Tribes buy thousands of wool blankets per year to use for special events. However, there's not one Native-owned company in the United States or Canada that manufactures and sells those blankets. As a result, tribal communities buy and stock the shelves of their gift shops with blankets from Pendleton and other companies not owned by Natives.
In case you didn't catch the irony there: Because the market is already saturated with "Native inspired" blankets, actual Native people have to perpetuate cultural appropriation so that they can participate in their own culture. They're being forced to buy back what was taken from them.
This month, Louie Gong (Nooksack) is trying to change that. You may know Gong as the artist who Ed Murray selected to create a gift on behalf of Seattle in honor of President Xi Jinping's visit to our fair city. He ended up designing this sweet bentwood box.
But Gong also runs a company called Eighth Generation, which plans to launch a new line of wool blankets, the first such line to be produced by a Native-owned company. They've started an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to cover manufacturing and administrative costs, and to hire someone full-time. (Right now, the company consists of Gong and a few interns.)
Some companies just slap a Native-style print on a flask, call it "A Navajo Hipflask," and then move on with their lives. You may remember that the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters for doing that exact thing. Selling "Native Inspired" stuff in the way that Urban Outfitters does is a particularly egregious form of cultural appropriation. In this case, companies are profiting from and saturating the market with cultural art they didn't make. This practice makes it especially difficult for actual Native artists, ones who know how to use the materials and prints respectfully, to participate in those markets.
Gong cautions against this sort of shallow engagement with Native art: "Cultural art is like any resources, if you want it to thrive you have to put energy into it. If you keep taking from it, you eventually kill it."
Companies like Pendleton are a little bit better, but not by much. Though Pendleton sells some items that are made by Native artists, the majority of their stock consists of "Native American Inspired" items. Plus, they pitch their Native products using old-time-y, historical language, as if Native artists and designers aren't a thriving group of people who are doing cool shit all the time.
And then you have companies like Eighth Generation, who circulate the dollars that are spent on products featuring Native art back to the native artists who created the art in the first place. So. The choice is yours, blanket buyers!
But Gong's not trying to drive Pendleton or anyone else out of business. He thinks there's room for everyone to be successful while still supporting Native artists and entrepreneurs.
"Our goal is to model respectful ways of aligning with Native communities, artists and themes so that companies like Pendleton choose to work with Native artists or Native companies EVERY time they use Native art," he said. "We also would like to influence the way consumer experience products featuring Native art. We want them to ask themselves if their dollar is supporting more Inspired Natives or 'Native-inspired.'"