Diasporas of and by Design

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Kathy M’Closkey

Historicizing the Growing Impoverishment of Native American Artisans

In the Creative Economy Report (2008), published by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, arts and crafts were framed as an essential industry for developing countries, marking an area where such nations led in the global market: exports rose from $8 to $14 billion between 1996 and 2005 (Chan 2011 Anthropology of Work Review 32 [2]:93). An unknown percentage of Native American designs continue to be legally imported, jeopardizing the livelihoods of Native American artisans (Abeita, Safeguarding Traditional Cultures: a Global Assessment, 2001, P Seitel, ed). Since the 1970s arts and crafts boom, unemployment has risen substantially on reservations where artisinal production provides vital income. Isleta carver Andy Abeita (2006 Navajo Studies Conference) acknowledges “the world renowned recognition of southwest arts and crafts does not reflect what goes on within impoverished makers’ homes,” an astonishing statement given the numerous publications authored by generations of ethnologists. Over 80% of the 1.5 billion-dollar sales annually of faux Native American products (baskets, pottery, textiles and jewelry) are fabricated by non-Natives and imported into the US, or assembly-line jewelry is fabricated in local sweat-shops from materials imported from Asia (IACA 2010 Marketing Seminar). Lacking communal copyright protection, historic designs reside in the public domain, thus are amenable to appropriation resulting in soaring knock-off sales. This is legal under the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Act (IACB 1935, 1990, 2000), a federal truth-in-advertising law which protects consumers not producers.

The influx of knock-offs has devastated the legitimate market by driving down prices, thereby tainting consumer confidence. Because of extensive appropriation, craft production by Native artisans, a crucial aspect of cultural preservation, is being driven to oblivion (Abeita 2006). 90% of the popular southwestern styles appropriated from tribes has triggered an escalation in unemployment from 40 to 70%. Deanna Olson, owner of Silver Sun Gallery in Santa Fe, NM, said “a lot of families have had their vehicles taken, their lights shut off… this situation is not only resulting in artists practically starving, but it is destroying Native cultures” (Scott Smith, “The Scandal of Fake Indian Crafts” in Cowboys and Indians magazine,1998). Oddly this debacle has yet to elicit critiques from anthropologists.

Navajo (Diné) weavers are most affected by strip mining of their designs. Historic textiles receive far more attention in the media (ie, Antiques Roadshow, American Indian Art magazine) than contemporary creations. Currently 20,000 weavers within the vast Navajo Nation lack an infrastructure to market their rugs since the trading post system has collapsed. The Museum of New Mexico Foundation recently licensed several manufacturer and retailers whose designers draw on classic Native American patterns contained in their collections (“Translating Museum Treasures Into Products,” El Palacio, spring 2013). The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is now promoting rugs with Navajo motifs woven in India and sold by West Elm/Williams-Sonoma. Part of an “Aid to Artisans” program, spinners and weavers in India now have their products certified by a “Craftmark” label. This project is part of a $35 million handcraft purchasing plan funded by the Clinton Global Initiative. MIAC’s collaboration will augment funding for programming at the expense of Navajo weavers who have seen their market evaporate. How does this square with MIAC’s mandate?: “to celebrate and honor the diversity of Native American Peoples…to inspire appreciation for, and promote knowledge and understanding…by actively collecting and preserving art and artifacts made by tribal artists…” In 2005, Santa Fe, reputedly the third largest art market in the world, was designated a UNESCO City of Design, Crafts and Folk Arts. As the scope and number of events becomes increasingly international, it has the potential to marginalize all but a handful of the most well-known regional Native American artists.

Knock-offs Photo courtesy Kathy M'Closkey

“Knock-offs” Photo courtesy Kathy M’Closkey

Navajos rank among the poorest of the ten largest tribes in the nation, with per capita income at 20% the national average (2000 US Census). Gary Witherspoon (MNA Research Paper #36, Museum of Northern Arizona, 1987) conservatively estimated that 100,000 women wove one million textiles over the previous two centuries. The extant literature claims that by 1890, increasing tourism and the Arts and Crafts movement drove the demand for Navajo textiles. Yet weavers’ productivity remains unhistoricized, because scholars’ publications severed it from the global wool market . Diné became entangled in major transformations occurring in agriculture and textiles, two of the three largest domestic industries, as the country transitioned from an agrarian market society to a modern industrialized state (Why the Navajo Blanket Became a Rug: Excavating the Lost Heritage of Globalization, forthcoming).

