Artistic Liberties: buy from inspired Indians, not Indian-inspired

Published: Jan. 4, 2022 at 4:36 PM CST
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA) - JhonDuane Goes In Center is a Native American artisan who handcrafts rings, necklaces and other jewelry.

Each piece he makes is one-of-a-kind. The agate stones he uses in his art come from the Black Hills and the Badlands.

“Finding the agates and creating something with it - that somebody meaningfully wears one of my jewelry pieces because they see the beauty in the agate,” Goes In Center says. “I get a kick out of it, too. We all do.”

The Lakota jeweler makes most of his goods on commission. He says it’s easier to make a few jewelry pieces at a time as opposed to a catalog of items, and focusing on a few customers tends to lead to a higher-quality product.

Goes In Center has been creating since he was a little kid, but his interests in jewelry, metalwork and engraving goes back to the 1970s.

JhonDuane Goes in Center, a Lakota jeweler, stops working to examine one of his unfinished...
JhonDuane Goes In Center, a Lakota jeweler, stops working to examine one of his unfinished pieces in his workshop at Racing Magpie in Rapid City, S.D. on Dec. 22, 2021. Goes in Center collects his own gemstones - like the fairburn agate he's holding - from the Black Hills and the Badlands and crafts what he finds into rings and necklaces.(Dominik Dausch)

As for why he creates, the artist says dollar signs aren’t what motivates him.

“I don’t really do it for money. I’m not rich. I’m not famous,” Goes In Center says. “This is my passion. This is what I really enjoy doing. It’s kind of [for] my sanity. I have a very eclectic, technical career. I worked at IBM, but ... in the background, I’ve always done artwork.”

However, arts and crafts are an important source of income for a considerable chunk of Native Americans in South Dakota.

Peter Strong, Director at Racing Magpie
Peter Strong, Director at Racing Magpie(Peter Strong)

Peter Strong, director of Racing Magpie, says some Indian artists rely on the sale of homemade arts and crafts - otherwise known as a cottage industry, or a small-scale manufacturing business - to provide for them and their families.

“There have been studies done in the last decade that 40 percent of households on the Pine Ridge Reservation make a majority of their income through handmade art, artifacts or sales, so this affects a huge number of people and families,” Strong says.

Strong says when commercial knock-offs, like Indian-inspired rings and necklaces often found on e-commerce websites and at local retailers, enter the Indigenous art market, many different factors come into play that affect Native artisans.

First, there’s the market impact: Strong says these facsimiles take potential revenue away from Indigenous people.

There’s also the implications of stealing and appropriating cultural knowledge.

Strong says the damage can be extensive when non-Natives break the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 by advertising and selling “Native-made” goods, which happens occasionally. He says the integrity of tribal sovereignty - the right to self-governance for federally-recognized U.S. tribes - is put at stake.

“[This] actually undermines tribes’ authority and inherent sovereignty to determine who is a member of their tribe and who can represent themselves that way as well.”

JhonDuane Goes in Center uses a small knife to adjust the silver setting around a polished...
JhonDuane Goes In Center uses a small knife to adjust the silver setting around a polished fairburn agate in his Racing Magpie workshop in Rapid City, S.D. on Dec. 22, 2021 Each gemstone must be polished and refined on a $2,000 diamond-coated sander he uses before it can be turned into wearable jewelry.(Dominik Dausch)

He is not surprised to see people who mimic Native art, though - most consumers genuinely enjoy the aesthetics of the Plains Indians and other tribes - and Goes In Center actually encourages the practice - to an extent.

“I wouldn’t stop anybody from making anything that’s been ‘inspired.’ In fact, I have a true belief that art inspires art ... I did rodeo buckles, but that’s kind of a subculture to America and Native peoples participate in rodeo and such,” Goes In Center says. “When it comes to identifying yourself in a particular culture and capitalizing on it, that’s a whole shift in value systems.”

