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How Etkie Beaded Bracelets Financially and Socially Empower Native Women

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Etkie turns beads into fashionable dreams by helping at-risk Native women gain financial independence and pride.

If one footstep can begin a lifelong journey, so too can a single piece of jewelry. 

A new start-up firm comprised of several Native women, Etkie, is hopeful their line of hand-beaded bracelets is the start of such a journey. 

“As contemporary Native America sees a re-emergence of artists, designers and social advocates in communities with Indian populations, our company is committed to the financial and social empowerment of Native American women in New Mexico,” says founder Sydney Alfonso. 

The leader of the Etkie team was raised (by Kerry, the mother half of the mother-daughter team) in rural New Mexico where she grew up surrounded by inspiring, determined and talented women—a childhood that begat passion about social consumerism, financial inclusion and gender equality in the workplace. While Sydney and Kerry had many adventures collecting wearable treasures from around the world, they understood that some of the most unique and culturally important jewelry could be found in their own backyard.

Courtesy Etkie

Kerry Sydney's mom), Lead Designer Dru Chackee Navajo) and Founder Sydney Alfonso

“It wasn’t like I just woke up and said, ‘Let me do this’, it was a gradual process in realizing the battle I wanted to fight. We’ll work with Native female artisans who lack accessibility to public markets, to bridge the gap between the mainstream fashion industry and artistry to continue to thrive in traditional Native communities,” she says. “Their products will sell at fair prices in order to earn a higher income and eventually attain financial independence.

“I believe in empowerment of Native American artisans and entrepreneurs and through development of formal partnerships with artistic creators, women who exhibit traditional talent, we will have the power to change mainstream concepts of what it means to be a contemporary indigenous woman today. Across the country, there should be more companies focusing on undiscovered talent of those who deserve America’s support.”

The company’s web page references documented Bureau of Indian Affairs statements about Native American women facing gender inequalities and notes, “By assisting individual women with opportunities to increase financial independence, these women can enhance their creative voice and confidence as contributors to the global economic community.” 

Founded in 2013, Etkie recently completed a successful start-up fundraising campaign that has allowed them to deliver the first set of micro-loans to artisans including lead designer Dru Chackee (Navajo). While beading is historically a Plains Indian tradition, other Native communities have adopted it as a means of resilience to support their families, and this fledgling facility wants to follow that trend.

The care and commitment seen on every piece that Dru and other women from her community bead is incomparable to what’s seen in mass markets, says Megan Red Shirt-Shaw. (Courtesy Etkie)

Etkie bracelets are hand-beaded on a traditional Navajo loom, made with high-quality seed beads sewn onto genuine deerskin linings sourced from a New Mexico leather company, and finished with custom buttons. The leather ties can be untied and adjusted to allow for modification of the six-inch-long bracelets to most wrist sizes. Each wrap bracelet is handcrafted and takes between four and six hours to make.

“Launching a new business from nothing can be intimidating and I’m impressed with what Etkie has accomplished thus far with limited resources,” says Dr. Jessica Metcalfe (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), who not long ago took the entrepreneurial plunge in establishing Beyond Buckskin Boutique. “Both our companies will work with individual artists to launch and grow their own businesses.”

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The successful Metcalfe foresees success in the Etkie effort: “How can a single beaded bracelet—the symbol of resilience, survival, and creativity—cause change? That collection of vibrant, colorful, loomed straight lines and eclectic patterns can capture spirit and ancient concepts—and hold our heart. And in the process, at-risk women, women lacking capital and their own identities, are empowered to gain financial independence.”

“Our initial fundraising campaign will provide five artisans with a steady stream of work to launch their new collection and begin a partnership with a local women’s cooperative,” says spokeswoman Megan Red Shirt-Shaw (Oglala Lakota Sioux). “Together we can provide a sustainable source of income for Native American women in New Mexico [giving them] an opportunity to live with financial independence, pride and dignity.”

Courtesy Etkie

Dru Chackee is Etkie's lead designer. She grew up on the Navajo Reservation just outside of Albuquerque and learned to bead when she was 15. She is currently teaching her daughter how to bead and would like to start working with other women in the greater Native American community. Dru and Sydney met in 2012 and instantly bonded over their love for Native art and design.

Founder Sydney Alfonso says: “Our company is built on a foundation that values and preserves the rich and diverse Native American culture. We’re proud to be giving back and dream of a future in the fashion industry where social responsibility is an integrated part of every businesses DNA. 

“At Etkie, we want to provide an atmosphere that promotes integrity, respect and individual growth, because we believe in taking time to talk to our neighbors, filling our days with laughter, and empowering women to change the world.”

Etkie's IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds to launch a new collection started on May 5 and will close on June 4, 2014 at 11:59 p.m. PT. At press time, the company was a mere $40 away from reaching their goal of $20,000. Help them expand their jewelry and accessories company committed to the financial and social empowerment of Native American women in New Mexico by donating here.

You can also click here to follow them on Facebook and to learn more about what they do on a day-to-day basis.

Courtesy EtkieEtkie's model for financial and social responsibility