Sunday, June 15, 2008

What we value enough to copy

In conversation came the reminder: To be a storyteller you need a story to tell. I have been sitting on a story that was kindled during my vacation now several weeks back. As I start pealing the memories associated with the story I know only the following: It seems to be about outrage, heritage and what we value enough to copy.

The mangled roots of this ‘blog-journal’ begin at the turn of the 20th century. And, this story will be transformed by how the global economy challenges tourists to value authenticity; and, how and why culture is preserved by Native Americans and the purveyors of our nation’s history in this century. And in the world of the Internet this story can be informed by comments of others.

My personal part of this story starts with stops at roadside booths in Arizona and Nevada, to appreciate and purchase authentic Indian jewelry. Before this story started seeping into my purview, I would not have described my personal shopping for native jewelry as shopping for something authentic. I was trying to be about low impact discovery. My goal was to learn to relax and enjoy – to vacation.

I was the quintessential child in a candy store looking for a special treat. I was mesmerized by how similar, yet naturally different, the crafted-work was on the same table or in the booths of several Indians gathered flea market style. I learned that the stone was often named after the area it was mined, that some areas are now barren and that in Bisbee, the seasonal rains wash the turquoise into the roadside basins. I was told that the bevel side is up. Much of the strung, cut and polished gem stones crafted into jewelry used newer string technology which meant that clasps are no longer essential. Most importantly, I sensed that the business of making and marketing jewelry is a family affair. And I was surprised to find an Antique Indian Jeweler at the Boulder City Jamboree.

My eyes were on vacation. My brain was being delighted by the handiwork of others. But this rare get-a-way experience was sensing an undercurrent. I came to understand the livelihood of Native Americans artisans involved jewelry making passing from generation to generation and putting sons and daughters and self through college. It is prideful. It is full of tradition and inspiration. It is essential to the culture and it is being stamped upon by the flat world. One proud native mother expressed her outrage about fakes saying "Jewelry with .925 is not Indian". I bought from the work of her son for mine, and her for me and took away in some distant space in my brain her outrage. I was trying to be in some ideal place called vacation.

Ironically, this Indian mother’s story was further revealed to me in a place of mimic and replication - my primary vacation destination: the Grand Canyon. [1]

At the Grand Canyon National Park Desert View Watchtower Gift Shop, a sign above strings of silver feathered turquoise necklaces read: Authentic non-Indian jewelry. This sign above jewelry is the significant picture I failed to take. If I had thought journalistically, this image could have informed much of this story. The sign spoke awkwardly of the economic based invasion of Native Americans by replica jewelry Made in China and machine stamped .925. [2]

The watchtower, a mimic of Anasazi Indian watchtowers, is infused with storytelling both figuratively and literally. The design of this national park building completed in 1933 was commissioned and awarded to Mary Colter. This five-story site to see is on a promontory overlooking the Grand Canyon at the eastern end of the south rim.

The architecture informed by archeology, ethno-history and the work of Indian mural artists, including Hopi Fred Kabotie embodies the value of copying, storytelling, and preservation of Native American Culture. Authenticity is reportedly at the core of the architect’s work. The replica design was informed by turn of the century southwestern archeology. On its walls the tradition of storytelling in rock art are copies rendered by artist Fred Greer. These copies may be the only existing record of the original story painting found at an Abo, New Mexico Archaeological site.

Ms. Colter’s designs were commissioned by Santa Fe Railway and the Fred Harvey Company which launched the Native American souvenir business. This company’s transformation includes becoming the concessionaires of National Parks. The souvenir and concession business began by leveraging the traditions and skills of local artisans. This leveraging spawned tradition based Navajo, Zuni, Hopi and Pueblo family businesses that have now supported several generations of displaced Native Americans. So the ability of this outraged Indian mother to market to tourists, culturally based jewelry and crafts, is directly tied to the business that is now the target of her rage. In civilizing the southwest, trinkets were mass produced by artisans supplied sheet silver and pre-cut turquoise by the Harvey Company.

This story, in all its hyper-parts, evolved because of an undercurrent of injustice I sensed but for which I had no context to take a position. The outrage of the Indian mother is now in context. I believe that if committed to practicing integrity and quality, National Park Gift Shops should not be selling Made In China Indian jewelry. My research,subsequent to vacationing, reveals that this act of selling imports as Souvenir is not out of character for the legacy company. And the new company, that gets access to 5 million visitors a year, is following a common practice. But, souvenirs for the Las Vegas are different than souvenirs from our National Parks. I concluded that Indian Crafts sold at our National Parks should be authentic not imported reproductions.

1) Most visited natural wonder on the planet. 5 million visitors a year with up to 30,000 visitors per day in peak season. 2) Sterling Silver objects are stamped with either the word "Sterling" or ".925" which refers to 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% other metals, usually copper.

