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The Marketing of an Ancient Culture

Is it fair game for a person to trade on his/​her cultural traditions by selling them as art to outsiders? Does the label “art” ever depend on a person’s ethnicity?

A Native American dancer at last year’s marketplace (Photo by Danielle Klebanow)

Native American artists wrestle with these questions all the time. And they are worth examining as the Autry’s American Indian Arts Marketplace 2010, the largest showcase of Native American arts and crafts in Southern California, approaches on November 6 and 7.

Steven Karr, interim executive director of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, says Native Americans have been trading on their culture since at least the turn of the 20th Century, as a strategy for both physical and cultural survival.

“Artists in any culture are among the most astute people,” said Karr, a specialist in Native cultures of North America who has worked with these groups for a more than a decade. “They follow trends and they understand what people are looking for and respond to that. Indian artists were no different.”

Dine weaver Nanabah Aragon at her loom (Photo by Danielle Klebanow)
Steven Karr (Photo by Tessie Borden)

He drew examples with the trade in Indian baskets that developed in the early part of the century, and the trade in Hopi Katsina dolls that grew after World War II.

“As more whites became exposed to Hopi culture, there was this interest in the dolls themselves, in part because they were representative of elements of this cosmology, but also whites saw them in an aesthetic manner as well,” Karr said. “The more people collected them, I think very astutely the carvers within this community… said, ‘Well, I can make some money here.’ ”

Susan Secakuku, a curator who is working with the Autry on its upcoming exhibition Katsina in Hopi Life, said she received Katsina dolls as a girl, but their meaning was already dual.

“By the time I was born, they were already considered commercial pieces, art pieces,” said Secakuku, who is Hopi. “Katsina carvings as commercial pieces of art were created back in the thirties and twenties. So I was raised with both.”

Still, she said that, among the Hopi, opinions differ regarding the question of commercializing their culture.

“There are cultural values that are colliding, because traditionally these Katsina dolls were not

Susan Secakuku (Photo by Tessie Borden)

carved commercially or sold,” Secakuku said. “They were given in the context of a Katsina (spirit) giving it to you. They were gifts from the spiritual Katsina beings. Today you can get one in that way, as a Hopi girl, or you can go into a shop and buy one if you like. When you stop and think about it, those are some of the cultural issues that we ourselves, as Hopi people, created, and now we are trying to figure out how to live amongst that conflict.”

Karr and other scholars believe one major factor in the expansion of the Native American arts market was the growth of the U.S. highway system and the idea of automobile tourism.

A Native American artist at last year’s marketplace (Photo by Danielle Klebanow)

“It was with the advent of the automobile …, which for the first time really did enable people to go beyond the reach of the horse carriage, that people began to move into communities in California where basketry had been an artistic expression and a utilitarian necessity for centuries,” Karr said. “This is where we see increasing numbers of pieces that are what we would call ‘non-​traditional’ variations. They were making baskets that appealed directly to the aesthetic of whites.”

This burgeoning industry also gave women a measure of early economic independence, because they wove the baskets, rugs and blankets for which the tourists clamored, and what they earned often made them the main breadwinners of the household. Native American men at this time usually worked as ranch hands, labor that was intermittent and low-​paying at best.

As Hopi Katsina dolls, Diné (Navajo) rugs and Zuni jewelry have claimed a place for themselves in the arts market, another discussion has emerged: whether to work in the traditional style or try new materials, concepts or media.

“From the museum/​collector/​dealer perspective, there are two categories of contemporary American Indian art,” Karr said. “The traditional medium, and then the innovative.”

Karr said World War II was a major catalyst for Native Americans to leave reservations to work in the war effort, as it was for blacks, Latinos and other groups. It also, then, ushered in a new kind of artistic expression. Those who left the reservation didn’t

A jewelry artist uses traditional implements to pierce stone and shell at the 2009 Marketplace (Photo by Danielle Klebanow)

always return, so there were fewer young people who apprenticed the traditional crafts. And development affected the availability of traditional materials, such as certain grasses used by basket weavers.

In addition, new environments caused these urban Indians to seek new ways of expressing the reality they were experiencing.

But those breakthroughs, have not always been well received by gallery owners and dealers, even now that the trade in Native American art has matured and become more sophisticated.

“If (Native Americans) choose to work in non-​traditional areas, it’s difficult for them to sell their work because a lot of times people assume that if they’re Indian they’re going to be doing ‘Indian’ art,” Karr said. “There are innumerable examples of artists bringing their work to various galleries in places like Santa Fe or Phoenix or Scottsdale and beyond … and the owners say, ‘Oh, it’s not Indian enough.’ ”

This article is filed under:

Autry Events · Behind-the-Scenes · Conversations

About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.