Four years ago, Dr. Jessica Metcalfe was working as a university professor when she thought of an idea: to create an online marketplace where Native people could sell their art to anyone, anywhere in the world. Within weeks, beyondbuckskin.com was launched.
Since then, dozens of acclaimed Native artists, fashion designers and jewelry designers have partnered with Metcalfe, utilizing Beyond Buckskin’s online platform to sell countless items to customers around the globe who likely would not have been aware of or able to access these designs in person. The business has achieved international notoriety and continues to succeed. Demand exceeds supply while the artists and Metcalfe alike stay busy trying to keep up. It’s a good problem to have for a businesswoman.
Blake Sisk wears beaded sunglasses by Candace Halcro (Cree / Metis) with Alaska Native copper earrings and cedar bark headband. Courtesy Thosh Collins.
Following the success of her online endeavor, Metcalfe opened her first Beyond Buckskin retail store this month. The store is appropriately located in Belcourt, North Dakota in her home community of the Turtle Mountain Reservation.
“It’s not a fashion mecca by any means,” Metcalfe laughed, “but it’s home.”
And for Metcalfe, being home and surrounded by friends and family means that she won’t lose sight of the real purpose behind her business.
“It’s easy to get caught up in other stuff – especially when you’re dealing with the fashion industry,” Metcalfe said. “I’m always making sure to remain grounded.”
So, what is it really all about?
“It’s really about the artists, but also about identity,” Metcalfe said.
For any artist – Native or not – it can be tough to make a living. Metcalfe is happy to partner with artists from many different indigenous communities, connecting them with a greater reach of customers around the globe and thus expanding their income opportunities.
The identity aspect goes hand in hand with Metcalfe’s commitment to authenticity: her mission is to see real Native artists justly making money through real Native art rather than non-Natives ripping off Native designs and profiting from it.
Even though it is illegal for non-Native artists to brand themselves as authentically Native, there is only so much the Indian Arts and Crafts board can do to actually control and monitor these instances.
With Beyond Buckskin Boutique’s retail store now open, Metcalfe hopes to continue to support the artists she’s already working with and to boost the local economy as well.
“This is not a grant-funded organization,” she explained, “This is a business. We can bring in money from halfway around the world to the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation.”
Metcalfe is excited to now be able to hire local staff, demonstrating that it is possible, with hard work and creativity, to make money and to earn a living in the art world from anywhere – even a place as rural as Belcourt.
Martin Sensmeier wears the popular Native Americans Discovered Columbus tee by Jared Yazzie (Navajo) and beaded sunglasses by Candace Halcro (Cree / Metis). Courtesy Thosh Collins.
Metcalfe cited a study by the First Peoples Fund which proved that approximately one third of all Native American people are skilled in some type of art, whether it be painting, beadwork, or any other number of art forms.
“But right now, we’re not looking at art as a form of economic development at all. People don’t think of art as a viable career option,” Metcalfe said. “I want to help that.”
“Hopefully,” she added, “Beyond Buckskin becomes a mainstay in the Turtle Mountains. I envision hiring aspiring artists and business owners to work with us for a couple of months or a couple of years and eventually going out and launching their own businesses.”
And for now, Metcalfe is happy to have the retail space not only as a glimmering new business in Belcourt, but as the new headquarters for beyondbuckskin.com, which she formerly operated primarily out of her home. For anybody, it’s nice to be able to leave work at work and home at home.
Metcalfe does not plan on stopping at this point. She envisions opening more retail spaces in more places down the line. There is a massive existing market for Native art, fashion and jewelry, especially in cities like Santa Fe, New Mexico, Los Angeles, California, and Denver, Colorado. Perhaps we’ll see a new Beyond Buckskin Boutique at one of those locales in coming years.
Meanwhile, the global marketplace for Native art will continue to thrive in the tiny rural enclave of the Turtle Mountains.
“This is how we share our culture with the world – through these pieces of art that people wear on a daily basis,” Metcalfe said. “They get compliments on it and then they share the stories behind it. It keeps us in the public consciousness.”
For Metcalfe, Beyond Bucksin is more than just a business: it’s a social enterprise. It’s an opportunity to share and promote Native culture in an appropriate, community-driven fashion.
“Consumers these days want stories, they want authenticity,” Metcalfe explained. “We’ve got that! This is what we’re all about.”