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Blackfeet artist John Isaiah Pepion remembers when September to March was “the struggling time.”

Pepion lives in Browning, Montana, the capital of the Blackfeet Nation. Browning is beautiful country – a 4,377-foot elevation town at the base of the Rockies where bison can be seen grazing on grasslands. A bison-restoration initiative of the Blackfeet and three other Indigenous nations is the second-largest employer in the state, according to one economic development website. Tourists visit here to hunt big game or fish for burbot, pike, trout, walleye and whitefish.

But the town is isolated. There’s snow on the ground about nine months of the year. Browning’s population has declined steadily since 1960, according to the U.S. Census. The town government went broke in 2017. Cell phone reception is spotty. Artists like Pepion must drive up to two hours to buy supplies at a decent price.

Nevertheless, Pepion is thriving today and he credits the mentorship he received from Eighth Generation and its Inspired Natives Project.

“Right now, I don’t have to worry,” he said of the former struggling time. “I can concentrate on creating.”

Under the tutelage of the Inspired Natives Project, Pepion learned about financial literacy and the business side of art. He learned about e-commerce and how to develop and manage a website. And he’s been pulled into Eighth Generation’s circle of artists helping artists. He will soon begin mentoring other emerging Indigenous artists and wants to open a cultural center in Browning – a place where artists can create, conduct classes and sell their art.

“Inspired Natives showed me from the ground up how to be a successful entrepreneur,” Pepion said. “This is my second year and it’s been a great experience.”

Pepion said the Snoqualmie Tribe’s purchase of Eighth Generation – announced in mid-November -- will give the company the financial muscle it needs to expand its reach. Eighth Generation has a store in Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market, as well as a strong online presence. It’s billed as the largest Native-owned art and lifestyle brand in North America, with wool blankets, apparel, fine-art prints, jewelry, phone cases and towels – all Native designed or Native made.

Several of the artists represented by Eighth Generation were mentored through the Inspired Natives Project and now have the structure in place to market their own works and mentor others. With the acquisition by the Snoqualmie Tribe, Pepion believes Eighth Generation can grow to represent and empower Indigenous artists worldwide.

Empowerment is the word. For generations, there have been few avenues available to Indigenous artists -- among them, sell by consignment in galleries or license their work to corporations that mass-produce and market Native art. Indigenous artists have also felt powerless as designs belonging to their cultures were ripped off and produced as “Native-style” or “Native-inspired” art. In all cases, the galleries and corporations and purveyors of fakes made money, not Indigenous artists.

The U.S. Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in the marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States. It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product “in a manner that falsely suggests” it is the work of an enrolled Native American. But imitators skirt the law.

“Millions of dollars are spent in the United States on fake Native art labeled as ‘Native-Inspired,’ which misappropriates and disrespects the culture of America’s Indigenous people,” Snoqualmie Tribe Executive Director Jaime Martin said in the announcement of her tribe’s acquisition of Eighth Generation.

“It’s important that tribal stories and culture are appropriately and accurately shared, as so many enjoy our traditional lands. Eighth Generation provides consumers with the opportunity to purchase culturally-appropriate art and home goods, which is critical.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee spoke about the damage caused by cultural appropriation when he proclaimed Nov. 25 to Dec. 2 to be Native Arts Week. He made the proclamation at Eighth Generation’s store.

“Authentic Native American art and craftwork promotes economic opportunities for Native American artists and craftspeople, and enables Native communities to maintain their culture and pass on traditional knowledge and teachings to younger generations,” Inslee said.

“Contemporary Native American brands and art confirm the energy and creativity within Native American communities to bring about positive change through self-determination. Imitation or so-called ‘Native-inspired’ artwork and products damage Native communities and decrease business opportunities for Native artisans.”

‘Support Inspired Natives, not Native Inspired’

Eighth Generation founder and multimedia artist Louie Gong, Nooksack, launched the Inspired Natives Project in 2014 (tagline: “Support Inspired Natives, not Native Inspired”) to help Indigenous artists take control of their art and the cultural stories that their works represent.

Three artists in Seattle are making a serious mark on their communities.  Elizabeth Woody (Navajo/Warm Springs/Yakama) is Oregon’s new poet laureate. Louie Gong (Pictured) Nooksack, is opening a Native art store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market this July and Essayist Elissa Washuta (Cowlitz) is a recipient of a $25,000 Artist Trust 2016 Arts Innovator Award.

