against Native Americans, there is a nascent movement of Indigenous artists focused on entrepreneurship. and the design of their own future.

Artist Sarah Agaton Howes with one of her blankets. Photo by Nedahness Greene.

“I can build the type of business that I think is important, something that really aligns with… my own cultural values,” Howes said.

His business, Heart Berry, which sells blankets, earrings, t-shirts and more, has doubled year on year, making it one of the fastest growing lifestyle brands. fastest in Minnesota. She says running her business is familiar territory as a Native American.

“We’ve always been merchants, but somewhere along the line we’ve developed the line that we’re not business people,” Howes said. “We have always been creative, we have always adapted.

Native American art is spreading

To boost Howes and other Indigenous artists’ confidence as entrepreneurs, artist and Nooksack tribe member Louie Gong launched an initiative called Inspired Natives in 2014. As part of the art brand and Gong’s lifestyle, Eighth Generation, which he sold to the Snoqualmie tribe in Washington State in 2019., Inspired Natives helps Indigenous artists meet demand for their work, with the goal of making products made and designed by natives more popular than the so-called native-inspired alternatives.

“Outside assistance did not exist when I started [in 2007] for cultural artists who are trying to run their art like a business, ”Gong told NBCLX. (“Cultural artists” refers to Indigenous artists whose work is rooted in traditional art and storytelling.)

Inspired Natives’ strategy of providing commercial resources to Indigenous artists, who then produce work under the Eighth Generation brand, has seen great success in recent times. In the past 30 days, Eighth Generation’s sales are up 120% from the same month last year, and royalties paid to artists often exceed the median income in their states, according to Gong. Eight Generation’s products are also featured in this year’s Starbucks Christmas items, including a woolen blanket and ceramic tumbler.

The problem now is that other companies are trying to co-opt the model, and when non-natives collaborate with Indigenous artists, they tend to rely on stereotypes that portray Indigenous people as historical figures or symbols of nature or charity, Gong said.

“The model for these businesses that exploit indigenous communities is to partner with people who have no voice,” Gong said. “Indigenous artists are trying to reclaim history and create something for future generations.”

Fighting for the future of Native American art

Gong and Eighth Generation have also tried to pressure companies like Pendleton Woolen Mills, a Portland, Oregon-based textile company that has been criticized in the past for its famous Indigenous motives, to change their approach. Gong accused Pendleton, ruled by a white family for six generations, of exploiting Indigenous stories and aesthetics to cash in on “fake Indigenous art.”

In response, a spokesperson for Pendleton told NBCLX via email that it “partners with Native American designers each season to develop new designs and re-releases vintage models from the archives. For 2021, the Pendleton line features works by 12 artists who receive payment and recognition across all marketing media. for their designs. “

Responding to accusations of cultural appropriation, the spokesperson said: “Pendleton has been a proud supplier of blankets to the native community since 1909. The blankets and fabrics feature patterns that appeal to these early customers and reflect the colors and patterns. landscape patterns.


Eighth generation blankets on display outside Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Image courtesy of the Eighth Generation.

The takeover of their art by indigenous communities has also rocked the world of antique collectors, from auction houses to dealers, thieves and powerful museums, who have historically taken advantage of indigenous sacred objects.

“The tribes have and continue to have a lack of capacity to combat those merchants in auction houses who continue to auction stolen items,” said Shannon O’Loughlin, a Choctaw Nation citizen of the ‘Oklahoma and Executive Director of the Association on American Indian Affairs. , the oldest non-profit organization in the United States working within tribal communities to preserve cultural heritage.

The good news is a growing awareness of the abuses indigenous peoples have faced, as well as laws requiring that cultural objects be returned to indigenous descendants, which means that antique dealers are finding it difficult to sell art. ‘Native art, artifacts and clothing,’ O’Loughlin said. NBCLX.

Would you like to support Native American art? O’Loughlin advised skipping auction houses altogether and buying current Indigenous artists instead. This way you know that you are not accidentally buying a sacred object illegally and that your dollars are going to native-made, non-native-inspired artwork.


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