However, the practice of making “inspired” goods also tends to feed into to stereotypes: “My partner likes to say ‘long-hair, feathers and sunsets’ - this very romanticized ... viewpoint of Native people, which just doesn’t capture who Native people are or even just lumps Native people into one big cultural group,” Strong says.

Inspired Indians

In reality, the distinctions between “Indian-inspired” and “Indian-made” artisan goods typically subvert expectations: Native Americans craft modern goods with some influence from their heritage, while non-Natives craft historic replicas of Indigenous artifacts - albeit, without the generations of cultural knowledge to guide the artist.

“There’s people that are reproductionists. They like our culture. They’ll even start making things [based] on our culture. They’ll study it. It’s very anthropological, in a way,” Goes in Center says.

Sabrina Pourier, a Lakota artisan who sells a variety of handmade items on her website, crafts a variety of goods, from easy-to-make wax melts to leather backpacks and bags.

“My wax melt line - they all have Lakota names on them, “Pourier says. “In a way, I’m bringing that out into other people’s homes, so when they look into their shelves, they are seeing an English name, but they’re also seeing Lakota words.”

Yet, none of her inventory is labeled with marketing phrases like “Native-made.” Her products include some Lakota words and motifs - one article, a leather hat decorated with beads, features images of horses painted in an Indian style - but the value is in creativity, not the culture.

Goes In Center says most modern Native artists focus on making art, not “Native art”; he considers himself a contemporary, because what he creates is unique, rather than “antique.”

“To me, creativity keeps moving. It’s not static. Some guy will master making bonnets, so he’ll just make a bunch of bonnets all the time,” Goes In Center says. “That’s part of the appeal to nondiscerning customers, because their idea of history is sort of version-locked into a time frame - like ‘this is what all Indians do.’”

Still, the average artisan has to put their salesman hat on once in awhile.

Shop Native

Many Native artists start small by making more modest crafts, like Pourier’s wax melts and baby moccasins. These low-investment goods provide a little bit of revenue for artisans between the high-quality works consumers occasionally commission.

“I know a lot of artists, the things they make, I call ‘bread-and-butter’ items. Something that will fit into the economy,” Goes In Center says. “It still has an attachment to creativity and self-worth. That stuff, I understand; I make rings and stuff, because I know it’ll fit somebody and they’ll buy it and they’ll wear it.”

Like any artist, there’s also expenses in everything they make.

“You look around my studio ... my engraving machine, that’s a $2,000 item. My polishing machine, my diamond wheels - they’re not cheap,” Goes In Center says.

However, the demographic of educated consumers is quite niche, according to Goes In Center: “[there’s] people who really know what they want and they’re very well-versed in the authenticity, and other people are just like ‘I don’t care. I just want something to hang on the mirror in my car.’

A line-up of custom-made gemstone rings made by JhonDuane Goes in Center can be seen on...
A line-up of custom-made gemstone rings made by JhonDuane Goes In Center can be seen on display at the Lakota artist's workshop on Dec. 22, 2021. Goes In Center says commissioning a Lakota artist is a win-win situation: the artisan is paid directly for their work, and the buyer walks away with a high-quality piece.(Dominik Dausch)

Ashley Pourier, curator of The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School, says working directly with Indigenous artists, rather than buying similar goods from a retailer, is vital to supporting their financial independence.

“Investing into an artist is the difference for them of replenishing their supplies to launching their own website to affording travel to go to a market,” Ashley says. “Investing into that ... small business model is a huge uplift for any artist in general.”

“We’re a creative people. We’ve been existing for 10,000 years. We’re intelligent. We’re spiritual. We’re creative - people don’t realize that - and you could actually own some of that creativity by working with an artist. If you really talk to an artist, you’ll gain a greater appreciation that is beyond the [monetary value] of something that you really own from an artist,” Goes In Center says.

This report is the third in a three-part series on the labeling of Indian products laws and the impact of illegitimate goods on Native Americans.

Part one can be found here.

Part two can be found here.

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