On any typical day in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the Plaza, the “heart and soul of the city,” Indigenous artists and elders sit (literally, on the ground) just outside posh, well-to-do shops selling art and southwest American kitsch to wandering, mostly white, sunblocked tourists.
On the ground, splayed on a red cloth or a blanket, lie the fruit of their labor: handmade earrings, necklaces, all manner of beadwork, silversmithing, pottery, and paintings of things as seen by Indigenous eyes.
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But those days seem like a distant memory a mere year after COVID-19 first reared its brutal head here in the U.S. The mutter of “Honey, come here, look at this!” is nowhere to be found in the Plaza today. No elders sit on the ground and sell their goods to rich white folks who pass through on their way to places like Albuquerque and Scottsdale, Arizona.
Money is scarce in Indian country right now, especially the kind of money that’s made by spending hours beading and stitching traditional Indigenous effects and eventually selling them to tourists. There are no pow wows and there are no pow wow afterparties or live shows where Indigenous musicians could get a percentage of ticket sales and set up a table to sell their merch by the door. And there are no fry bread stands either.
Drive about two hours southwest of Santa Fe to the Laguna Pueblo reservation, and just outside the rez, right off Interstate 40, a big yellow sign reads, “FRY BREAD, NEXT STOP.” But there’s no fry bread to be sold right now; the operation is shuttered, so no money is being made there either.
It’s a federal crime to sell inauthentic Native American art and traditional ceremonial items, but that certainly doesn’t stop the rats with the beady, red eyes from doing their worst.
And while COVID rages like a wildfire through Indian country (Indigenous peoples are 3.5 times more likely than whites to contract the disease), families are left wondering where and how they can earn money to keep the heat on, food on the table, and clothes on their children.
“They can sell their stuff online, can’t they?” a salesclerk asked me recently from behind plexiglass.
“No,” I responded, bellowing from behind a mask so she could hear me. “Selling handmade Indigenous things online is saturated with the wrong kind of people.” Which is true. It’s a dingy, dark alley riddled with white rats with beady, red eyes, and they’ll eat your face if you go down there with any other intention than to buy what they’re selling.
And what they’re selling is often fake.
Not to bury the lede here, but here’s the first step: go to Twitter and enter the hashtag #NativeTwitter.
Indeed, there’s a nasty black market out there, a place where wannabe Natives, and seedy backdoor dealers and shills fleece folks into believing what they’re selling is real, authentic Native this-and-that. They sell their snake oil by falsely claiming to be Indigenous. On their Instagram accounts and websites, and sometimes, yes, in person, they’ll claim to be a “quarter Cherokee” or a “descendent” of this tribe or that tribe. Some even will grow out their hair while others will simply post a photo they found on Google of a modern-looking Native.
In fact, it’s a federal crime to sell inauthentic Native American art and traditional ceremonial items, but that certainly doesn’t stop the rats with the beady, red eyes from doing their worst.
Fly (perhaps not now, but later) through Denver International Airport, and in Concourse A, right at the center, is a western-motif shop selling faux Native American headdresses and fake buckskin shirts with the kind of fringe you’d see on a hippie.
“How the hell do they get away with it?” a friend asked me a few years back when “Do you have protection?” still meant condoms and not masks.
These places, which pepper the country like the pox, are allowed to operate only because, dangling from the chicken feathers on the headdress are disclaimers that say things like, “this item was not made by an authentic Native American artist.”
But that begs the question: why would someone painstakingly research where to buy a bona fide Native-made dreamcatcher when they could just as easily get one at the airport while mowing down a Big Mac?
Yet, all is not lost. With the proliferation of social media in particular, it has gotten a bit easier to buy Native wares, food, and fun doohickies from genuine Indigenous peoples. You just have to know where to look, and that’s where I come in.
Not to bury the lede here, but here’s the first step: go to Twitter and enter the hashtag #NativeTwitter. There, you’ll find all manner of artists, authors, writers, ring makers, dancers, dreamcatcher weavers, and each are Native because if they are not, they are quickly run out.
There’s Steven Paul Judd, the filmmaker and artist. There’s Bethany Yellowtail, the clothing designer. There’s the musician, Frank Waln. There’s a whole host of talent to be found within that simple hashtag, which is a perfect place to pull on the thread and see where it leads.
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Because, right now, Indian country, in person, is closed. Signs are posted at the entry of the rez reading “RESIDENTS ONLY.” This is to protect the elders, the language, and ceremony keepers, from the ravages of the pandemic. Strangers stay out. Locals stay in.
Do the research, because every dollar given to a white shill or a non-Native-owned trading post is another dollar that’s taken from people who are already far too accustomed to cultural appropriation, liars, and thieves.
Vaccines are slowly making their way west to places like the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, so it’s quite possible things will get better, and soon. And if they do, if humans can congregate again closer than six feet in the near future without fear of killing grandma and grandpa, Indian country will open its doors as well, and the Plaza in Santa Fe will return, and so will the elders with their red cloths and blankets and their beautifully beaded bands and bracelets which invariably takes them hours and even days to put together with arthritic hands.
And the epilogue to this story is, simply, buy Native. Do the research, because every dollar given to a white shill or a non-Native-owned trading post is another dollar that’s taken from people who are already far too accustomed to cultural appropriation, liars, and thieves.
There’s no word in Oglala, my language, for “goodbye.” Tokša is translated (and truncated) to “see you,” and we hope we do—just virtually, maybe via Zoom. Please wear pants. Tokša.