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Indian artists have new, powerful ally

RAPID CITY, S.D. - After selling a beaded vest to a local pawn shop owner, Indian artists Jason and Ladonna Denny found themselves caught up in unfair credit practices and became indentured in a cycle of paying off their line of credit by supplying the pawn shop with more beadwork.

The pawn shop dealer paid far below a reasonable wholesale price for their fully beaded cradle boards, vests and moccasins. Their story is similar to many Indian artists who struggle to make a living by selling their artwork.

Jesse Henderson, a Chippewa Cree, began doing pencil drawings and never really thought about pursuing art as career. Several years ago his wife, Shelly, inspired him to take his creative talents a step further when she asked him to paint a few pieces as gifts for family members. Dabbling in oils on canvas spawned his creative abilities.

"We won't let anyone see those early paintings," Jesse says in his studio, with a chuckle. He quit his job at Montana Power to focus on his art but it was a rocky start. Jesse traveled to his first Indian art market and returned home without having sold a single painting.

Art has long been a source of deep meaning and power among Indian peoples. The ancestors carried a strong aesthetic appreciation for many forms and expressions of art, displayed in the subtle beauty and delicate craftsmanship of their everyday objects and ceremonial items. Traditional views and values are found in artistic creations of contemporary American Indian artists. Although today's Indian art may have adapted to new circumstances and knowledge, Indian artists continue to draw inspiration from thousands of years of accumulated wisdom.

In spite of the deeply and widely held beliefs of Native artists, stories like those of Jesse, Cree/Crow Jason and Northern Arapaho Ladonna are all too common for many Indian artists living on reservations. Talent too often is stifled because Indian artists have little knowledge about retail outlets that might carry their work or places they can exhibit and sell their work directly to the public.

Silversmith Mark Claymore, a Mniconjou Lakota, just needed a boost. "I was spinning my wheels just trying to get ahead and to make enough sales to support my family," he says. He constantly struggled to maintain enough cash flow to buy raw materials he needed to build his inventory. Like other emerging artists, he lacked the necessary resources to stockpile his art which would allow him to expand his market base.

These four artists, along with Terry Gasdia, Hopi, and Betty Whitford, Blackfeet, found the break they needed through a new fellowship program with the First People's Fund in Rapid City. It provides resources to assist Indian artists in the Northern Plains region and the state of Minnesota to develop sustainable arts businesses, giving them the opportunity to begin to make a living from their art.

First People's Fund uses a practical approach to work with emerging artists. It began by recruiting nationally recognized and established artists to work one-on-one with each fellow for one year. Artists who have been in the Indian art business for more than 10 years include Pahponee, Jackie Sevier, Ben Harjo, Paul Szabo and Veronica Poblano.

Pahponee, a Kickapoo and self-taught potter, is a successful businesswoman who average as many as 18 art shows a year. She joined First People's Fund mentorship program because she is interested in seeing Indian artists succeed. "If artists have the right guidance and support, they can succeed," Pahponee says.

Reflecting on their own experiences, the mentors agree economic success is not any easy road and artists must learn from those who have traveled it. The mentors say they believe there are many more opportunities for artists today than when they started.

Fellows travel to mentors' studios to learn, first hand, how they deal with day to day aspects of their businesses. Jesse Henderson recently returned from a week at Ben Harjo's studio during the annual Red Earth Art Show in Oklahoma. Harjo, a Seminole, helped to open gallery doors for Jesse in and around Oklahoma City.

"Jesse needs the exposure where they (buyers) welcome him to come in, and it takes the resources the mentors have to open the doors," Harjo says.

"Before accepting this fellowship, we only set out to make what we could sell our work for," Jason Denny says. Now the fellowship program has given the Dennys a whole new perspective and approach to selling their beadwork.

Both Jason and Ladonna have spent hours on the road with their mentor, Jackie Sevier, a Northern Arapaho, researching Northern Plains, old-style beadwork, visiting galleries and assessing the competition. They have begun to target new markets for their work and designed a brochure depicting their beadwork.

Elouise Cobell, of the Blackfeet Reservation Development Fund and an advisor to the First People's Fund, said she believes art is the greatest asset Indian people have in their communities. Yet, as a vehicle for supporting the artists who create it, it continues to be an underdeveloped asset. Therefore, the Blackfeet fund will provide fellows with direct training in budgeting, credit analysis and business plan development. Fellows have the opportunity to apply for a loan through a micro-loan fund program.

During their fellowships, the artists will apply to and participate in a regional juried art show of their choice. Mentors will attend the shows with them and give advice on show preparation, professional presentations, booth design, setup and sales.

In February, fellows will participate in the Indian Arts of America in Scottsdale, Ariz. They will learn about retail aspects of the art business by participating as artists-in-residence at the Eagle Plume Gallery in Colorado.

In the past, Indian artists' commitment to the powerful art of their traditions meant hard times. Faced with a lack of knowledge about the business of art, many emerging artists were forced into other lines of work. With the help of established Indian artists, the First People's Fund is working to change that cycle.