Louie Gong, Nooksack, is the founder of Eighth Generation.

“When you buy art from a Native artist, it carries a real story,” Gong said, “instead of a story that is made up by a big corporation.”

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The purchaser wins, too, in buying authentic Indigenous art rather than a Native-style knockoff. Authenticity “adds value to any project, especially cultural art,” he said.

Artists in the Inspired Natives Project: Sarah Agaton Howes, Anishinaabe; Michelle Lowden, Acoma Pueblo; Michele Reyes, Dine’; Kyle Reyes, Hawaiian; and Pepion.

In an earlier interview with Indian Country Today, Howes said she was primarily a beadwork artist before she joined the Inspired Natives Project. Gong pushed her “to do things that are more difficult … out of my comfort zone,” she said. Since then, she has designed crew socks, earrings, greeting cards, hats, phone cases, tote bags, towels and wool blankets, all reflective of her woodlands culture.

Today, she owns Heart Berry – which, in her words, brings together timeless Anishinaabe tradition and contemporary design to make heirloom usable art – and has two employees and an apprentice. She's often asked to teach and has been an artist in residence in museums and in public schools. 

In addition, people seek her out because she’s working with Eighth Generation. “I’m asked to teach, and that’s important to me because I want other people to know how to do this work,” she said.

Lowden, who specializes in hand-painted Pueblo jewelry, has designed wool blankets, earrings, pendants, phone cases, scarves, socks and tote bags.

Pepion’s ledger art is represented on wool blankets, crew socks, cotton throws, greeting cards, earrings, phone cases and towels.

Michele Reyes is a weaver, photographer and designer whose art is now on wool blankets and earrings. Kyle Reyes, her husband, has produced a wool blanket, shoes and a phone case that reflects his Hawaiian heritage.

Numerous other Native artists are represented at Eighth Generation’s store and its online site. Its inventory includes 26 wool blanket designs, 21 artisan phone case designs, 18 jewelry styles assembled at the store, 11 towel designs, 11 fine-art print designs, nine sock designs, seven scarf designs, five designs on cotton shirts printed in Seattle, and two embroidered hat designs.

Built on cultivating relationships

Eighth Generation is not only Indigenous-owned but is Indigenous in its values.

“The Eighth Generation business model is built on cultivating relationships,” Gong told Indian Country Today. On his website, he elaborated: “Beyond artistic merit, we want to work with people who will amplify our message about artist empowerment and eventually pass on the business knowledge we share with them to their community. We are in the business of planting seed.” (Five percent of all blanket sales go toward the Inspired Natives Grant “to grow the next generation of Inspired Natives.”)

Those values are what drew Snoqualmie Tribe to purchase Eighth Generation. Snoqualmie recently purchased the Salish Lodge & Spa and land surrounding its most sacred site, Snoqualmie Falls. Snoqualmie’s purchase of the adjacent land halts development that was proposed there.

“This is another values-driven investment for the Snoqualmie Tribe,” Snoqualmie Chairman Robert de los Angeles said in the announcement of the Eighth Generation acquisition. “With this purchase, the Snoqualmie Tribe will provide resources and strategic support of Eighth Generation’s mission to provide the largest and best possible platform for Native American artists.”

Terms of the purchase were not disclosed; Gong is staying on as Eighth Generation’s CEO.

According to the announcement of the acquisition, the Snoqualmie Tribe plans to expand Eighth Generation’s “distribution, visibility and market penetration.” The business is gearing up to expand its in-state manufacturing operations.

“While supporting and elevating the very best in Native American art, Eighth Generation will be administered to reflect the cultural values of the Snoqualmie people,” Snoqualmie Tribal Council Treasurer Christopher Castleberry said in the announcement. “Every purchase made at Eighth Generation will support the mission of the Snoqualmie Tribe to safeguard sacred sites like Snoqualmie Falls and support the preservation of Native culture.”

In his biography on the Eighth Generation website, artist Kyle Reyes spoke of the power of art to communicate stories – and the responsibility of artists to honor past generations and build opportunities for future generations of Indigenous artists.

“Our artwork communicates powerful stories and it honors our ancestors,” Reyes said in his bio. “We have an obligation to build capacity for future generations to tell their stories.”

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Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, reports for Indian Country Today from Anacortes, Washington.