In 2011, in addition to the beginning of the Urban Outfitters case with the Navajo Nation, Etsy was gaining momentum as an important marketplace for handmade goods. And, as an arts advocate, I saw big potential in Etsy for Native American artists to reach patrons and consumers throughout the world. But, the label “Native American” holds great monetary value, and even the average person or shop owner on Etsy realizes this and they misuse these words or tags to name and describe their products to garner more hits when consumers search for handmade Native jewelry or art.
This rampant mis-labeling creates a situation where you have thousands of non-Native people selling hundreds of thousands of products that show up when these terms are searched. It drowns out the authentic work made by the people who are ascribing to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act and who depend on it as a way to maintain cultural practices through arts creation as their livelihood.
I have informed Etsy shop owners about this act, however, they just adjust the phrase “Native American” to “Native Inspired." In this way, they are within the limits of the law, and they still get their products listed in the search results for Native products. They can continue to sell their work and profit without being completely upfront and honest.
Since the 1930s, we have known the positive potential of the arts as a form of economic development in Indian Country. We know that a third of all Native people are either practicing or potential artists, and this is a huge resource that we possess within our own people. However, we are currently being drowned out by big non-Native companies, as well as individual handcraft artists, who are all misusing these terms to further themselves at the expense of Native artists. These culprits include established non-Native businesses (like Pendleton, Ralph Lauren, Urban Outfitters, Minnetonka Moccasins, Forever 21, and basically any brand with a "Navajo" collection that has nothing to do with Native people, and so many others) who have built their empire off of selling "the Native" and selling a culture that was never theirs to sell in the first place.
We have tried numerous times to educate consumers about the ethical aspects of this issue, as well as the economic aspects: if our artists can’t make a living off of arts creation, then they are forced to do it less, and artists are our culture bearers. Our artists are the ones that carry our unique and critically important cultural practices from the past and into the future.
We live in a digital world, and a significant percentage of sales transactions occur online. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act, as it exists now, needs to be updated to include "Native Inspired" to better protect our artists and Native arts patrons and supporters.
We are also asking for your help. What can you do?:
1. Contact the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and ask them to update the Act.
2. If you see a violator on Etsy (or anywhere), report them to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board.
3. Don't be afraid to ask a shop owner if the work is authentic.
4. Continue to support and promote authentic Native American made items.
Feel free to share the image above left with your social networks. You can read more about my various critiques of Etsy here: Indian Headdresses Should Not Be on Etsy, Etsy Is A Breeding Ground, and Does Etsy Condone Trademark Violation?
For the Native American artists who are on Etsy: I have tried to weed through the hundreds of thousands of shops on Etsy and to 'Favorite' the Native-owned ones for anyone who would like assistance in viewing a quick link and supporting this endeavor. You can view these shops at this link. This list is not entirely comprehensive - there is an ongoing cycle of new shops that open and close, but I try very hard to keep it updated. Also, some shop owners are just straight dishonest when it comes to their tribal affiliations; I am not the identity police, and I do not ask for a CIB or other form. I'm not an authority on this matter, I'm merely a Native arts promoter and supporter, and I know I am not alone in wanting to contribute however I can to the continuance of Native American artistic practices and creativity. And sometimes, promoting and supporting means acknowledging and minimizing the challenges that face artists.