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Store owners enjoy success of authentic Indian store

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JACKSON, Tenn. - For many years John Lone Eagle had no real connection with his Indian heritage.

Raised in Texas, he graduated from Baylor University near Waco. He did the suit, tie and "corner office with a window" routine. He cut his hair, did business and hated it.

Then his grandfather helped him back onto the Red Road. Eager to find out more about Indian history and customs, especially those related to his own Chiricahua Apache and Cherokee people, Lone Eagle soaked up traditional knowledge like a sponge.

In his search for knowledge, he traveled and checked out Native American stores by the dozens. Most were run by non-Natives doing the tourist thing who could not answer his cultural questions. Much of the merchandise they sold carried "Made in Taiwan" labels. Disgusted, Lone Eagle figured he could do a heck of a lot better and decided to put his business management degree to good use.

Determined to run an authentic store that could help Indian artisans while raising non-Native awareness about Indian culture, Lone Eagle opened his first store, Indians and Cowboys, in Gibson County, Tenn., close to his mother's Cherokee roots.

There, in the middle of the South, with few if any Natives for customers, the combination of superb Indian craftsmanship, music, art, clothing and hand-made replicas of Indian artifacts made Indians and Cowboys a success.

"The people that come to the store ... know what it is and what we carry," Lone Eagle says. "When they come in here, they are respectful of Indian history and culture. And they show that respect. And that's one of the things I enjoy about my customers."

Encouraged by the store's reception, in 1995 Lone Eagle moved to an urban location in Jackson and renamed the store Native American Legacy. Public reaction there was the same: eager interest, appreciation and a hunger for knowledge of Indian culture and spirituality that surprised even Lone Eagle.

Without planning it, the store cloned itself in 1997.

Lone Eagle's closest business associate and life partner, Ravenhawk moved to Centralia, Wash., to be close to her Lakota father who was critically ill following a stroke.

While working at a local country store, she observed the same ignorance of Indian culture and hunger for real knowledge in her clientele that she had seen in Tennessee. After talking it over with Lone Eagle, Ravenhawk decided to open another store.

Told by a local Indian woman that she would find "just the right place" and that the store would be a great success, Ravenhawk started her search. She says her car "just kinda stopped" in front of a beat-up, eviction property close by an enormous outlet mall on Interstate 5, half-way between Seattle and Portland.

"When Eagle came out here to look at it he said, 'Ravenhawk, you done lost your mind. There's no way that's ever going to be a store.' And I said, 'Yes it is, because when I went out back, I heard her voice and when I went upstairs I could smell sweet grass and sage."

After three months of hauling out garbage and scraping wallpaper off the walls, the new shop still wasn't ready. But the day before it opened Ravenhawk came to work and found local tribal members in the backyard pressure washing the house and Weed-eating the yard.

"When we opened, we had people here to cook fry bread and people came from everywhere," Ravenhawk says. "We had singers. It was just beautiful."

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In addition to carrying hand-carved ceremonial pipes, beaded staffs and other traditional items, Native American Legacy (West) carries the work of hundreds of Indian artisans, jewelers and painters. The small store also features a large selection of books, tapes and clothing.

In the upstairs rooms different craftsmen run drum-making, beadwork and basketry classes. Ravenhawk's son and his friends teach other youngsters how to make arrows and medicine bags - small projects children can finish in a few hours. In the summertime, there are cookouts with buffalo burgers and fry bread. Weavers sell their goods and basketmakers set up tables while dancers and drummers do their thing.

Often young Native boys come from the nearby Maple Lane Correctional School to participate in the traditional classes.

Ravenhawk says serving her people through the store makes her more proud than anything else in her life.

"Some of our elders that we sell for, I don't take anything," she says. "They bring their stuff and I sell it for them and then give them their money."

Eagle, who is also a part-time model and movie actor, says he likes providing a service and intends to keep store prices as reasonable as possible.

"I'm here to make a livin', not to make a killin,'" he says. "Plus I want this out there for the public, for anyone that can get it."

As two of the biggest outlets of Native books for Four Winds publishing in the United States, his stores are indeed getting knowledge of Indian culture out to the public. Ravenhawk says she is continually amazed at the demand for information and classes.

"This whole community is like one big sponge," she says. "Everything you feed them they suck in. And then they teach."

Unlike some people, Eagle and Ravenhawk are not dismayed by non-Natives passing on the information they learn.

"When we teach our drum classes, I tell them part of the responsibility of learning drum making is to teach what you've learned," Ravenhawk says. "I don't care if it's one person or 100 people. You need to pass it on."

She loves to talk about one Anglo gentleman who learned drum-making and who later called her hide supplier and asked for 100 drum kits. She says he paid for the kits out of his own pocket in order to teach local at-risk children the art.

"It's just a constant revelation of brotherhood and sisterhood," she says.

But as much as she is enjoying the Washington location, Ravenhawk admits four years of cross-country commuting has taken its toll. Both she and Eagle are looking for a new manager or co-owner for the Centralia store.

And both agree that unless the right person comes along who can carry forward the right spirit, they will close the Washington location - a tough decision for them to make.

"I've had more spiritual growth here since this store has opened than I have in my life," Ravenhawk admits. "People pour their hearts out everyday about how proud they are that this is here."