Buy Native: Indian Arts & Crafts

Photo by G. Ballard, pub. at

Photo by G. Ballard, pub. at

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (the Act) “helps ensure that buyers of Indian arts and crafts products get what they pay for” and makes it illegal to misrepresent that a product is made by an Indian if it is not.

In advertising, marketing, or selling a product, it is a violation of the Act to state or even imply that the product is made by an Indian or is the product of a particular tribe if it is not. For example, describing a product as “Navajo jewelry” that is not made by a Navajo person is a violation of the Act.

If only Philadelphia-based retailer Urban Outfitters took notice of the Act before releasing their now common-sense lacking “Navajo” clothing line, which has resulted in the ongoing Urban Outfitters – Navajo Nation lawsuit. The most notable aspect of the lawsuit isn’t necessarily the case itself, but what it represents. The lawsuit signifies that under federal law, tribes and their individual members are protected from mass-produced commercial misappropriation.

Also, by taking action against Urban Outfitters, the Navajo Nation brought national attention to the significance of representation as well as the importance of authenticity. By buying Native American goods, a channel is opened between consumer and producer. It allows the consumer to understand that a particular design principle, material, or process is unique to the person or group of people from which it came. In this way, a product ceases to be marketed as “Indian,” and instead becomes recognized, for example, as a Lakota, Navajo, or Blackfeet product.

While the Indian Arts and Crafts Act is meant to protect both consumer and producer, the power is in the hands of the consumer who ultimately makes the decision to buy an authentic or mass-produced product. What is important for consumers to recognize is that the Act isn’t solely about authentic products. It is also about economic opportunity and self-enterprise for Native American tribes and individuals.

Photo pub. at

Photo pub. at

With the recent stream of “Native American” appropriated goods, Dr. Jessica Metcalfe’s “Beyond Buckskin” blog launched the Buy Native campaign to bring Native American produced goods to larger audiences. The campaign highlights Native American goods as part of the ever-expanding realm of do-it-yourself brands, as well as empowering local and regional small businesses. Equally important is that traditional arts and crafts makers are represented through Buy Native, and “new school” Native American goods are brought to the foreground.In addition, a host of young Native Americans are creating contemporary lines of t-shirts, handbags, sunglasses, shoes, jewelry, and body care products that reflect tradition and current tastes. It feels important to consider the unique difficulty which young Native American entrepreneurs and business owners face in getting market exposure, especially if they are operating on a reservation, outside of the mainstream, and often without broadband access.

Photo by Lorenzo Arviso, pub. at

Photo by Lorenzo Arviso, pub. at

Illuminating contemporary Native American arts and crafts can also help the mainstream realize that Native Americans have always been able to absorb and interpret the changing world around them in a way that is modern and yet remains culturally relevant.  In fact, contemporary Native American brands and enterprises confirm the energy and creativity within Native American communities to bring about positive change through self-determination.

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