Some take-a-ways:

  • Sometimes transformation obfuscates purpose, and often transformation is economically based.
  • Philanthropy has a role to play as an underwriter of efforts to transfer tradition knowledge.
  • Goals can be in conflict therefore resolutions must be value based.

Postscript: At the AMERIND MUSEUM, the ‘Traditions in Clay’ Exhibit depicts a history of pottery making and ‘a competition experience’. The results of the competition were expressive in several ways and copying was part of the participant experience. A museum collection interprets. This interpretation coupled with the story of the tradition transfer made me tear-up yet I hold no details in my memory about the pottery or tribe. I only have this sense of gratitude that this experience was available and that I had a moment to connect.


adelehouston said...

This reflective blog-journal helped me learn something about myself. My only stated vacation goal was to see the canyon. The real hope was to get some distance from the daily bread chat - voices in my head. The result was some numbness and the percolation my core values. Discovery and authenticity were central to my vacation choices.

It started out in bone form with this intro: So was it good, risky, challenging, liberating, informing - a spontaneous gathering of family that will flow with several miles of highway into a planned, rehearsed investment of celebration of family? It is too early to tell the full impact of confused bewildered conversation and it’s unraveling but today’s blog is one outcome.

Chris Gray said...

Never saw the Grand Canyon, but the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is quite impressive. I’m sure no one sees the irony of Made in China trinkets in the Trading Post below Little Big Horn. While my visits to Yellowstone were undeniably vacations, the vacations were more for my sister and her husband. I was along for the ride and to help watch the child, on the second trip. My trip to Custer Township was more of a vision quest.

If I remember my Hesse at all correctly, you are now something like a twelfth degree Magister Ludi, Master of the Glass Bead Game. All the knowledge of the world is inscribed on the beads and the beauty of the construct, the inter-relationships created by the rearranging of all that knowledge, is the standard by which the game is judged.

So it is with hypertext and you have learned it well. I remember my friend Kathy Fay explaining how she was using it to create software to teach Japanese back in the mid-‘80s, so she didn’t even have external links and had to create all the other data internally.

I can see that is a tremendously powerful way of making one’s points. Not that my overall agreement with your sense of outrage would be in any doubt. Learning it still seems a far off consideration, though life has offered me other big surprises in regards to learning along the way.

As for turquoise jewelry, the only piece I ever owned I gave away and it was no trinket. John Baringer from the Exit Experimental Theatre Co. gave it to me when he went to live in Tucson. I suppose he thought he was passing a mantle to me, to represent native culture by authentically copying it. Unfortunately, I felt unworthy of such a charge and such a pure gift and passed it on to someone I, correctly it seems, judged as worthy. Daria Marmaluk is still devoted to doing world music programs for children in a big swath of the country. As her husband is a Chilean Indian, as I understand it, a fair amount of that music is undoubtedly from native culture.

I did, once in my hitch-hiking travels, happen upon a treasure trove of probably mass produced, ersatz Navaho sand painting which I gave out as gifts. I have seen them once in a while at friends’ or relatives places over the years. If they were authentic, the artists certainly did not benefit from my discovery. I have no recollection of finding them, other than there were many and I was far from here.

I always used to call my vacations on the streets of New Haven, a “Holiday in Cambodia”. Of course, I was a Jello Biafra fan. As I said to the woman at our reunion (who said, “Oh, what a great time that was!”) “Oh, yeah, it was great having Martin Luther King killed two months before our graduation and, then, Bobby Kennedy killed a month later. Yeah, that was a really great time!”

Mr. Popularity, that’s me.

adelehouston said...

Ms Houston,
We here at Xanterra take our responsibility to represent the products we sell, very seriously. As the single largest buyer of Native American Jewelry and crafts we play an important roll in supporting the individual artists by showcasing their goods in these historic venues within the National Parks we manage. Our collection comes from many sources; the individual crafts person, credible traders, generations owned businesses run by and staffed by Native Americans. Each store has a dedicated area that features only Native American jewelry and crafts. We also have a mission to offer our guests memorable items to remind them of their visit to each park. With visitors coming from all over the world, that assortment of product broadly represents a wide range of gifts, souvenirs, apparel, food items, books, music, and, costume jewelry. And yes, within _those_ departments, goods are sourced locally, within the United States and overseas. I believe the jewelry you refer to in your blog is, specifically, costume jewelry that is actually signed – NON-NATIVE, AMERICAN MADE. We have developed these signs to educate the guest, that we offer jewelry that is “southwest” designed and inspired but that is not Native made. This, in no way, reflects a trend or desire to diminish the importance and beauty of the ages old Native traditions. We have the opportunity to teach our visitor the difference, give them a chance to learn more about the timeless crafts we offer and create a clear-cut separation from one to the other. (the Xanterra company)