Thursday, November 17, 2005

Wal-Mart and Indian Art

Last Sunday Jana decided we should go to Durango for a visit to the new knitting store. She has recently rediscovered the craft and is vigorously working to perfect her technique. So, with kids firmly buckled into the back seat, we pointed the pickup east along Highway 162. After a stop in Aneth to satisfy Kira, Grange and Tarrik's desire for Gatorade and fill the gas tank with $3.00 a gallon gas, we were ready to travel.

Navajo Basket

When we arrived in Durango, Jana directed me to the shop, which was a genuine delight. The store was beautifully designed; the skeins of wool, sweaters, shawls and felted items were cheerfully displayed; and the staff, made up of knitting enthusiasts, was both attractive and friendly. I advised Tarrik and Grange that they should consider taking up the craft, since it appeared a good way to "meet chicks." Their sideways glances told me they were wondering why I was directing them toward a career in agriculture; baby chickens did not interest them. Ah, the innocence of youth. Actually, I was relieved that females are still of no interest to the boys.

After a stint in the Durango Recreation Center swimming pool, we grabbed a quick bite to eat at the local Subway sandwich shop and started back to Bluff. It was about that time Jana informed me that the tab for all the knitting material she had hauled in was approximately $500.00. The Navajo weavers have recently been telling me that rug prices needed to increase because gas and wool costs have gone up dramatically. Eleanor Yazzie even tried to add on a $50.00 fuel surcharge when she brought in her most recent storm pattern weaving. I was beginning to understand her logic.

As we drove into Cortez, with Jana's needles knickering out yards of material, I noticed the local Super Wal-Mart. Emblazoned on the facade was the slogan, "Always Low Prices." Now, I know many people have developed strong opinions about the Wal-Mart philosophy; how the company treats its suppliers and employees; and a variety of other things. I have no strong emotions about those particular issues, because I see them as merely symptomatic of what the consumers demand; the lowest prices possible. Apparently many people do not realize that we pay the price one way or the other. It seems naive to expect Wal-Mart to provide extremely low pricing without some corresponding offset.

For the most part, my interest in the Wal-Mart phenomenon is directly related to our local artists and the pricing of their creations. Complaints about how expensive their work is are as inevitable as stray dogs at a reservation convenience store. At the trading post, we work hard to give the artists a fair price, which can lead to retail prices that are a little higher than some people expect. We feel, however, that it also results in enhanced creativity and the perpetuation of traditional crafts that are quickly becoming extinct.

We have noticed over the years that when we feel the pinch of a slow economy or a tight money supply and start tightening up ourselves, the artist are less inclined to create fresh, new items. As we slow the outflow of money, the inflow of unusual art slows correspondingly. We find that the artists resort to repetition and poor quality to compensate for the lower income. To me that seems as natural as spring following winter.

Navajo Rug

Recently we sold a wonderful Edith Tsabetsaye Zuni squash blossom necklace, ring and earring set. The set was on the back counter to be packaged for shipping when an officious woman walked into the trading post. As she poked about the store, it became apparent that she had no sense of the quality of art she was inspecting, and was not pleased with the prices she was seeing. All at once she spotted the necklace and asked, "What is that?" I explained to her that it was an extraordinarily well crafted necklace by the premier Zuni cluster artist. "How much is it," she demanded. I informed her that it was already sold, but she persisted. When I told her the selling price, to avoid lecturing her about common courtesy, she blurted out, "Well, that's ridiculously expensive," and headed for the door. I bit my lip to avoid saying something I would regret.

I have lived my life amidst Southwestern art, and in spite of that, much of what I see strikes me as fresh, new and exciting. A beautiful basket, bracelet or blanket can still astonish me. There is a native beauty in much of the local art that captivates me, and makes me advocate for fair prices. Unfortunately hand-crafted items in general do not bring what they should. Many of us hew to the Wal-Mart philosophy of "Always Low Prices" without realizing the offsetting reality. When there is no economic incentive to create those baskets, bracelets and blankets, they will cease to exist.

Recently Elsie Holiday brought in a basket that fuses Mother Earth with Johonaa'ei, the bearer of the Sun. The history of the Navajo people and their hero twins radiates from the weaving. I was happy to pay Elsie's price, because I knew it would perpetuate her creativity and help keep Navajo basket weaving alive for at least a while longer; to me that is worth the the Sun, the Moon and the Earth.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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