Indian Country Today
The weaver who sells their work at flea markets. The beader who markets their work on social media. The jeweler who vends at a local fair.
Many Indigenous artists were negatively affected by canceled powwows and markets this summer. They weren’t allowed to sell their products in person, which has had many looking to the internet.
A new Indigenous-owned marketplace, From The People, allows artists to post and sell their products online — and allows buyers from all backgrounds to purchase authentically made and ethically produced crafts from the artist themselves.
To visit From the People’s website, click here
The company believes in “Natives helping Natives” and was started in February by co-owners Chase McNiel, Diné, and Isabella Johnson, Coquille Tribe.
Johnson, a Stanford University student, says in May during widespread coronavirus shutdowns, she heard of many artists who were losing profits from canceled events. At the time, she was a committee member of the Stanford Powwow, the country’s largest student-run powwow, before it was canceled and moved online for safety concerns.
The timing of canceled events, the co-founders said, made it essential to get the project moving quickly.
“I knew people would need something like From The People to survive, so they could sell their goods and keep going with their livelihoods,” McNiel said.
The company welcomes Indigenous artists from all backgrounds to post their work for sale including those from federally, or state recognized tribes. They also encourage artists from tribes who are seeking recognition, First Nations and those in Pacific Islander communities.
Part of the company’s philosophy is to provide authentic products, which is why it makes it a priority to operate in compliance with the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.
The act is a truth-in-advertising law that makes it illegal to market any art or craft product as “Indian made” when that product was not actually made by a Native person.
In recent years, trends of “tribal” prints have become increasingly popular, which has resulted in an increased risk of stereotyping Native arts.
“The act helps ensure a level playing field in which things that are being sold as Indian are actually being made by Indians, as defined by the act,” Ken Van Wey, a program specialist with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, told Indian Country Today.
Van Wey has been doing this work for 23 years and says the number of complaints to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board has increased dramatically in recent months, due in large part to social media.
On average, he says the Indian Arts and Crafts Board receives 125 complaints a year. As of August, the board had received between 400 to 500 complaints in 2020 alone.
The consequences for violating the act are severe, though critics argue there’s not enough enforcement.
A first-time violation of the act for an individual can result in a $250,000 fine and/or a five-year prison term. Businesses that violate the law can be fined up to $1 million.
In 2018, a New Mexico jewelry store owner was sentenced to six months in prison and a year of supervised release for selling counterfeit Native jewelry. The owner was also ordered to pay more than $9,000 in fines.
To avoid this, From The People requires any artist who wishes to sell their work as “Indian made” or “Native made” on its website to provide a proof of enrollment and state their tribal affiliation in their online posting.
This extra step to ensure authenticity is part of what drew Anishinaabe beader Sophie Hill to post her items on the website.
“If you are buying or selling on From The People, you are guaranteed to buy from an Indigenous person,” Hill said.
She also markets her products on popular online hub Etsy.
“Sometimes on Etsy, you could have someone who isn’t Indigenous selling beadwork. Ethics are really important to me, especially knowing I am offering my art in a space that isn’t just about money.”
Niquita Thomas, Lower Cayuga from Six Nations of the Grand River, is a beader who also sells her work on From The People. She uses beading as a main source of income and says she was excited to join the online community of Indigenous artists.
“When you have to list your tribe and affiliation on the site, it tells someone where your work stems from. It tells them a little bit more about what the products are, where the materials came from and the person who made it.”
Thomas says putting good thoughts and intentions into her beadwork is essential, a lesson from her grandma and uncles, who taught her the craft.
“I don’t work when I feel unwell,” Thomas said. “I even smudge my work before shipping it. I wish the product well before it starts its journey.”
From The People is among a handful of Native-owned companies that showcase and promote the artwork of Indigenous artists.
Beyond Buckskin is a Native-owned online retailer that sells the work of more than 40 artists and small businesses. The company uses established partnerships with artists and small businesses to help them sell their products.
The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts held a virtual “Indian market” this summer, reporting 450 artists participated.
The organization says only 77 artists had existing websites when it announced plans to go virtual. Following the market, hundreds of artists were able to sell their products online through the association’s help.
Online marketplaces like these are helpful to artists who are transitioning from selling in-person to online, says Amanda Smith, president of the Native American Business Association.
“E-commerce business platforms have the benefits of easing barriers while providing increased business reach and low operational costs,” Smith said. “Many of these are specialized and cater to various groups, and topics. It is great to have a marketplace that is dedicated to Native artists.”
Smith says artists who are making the jump to go virtual can face barriers such as learning how to make a website and finding start-up capital, among other business challenges.
From The People says it welcomes the opportunity to work with artists who may not be tech-saavy. “Any Native vendor who wants to join, we would love to have them,” Johnson said.
The company uses social media to recruit artisans to join its community.
When an artist joins, they are given an account that comes with a profile page, including a biography, item listings and review page. There are no listing fees, and artists can post an unlimited number of items. The company charges a small fee after an item has been sold.
The co-founders say this work is only beginning for them, hoping one day they are able to create an app for the website.
One of the co-founders, McNiel is a graduate of Stanford University. He previously worked as a mechanical engineer at an aerospace company before resigning in February to look for other “meaningful” opportunities.
It was shortly after that McNiel self-funded From The People, where he now works full-time.
He custom-coded the website which includes the marketplace, and a map of Native businesses and land. Future iterations of the website will include a category for Indigenous books and authors.
“I grew up going to flea markets with my parents,” McNiel said. “A lot of people in my family sell their jewelry in those spaces, so this work is special to me.”
Johnson says the work is meaningful to her because it ensures authenticity and that Native artists are profiting from their work.
“We really want the website to function as a space where people can learn and educate themselves,” Johnson said. “And that the marketplace will promote the work of Native people. It’s a one-stop virtual shop.”
Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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