Three Questions to Help End Cultural Appropriation

December 07, 2015

When you visit the stores this holiday season, you'll run across countless products - from shoes to blankets to shirts - featuring designs inspired by indigenous cultures. So, if there's such a huge demand for Native art, why do Native communities remain some of the poorest in North America? And why do companies that want to produce products featuring Native aesthetics and themes so rarely collaborate with Native artists?

Well, for one, both the producers and consumers of these products have been exposed to a lifetime of media depicting Native peoples in really limiting contexts. Here's a few of the most common:

  • A romantic or tragic symbol of American history
  • A cause or charity project
  • An extension of the natural environment

Almost all mainstream media over the last 400 years has shown us in one of these ways. As just one example, the iconic "End of the Trail" image, which was based on a sculpture by James Earle Fraser, encompasses all three of these contexts. He described this work as depicting the American Indian's "exit into oblivion."

Although each one of these problematic themes - and their negative impact on real live Native peoples - deserves its own post, the takeaway here is the theme that is missing. Producers and consumers of cultural art don't see us as highly skilled, hard working professionals who would make great business partners or collaborators.

At Eighth Generation we understand that appropriation is about more than hurt feelings. It has real cultural and economic consequences. So in addition to creating Native-owned and designed products, and modeling responsible ways of partnering with Native artists through the Inspired Natives Project, we are committed to raising awareness around the importance of supporting Native artists and businesses.

We think we're on the right track, but there's a long way to go, and YOU can help! Before you buy Native art or a product featuring Native art, just ask three simple questions:

    1. Is the artist Native?

    Generally, this means the artist is enrolled or registered in a tribe. If you don’t see the artist’s name or tribe on the packaging or website, the product was NOT designed by a Native artist. And don’t be fooled by the term “Native-inspired”, a term that grew in popularity after the passage of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which made it illegal to call something "Native" when Native people had nothing to do with it. So saying a product is “Native-inspired” is often an attempt to mislead consumers into thinking the product is connected to real Native peoples without violating the law. 

      2. Is the company Native-owned?

      There aren't yet a lot of Native-owned companies that you can buy products from, because there just isn't a lot of start up capital or business capacity in our communities. So it's especially important to support Native peoples that still managed to pursue success through entrepreneurship.  The more you support Native-owned businesses, the more business knowledge cycles back into our communities and fosters sustainable, self-determined models for Native artists creating arts-based businesses. If you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to ask!

        3. Is the artist being fairly and equitably compensated?

        When a Native artist licenses artwork to a company, they’re signing off on more than just their artwork. They are also granting permission for the company to tell their personal story and align with their tribe. With these greater stakes in mind, it's especially important to be aware of that fact that not all licensing arrangements are equal.

        Although agreements will vary widely based upon the stature of the artist and the size of the company, they generally include a combination of an upfront fee, and royalties based on sales and product exchanges.  However, you will hear of arrangements that vary as widely as companies deliberately seeking out artists who do not have a voice, and purchasing the rights to artwork in perpetuity for $200 -- to arrangements like Eighth Generation's Inspired Natives Project, where artists receive an upfront fee, royalties, access to product, and invaluable capacity building. There's no one right model, but remember that it's OK to ask. They may tell you it’s confidential, but the way they handle an inquiry says a lot about their values.

        With the information you acquire from asking these 3 questions, you'll be able to make an informed decision about whether to buy.  Regardless of which way you decide to go, we remind you that resources used to buy appropriated artwork leads to more appropriation. More appropriation leads to a further decrease in the already limited opportunity for cultural artists and Native-owned businesses. 




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