Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Native American' art in name only

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I'VE been spending a lot of time on Etsy, an online marketplace where you can buy and sell vintage and handmade goods. I've found some great stuff on the site and opened my own vintage shop -- which is a chance to clean out my closet and get rid of old treasures.

But now I'm thinking of creating some handmade goods of my own to sell on Etsy. The hardest part is figuring out what to make; I love to sew, bead and even paint.

People buying and selling goods on Etsy are from all over the world, but, for some reason, I've noticed "native style" goods seem to be among the most popular. I've got to get in on this.

I typed "native American" into the search bar of the U.S.-based site and got more than 43,000 hits. About 23,000 of those items were handmade, which is amazing. But do those numbers mean there are thousands of native Americans making goods on Etsy?

Nope. After some digging, I found out just a fraction of those items are actually made by native American hands. What's up with that?

Most artisans selling handmade native American items are open about not being native American themselves.

They are putting their own creative twist on traditional items, like a dream-catcher mobile made out of white porcelain, or a beaded ponytail holder with a modern look. They aren't claiming they are "authentic native American" items.

That's a good thing.

You could call it a gentle cultural appropriation, or "cultural borrowing" if you like. It doesn't offend me, but then again, I'm not out there trying to make a living making native art.

There probably isn't any harm meant. Artists just seem to find us inspiring. It could even be seen as a positive thing.

It's better for people to embrace our cultural items than to see them as "primitive" or worthless. It means we are not a forgotten people and are an acknowledged and valuable part of today's world.

Can I get a hey-ya!

It's lame, however, when huge retailers like clothing store Forever 21 use our iconography with impunity and don't even bother to find out a bit about the people they are modelling their clothing after.

I'm sure tons of money has been made from our symbols and items, by people other than us. Forget about land rights, if we could have copyrighted "native style" into the treaties we signed, we could all be very wealthy today.

Maybe I'd feel better about Forever 21 if they actually did a little research and maybe made a few donations to some worthy aboriginal scholarship funds.

The real problem with this situation is we need to get our aboriginal artists more integrated into this digital world, so they too can get their work out there. There's a whole world out there wanting to buy our handmade goods and art; all we have to do is make it available to them.

With all due respect, the world of native art doesn't begin and end with the Copper Thunderbird, Norval Morrisseau. There are thousands of aboriginal artists out there, just waiting to be nurtured and developed.

We've got to get our aboriginal artists savvy in marketing their work, not just locally, but internationally. Our aboriginal artists, by and large, also seem to be underselling their stuff. They have been for generations, which is a shame.

We need to value our art just as much as everyone else does. Because the reality is nobody does it better: Only aboriginal people can create authentic aboriginal art.

 

Colleen Simard is a Winnipeg writer.

colleen.simard@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 J6

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