How Native American Artists Are Getting the Market Boost They Need

  • Photo by Max McDonald. Courtesy of We Are The Seeds.

    Photo by Max McDonald. Courtesy of We Are The Seeds.

Check anyone’s Instagram feed from Coachella this year (or last, or the year before) and you’re likely to see feathers, beads, and moccasins. Urban Outfitters sold Navajo Hipster Panties. And the Santa Fe Indian Market (SWAIA) drew more than 175,000 people since 2014, who collectively spent $140 million, up from $100 million in 2007, according to Nocona Burgess, current SWAIA artist and former board member.

Clearly, there’s a demand for the Native American aesthetic—so why do so many Native Artists have trouble connecting with the market?

The answer is complex. Native Americans have experienced a long history of dispossession and marginalization from the earliest days of the American settler project. But a number of nonprofits working across the Midwest and the Northeast are working to help Native American artists connect with the growing market for their work, helping alleviate poverty and support their craft and artistic traditions.

They have a steep road ahead: In 2014, 28.3 percent of all single-race Native Americans were living in poverty, the highest rate of any race group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The average income for a Native American household was around $37,000 in 2014, 30% below the national average of $53,000.

  • Photo by Max McDonald. Courtesy of We Are The Seeds.

    Photo by Max McDonald. Courtesy of We Are The Seeds.

  • Photo by Max McDonald. Courtesy of We Are The Seeds.

    Photo by Max McDonald. Courtesy of We Are The Seeds.

First Peoples Fund, a Rapid City, South Dakota-based nonprofit fellowship program, first identified the arts as an “economic engine” for Native communities in 2013, when the fund conducted a market study on working conditions of Native Americans on reservations across the country. It found geographic isolation and lack of business training were key obstacles for Native American artists and artisans hoping to make a viable living from their work.

For example, Damian Charette, a Crow and Turtle Mountain Chippewa printmaker, never learned about the business side of being an artist. Through Xico, a non-profit multidisciplinary arts organization that specifically aids Chicano and Native American artists out of Arizona, Charette was able to diversify his skill set to expand his work into arts management. He sells his own prints, but brings in additional income selling the work of other artists through Tortuga Press and Studio, a small print studio based out of Mesa, Arizona, that also does printmaking classes.

“Twenty years ago, [art] was my only source of income. Now, I have diversified my skills,” he said.

Finding outside economic opportunity and jobs can itself be a challenge for Native Americans, which is one reason why entrepreneurship holds such promise, if it can scale. First Peoples Fund found, for example, that 80 percent of the people on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation for Oglala Lakota Native Americans are unemployed. But of the 20 percent who are working, more than half are self-employed in household enterprises, the overwhelming majority of which are traditional art enterprises, according to First Peoples Fund.

  • Photo by Tailinh Agoyo. Courtesy of We Are The Seeds.

    Photo by Tailinh Agoyo. Courtesy of We Are The Seeds.

To help artists access distribution channels outside of the reservation, First Peoples Fund launched the Rolling Rez mobile art unit, a traveling art space, business education center, and mobile bank. It offers classes, workshops, and training to help artists get their work seen and sold outside of the reservation, including at the Santa Fe Indian Art Market, described by Rolling Rez’s director Bryan Parker as “the Oscars or Super Bowl of Indian art markets.”

Parker said one weekend at the art fair can generate a year’s worth of sales for some artists, and provide additional opportunities such as encounters with curators and museum staff, gallery owners, and collectors. Rolling Rez helps to get artists to the actual event, and manage expenses for the entry fee, which ranges from $400 to $700 depending on how the size of the booth.

Artists can “go there unknown and leave with a lot of opportunities that will pay off down the line,” Parker said.

One foundational part of helping Native American artists expand their markets is educating consumers and gatekeepers about what they’re seeing or buying. Ahead of this year’s Santa Fe Indian Market, the new female-run, Philadelphia-based nonprofit We Are the Seeds has been holding small-scale fine and contemporary art events and workshops in areas throughout the U.S. with a high Native American population, to educate non-Native Americans about the breadth and depth of Native American artistic and craft practices, such as a female-run open mic in Santa Fe that highlighted the oral tradition of different tribes.

  • Sally Black, Basket Weaving. Courtesy of the artist and We Are The Seeds.

    Sally Black, Basket Weaving. Courtesy of the artist and We Are The Seeds.

  • Sally Black, Basket Weaving. Courtesy of the artist and We Are The Seeds.

    Sally Black, Basket Weaving. Courtesy of the artist and We Are The Seeds.

Co-founder Tailinh Agoyo, a former marketing director of the Santa Fe market, said this education is key to developing connoisseurs who can appreciate the broad range and skill of Native American artists. Although the market for Native American crafts and aesthetics is strong, many consumers don’t know the difference between, say, a Forever 21 beaded bracelet and a work that reflects true artisanship, Agoyo said.

“[People buy things that are] interpreted as being Indigenous, or Indigenous-inspired, but they don’t really have any context,” she said. Artists at the Santa Fe Indian Market “have been handed down knowledge for generations, [and] are doing world-class art, but you’ll meet them and ask them how much something is and, ‘Well, you know what, that’s ten thousand dollars.” And [the buyer] could just be like, ‘Well, I saw a knockoff at the mall.’”

For its first large-scale event, We Are the Seeds is curating a group exhibition of the works of a hundred Native American artists of varying levels of experience at the Santa Fe Indian Market on August 17th, to help buyers find something within their budget and gain a deeper appreciation for Native American artists and the full range of their practices, which go from heritage crafts to contemporary work.

  • Santa Fe Indian Art Market, 2010. Photo by Marshall Segal, via Flickr.

    Santa Fe Indian Art Market, 2010. Photo by Marshall Segal, via Flickr.

And that may be the next frontier: Expanding the definition of Native American art to include contemporary practitioners such as Nicholas Galanin, a Tlingit/Aleut artist and recipient of the 2014 Rasmuson Foundation Fellowship and United States Arts Fellowship.  

His 2012 exhibition at Vancouver’s Trench Gallery, cheekily titled “I Looooove Your Culture!,” breaks down the Native American elements stolen and repurposed in mainstream American culture, such as Princess Leia’s famous buns, or animal furs used in domestic spaces.

“Our work has served purpose in our communities for generations, [but] these cultural objects have been stolen and placed into Western institutions in forms of fetish,” Galanin said.

Parker agreed that the burden rests on non-Native American consumers and art aficionados to continue their education, both about the ways that Native American artist practices are evolving and to understand how Native American traditions have impacted broader American culture.

“In my humble opinion, I feel that non-Natives only think of Native art as tipis, feathers, turquoise, and beads,” said Parker. “I believe it is the non-Native people who need to see the full potential of the Native artists.”


—Annie Armstrong