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Art co-op raises profile of Northern Native artisans

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MISSOULA, Mont. - If Shawn Olson-Crawford and other Counting Coup art cooperative organizers succeed, Indian artists from the Northern Plains will gain recognition in coming years.

For too long, Olson-Crawford says Native artisans from the nation's northern tier have largely been ignored, primarily because their work hasn't been marketed aggressively. Getting a bigger piece of the $3 billion Indian art market is a primary goal of the newly revamped cooperative run by American Indian students from the University of Montana here.

"Any more, when you think of Indian art, you think of the pueblos and sunset colors and kachinas and turquoise jewelry. But there's much more to it than that."

Olson-Crawford says the group plans to be more than just a clearinghouse to sell Native wares. It wants to connect fledgling Indian artists with professionals who can act as mentors and provide links to potential buyers. The cooperative also hopes to sponsor classes and seminars on Native American arts and crafts. Courses, which could start as early as November, will focus on such areas as making drums, dolls, cradle boards, dream catchers, star quilts, clothing and sculptures she says.

Along with preserving tribal culture, Olson-Crawford says educational offerings will help promote better understanding of Native peoples and the value of their work and increased familiarity should help breed financial success.

"We're not in the business to make money." The nonprofit group only charges a 25 percent commission to sell pieces. "We want to help Indian artists make money."

The cooperative's gallery, which features works from around the region, occupies a prime rental spot in Missoula's busy downtown district. Storage area in the back is being converted to classroom space and a full-size basement may be remodeled to permit expansion, Olson-Crawford says.

A small library of Native American literature is being put together for public use, as well as a computer that will be loaded with art-based software. A photo darkroom is in the works and a gift shop carries a variety of small, Indian-made items that sell for less than $50.

"We're building up the gift store component. That's where a lot of the locals will make their money ... ."

The group was founded under another name a few years ago, but funding became scarce and enthusiasm wore down over time, she says. Instead of letting the concept die, a new board of directors was assembled and Olson-Crawford and three other students volunteered to staff the facility nearly full time. Past debt has nearly been retired and she says the project is off to a fresh start. Eventually, cooperative leaders hope to buy their own building.

The new gallery has quickly become a popular addition to Missoula's substantial art scene, but funding shortfalls force the cooperative to manage on a month-by-month basis for now, Olson-Crawford says. The group hopes to fire up a Web site to help spread the word, and $15 memberships are being solicited, as well as larger donations. Co-op organizers are looking for a grant writer, as well as others who will help keep their dream afloat.

"The biggest need is money. We'd love to have a major benefactor, or two or three." Donations, she adds, can be addressed to Counting Coup, 135 East Main Street, Missoula, MT 59802. The gallery's phone number is (406) 728-4722.

Olson-Crawford, an Assiniboine with a master's degree in business administration, said various area stores donated supplies, fixtures and other items for the gallery which opened in July. Board members and others loaned the cooperative money to pay off old bills and get the project off the ground.

"The community has actually been pretty helpful," she observes. "There's been a good public response."

One challenge is that many Indian people are not comfortable navigating in the non-Native world of commerce. "Being Native Americans, we have a whole other perspective. We're trying to blend those values and perspectives. We're trying to make (the operation) more professional and competitive in the business world. We're finding our way as we go."

Olson-Crawford says about a dozen regional Indian artists are involved in the cooperative and a dozen more are "in the process of putting things together and bringing them in."

All styles and genre of art are welcomed, as long as they originate from the Northern Plains and southern Alberta and reflect the Indigenous cultures of the region.

"We're slowly making the contacts. What we're looking for is authentic, Native American-made art."

In time, cooperative leaders hope to establish a reserve fund large enough to buy work outright. They'd also like to organize buying trips to reservations across the region, especially to ones out of the tourist mainstream. Another goal is to have enough money to provide loans to artists who lack funding to complete projects.

"In a way, we're an economic development project, because we provide Native American artists the means to be successful in the business world," Olson-Crawford says. "We're empowering people."