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Why is the Customer Right?
Miranda Belarde-Lewis

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*(As an employee of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) I have been exposed to a different viewpoint regarding certain subjects below. It should not be assumed at any time that the following discussion is the position of the NMAI. The thoughts and opinions are my own and should be regarded as such. That being noted, it is my hope that the reader will formulate further opinions, discussion and research, as this subject certainly warrants all of the above.)

The artist does not control the art market; patrons with money control and drive the market. This simple statement is true for the art market in general. So why then, does the Native art market deserve special attention?

The Native art market is the subject here because art is a tangible, visible and physical means of sustaining a culture and its values. Natives have proven to be some of the most elastic and adaptable of people. Our cultural adaptability in the face of drastic change stems from the continuing practices of our ceremonies, lifeways and art. Imbedded within our artistic works are symbols and iconography that represent our unique individual communities, as well as imagery that resonates with other indigenous communities such as rain, land, water, animals and spirits. The process of creating Native art is also influenced by Native cosmologies, world view, and life philosophies. Native art contains oral traditions, represented in a visual format.

Native artists are influenced by major movements and mainstream trends in art as much as they are influenced by the traditional designs created by our predecessors. However, the market is not usually as receptive to Native artists creating non-traditionally styled Native art. When I refer to ''art,'' I am referring to the contemporary creations of Native artisans; when I refer to ''the market,'' I am referring to the patrons with money. These patrons can take the form of collectors, dealers and traders, and they have considerable power in deciding what representations of Native art will be viewed  by a larger audience, based on sales and potential sales. What artists and styles will be promoted with their gallery space and museum exhibitions is determined by a larger aesthetic, influenced by mainstream trends and sales potential.

Below, I will briefly explore some of the reasons why the relationship between Native artists and the patrons of Native art is more unbalanced than the ordinary artist/patron relationship. I will also examine the implications of the word ''art'' and how it has recently (in the last 30-40 years) been confused with ''artifact'' and how museums are helping to contribute to that confusion. Finally, I will illustrate how some patrons of Native art and artifacts have achieved some measure of balance and reciprocity with the communities they've spent decades (and millions) studying and collecting from, and how they might serve as a model for others.

On Sensitive Ground

A codependency has been building since relations were first established between the colonizers and the Natives of the Americas. Regalia, ceremonial and utilitarian objects of Native workmanship were traded for food, metal products, cloth and beads, and Natives eagerly traded for the new technologies. The thirst for Native material culture was established early; Victorian notions of ''the Noble Savage'' and the need to preserve the artifacts of a vanishing race helped fuel the salvage archeological expeditions into Indian Country in an attempt to document the endangered Native cultures. Many of these items now comprise the collections of both museums and individuals. It is these historic works that are helping to recreate older designs and regalia, yet these same pieces help to influence the stereotypes we fight even to this day. We deal with these stereotypes on many different levels, one of which is the definition of Native art.

If it holds true that the majority of artists create pieces that are invoked and inspired by their surroundings, personal experience and world view, then the art produced by Native artists is more likely to reflect the values, stories, lifeways and iconography of their Native communities and life experiences. Thus, the market surrounding contemporary Native artisans is especially assailable for several reasons.

The first reason is blood quantum. Being able to prove Native descendancy in the United States and First Nations Status in Canada is a major issue for both Natives and non-Natives. Artists lacking the proper ''Indian documents'' do not enjoy the same attention and favoritism shown to Natives who can prove indigenous family origins. Being acutely aware of the issues of authenticity generated by blood quantum leads to a hypersensitivity in ensuring that Natives are in fact Native. Blood quantum is a false security measure in determining if someone, and subsequently their art, is Indian enough. Stereotypes of what ''good Indian art'' is are a direct result of notions such as blood quantum and subsequently affect the sales of nontraditional pieces of Native art.

The second reason is percentages. According to the 2000 Census, approximately two million American Indian/Alaska Natives live in the United States. If we account for only 2% of the population, then the impact of our successes and failures is proportionately greater than any other racial group in the U.S. The failure of a Native artist choosing to share their culture through their art affects the entire home community. We come from ''at-risk'' communities; elevated levels of addiction, illness and poverty are a part of our daily lives. One reason our communities are at risk is because our internal means for economic sustainability have not yet been developed in a manner that would support all of our tribal members who choose to live and work in the town in which they were born. The machine of capitalism dictates that a disenfranchised community is ripe for outside sources to assert capital strength and creative direction, as the community cannot look to itself for financial strength. These outside sources come in the form of traders and dealers, only two of the many forms the patrons of art can take.

The third reason the Native art market is vulnerable is misinterpretation. Although an exotic and fascinating subculture in the new world since European contact was made in the late 1400's, the material culture of the host populations were considered rudimentary, unsophisticated and simple—reflections of the childlike peoples who made them. While interesting as novelties, our creations were viewed as only that. In recent decades, these novelties have come close to meaning as much–monetarily–to collectors as they do–spiritually and culturally– to the people who made them.

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