My extensive research, based on archival documents contained in traders’ and regional wholesalers’ business records and correspondence, reveals that after 1893, free trade in carpet wool drove production, accelerating the transformation from wearing blanket to rug. Traders wholesaled weaving as an alternative means to market a portion of the coarse wool clip, and bureaucrats embedded weaving in the wool and livestock statistics, since they viewed textile production as an extension of the livestock industry (Agents’ reports to Commissioner of Indian Affairs, National Archives). For 80 years, rugs were jobbed like other livestock products, graded, bundled and shipped to regional wholesalers to pay down traders’ debits. Rug values were pegged to duty free carpet wool values, and marketed by weight until the 1960s (M’Closkey Swept Under the Rug 2002). Hundreds of invoices in the Lorenzo Hubbell Papers (he’s considered to be the czar of Navajo trade and the father of the Navajo rug) affirm the importance of women’s textile production in subsidizing the trading post system. A century ago regional warehouses were stuffed with authentic Navajo rugs. Today they are crammed with knock-offs imported from twenty countries.

fsdfsdfsdfsdfsdfsdf. Image courtesy Kathy M'Closkey

Wool used in Wool Manufactures. Image courtesy Kathy M’Closkey

Although Navajos are one of the most studied Peoples on earth, publications downplay the importance of women’s labor in sustaining the reservation and regional economies, coupled with the resilience of weavers who for decades received pennies per pound for their output, yet persevered because weaving perpetuates a culturally vital activity which sustains k’e, clanship, environment, and reciprocity (M’Closkey 2004 “Toward and Understanding of Navajo Aesthetics” SEE, P. Harries-Jones, ed. www.library. This lacuna raises questions about who has benefited from the continuously recycled narratives of nostalgia which currently dominate the literature. As a principal source of outside knowledge, scholars portrayed Diné as great borrowers—sheep from the Spanish, the loom from the Pueblos, designs from traders (Jennifer Denetdale 2007 Reclaiming Diné History. University Arizona Press). Anthropologists inadvertently legitimized plunder of weavers’ designs as their models were inadequate to elucidate the role of weaving in relation to Navajo cosmology, in tandem with sustaining their lifeways (Gladys Reichard, Navajo Shepherd and Weaver, 1968).

Weaving worlds postcard. Photo courtesy Kathy M'Closkey

All photos copyright Trickster Films, LLC. Photos by Nancy Schiesari.

Because many Navajos endure third world living conditions, my critique challenges political economists’ overt support for the unauthorized reproduction of their designs by Latin American Indigenous weavers over the past three decades (Lynn Stephen in Crafts in the World Market, June Nash, ed, 1993; Zapotec Women, 2005; WW Wood, Made In Mexico, 2008). The production of knock-offs is also well publicized in high profile journals such as Human Organization, Dialectical Anthropology and Cultural Survival. Yet no response acknowledging the long term costs of appropriation is forthcoming from the academy. The failure to engage with the consequences for Navajo weavers ultimately delegitimizes their claims to an essential component of their cultural heritage. The resolution of “The Quilt Flap” serves as a dramatic contrast. In 1991, the National Museum of American History out-sourced favorite 19th century quilt patterns housed in their collections, for reproduction in China. There was such an uproar not only did vice-presidential candidate Al Gore become involved, the House of Ways and Means Committee threatened to cut the Smithsonian’s budget! Quilt activists picketed and the museum ultimately cancelled the contract and now sponsors a quilt legacy program (M’Closkey in No Deal! Indigenous Arts and the Politics of Possession, Tressa Berman, ed, 2012).

Navajo Relations. Image courtesy Kathy M'Closkey

Navajo Relations. Image courtesy Kathy M’Closkey

Does the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (2007) hold the potential to rectify this injustice? Articles 11, 20 and 31 stress the rights of Indigenous Peoples to maintain, control, protect and develop their heritage, traditional knowledge and expressions…[including] designs, and the intellectual property over traditional cultural expressions. President Obama signed it in December 16, 2010, noting that ‘actions are needed to match the words’ affirming Native American aspirations. He remarked that although UNDRIP has both moral and political force, it is neither legally binding nor a statement of current international law. The US is not a signatory to UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and the federal government voted against the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office published a report prepared for the Commission on Natural Resources, House of Representatives titled “Indian Arts and Crafts: Size of Market and Extent of Misrepresentation Are Unknown.” It states that although unfair misuse of traditional knowledge and cultural heritage are increasing, federal and state laws protecting intellectual property have never included traditional knowledge and cultural expressions. Dozens of letters located in the IACB records at the National Archives dating back nearly a century confirm the damage wrought by competition from ‘knock-offs.’ According to the GAO report, no national data exist that tracks sales or misrepresentation. To conduct a reliable study would be complex and costly. Thus “it is not clear what policy actions, if any, the federal government will undertake to implement UNDRIP.” Given the free market anarchism rampant in the knock off market, coupled with lack of evidence substantiating the consequences of appropriation, UNDRIP holds little hope of succeeding in protecting Native American designs in the foreseeable future.

Kathy M’Closkey is an anthropologist at the University of Windsor, ON, and a research affiliate with the Southwest Center, University of Arizona, the sponsor of Swept Under the Rug: A Hidden History of Navajo Weaving (U New Mexico Press, 2002). Kathy served as research director for Weaving Worlds ( She gratefully acknowledges SSHRC for funding her research since 1998.


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