Indian-inspired products slip through cracks of South Dakota labeling laws

Published: Jan. 3, 2022 at 1:16 PM MST
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN) - Cultural tourism is one of South Dakota’s most profitable industries. The sale of arts and crafts based on Native American influences make up part of the billions of dollars the state earns in tourism revenue each year.

However, the way online storefronts label certain Indian-inspired products make them easy to confuse with genuine Native American articles.

Prairie Edge Trading Co. & Galleries in Rapid City is a brick-and-mortar retailer that specializes in Native American goods.

The store works with local American Indians to market their artisan items inside their gallery. They also carry mass-produced, polished goods made to appeal to tourists.

Their digital catalog highlights Indian-made arts and crafts, but they also sell some Native American-inspired products.

Some examples include blankets made by Pendleton Woolen Mills, a Oregon-based apparel manufacturer. Pendleton is a non-Native owned company, and their blankets are typically adorned with Native American-made artwork.

While the designs may be legitimate, the fabrics are not handwoven by an Indian artist. The Pendleton website indicates their inventory is manufactured on a production line, but there is no evidence that all workers are Native American.

This means the Pendleton blankets sold at Prairie Edge are considered non-qualifying {Indian} products because they are produced by non-Indian labor - despite being designed by a Native American, in some cases - according to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Ch. II 309.2 (3)(ii).

The Prairie Edge online store includes this Indian-inspired blanket manufactured by Pendleton...
The Prairie Edge online store includes this Indian-inspired blanket manufactured by Pendleton Woolen Mills, a clothing manufacturer based out of Oregon. The product's collection title and caption draw from Native American culture, but there is not an explicit disclaimer that says the blanket is not Native-made. According to South Dakota law, articles similar to Native goods must have a sign directly above the physical product designating its non-Native origin, but the codified law does not explicitly say online storefronts must follow this rule. (Product picture and text repositioned for clarity.)(Prairie Edge)

Yet, each of the blankets’ product pages include a caption detailing the Native American inspirations behind the designs. Some are a part of a product line, like the “Chief Joseph Collection” and “Legendary Series,” which are terms related to Native American history and culture.

A number of the blankets also feature well-known American Indian motifs, such as geometric designs, buffalo silhouettes and the medicine wheel or “circle of life.”

However, there are no explicit disclaimers indicating they are not Native American-made on the Prairie Edge website. The only descriptions of an origin are “Made in the USA” labels and Pendleton branding.

While this may potentially lead consumers to believe the product is handmade by an American Indian, Jody Gillaspie, director of the Office of the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, says because these symbols are not trademarked, they’re fair game.

“Native Americans are not going to go out and trademark that - the colors or designs - because it should be available to all,” Gillaspie says. “Could that help them? Possibly.”

As far as state law is concerned, South Dakota Codified Law chapter 37-7-2.1 states that Native American-inspired goods that are not Indian-made must have a sign placed directly above the article explicitly stating “that the articles are not genuine American Indian art or craft.”

Gillaspie says this requirement applies to physical storefronts, but it is unclear whether this rule extends to virtual or online catalogs, like the one on Prairie Edge’s website.

Still, she believes the general spirit of the labeling practice should still apply: “to me, when you’re selling that product or service through the internet, it shouldn’t be any different than when I walk into a storefront.”

Gillaspie says even though the blankets draw heavily from Indian imagery, she is uncertain as to whether the sale of the blankets is a direct violation of state law.

A Pendleton Woolen Mills sign at Prairie Edge.
A Pendleton Woolen Mills sign at Prairie Edge.(Dominik Dausch)

We spoke with Prairie Edge staff, who told us they believe Pendleton is established enough to where a sign designating its non-Native origin isn’t necessary. They say the company has a good rapport with the Native American community and that owning a Pendleton blanket is something akin to tradition.

However, other products without an explicit Indian or non-Indian product labeling sold on Prairie Edge’s website include resin medicine wheels and a number of “Native American” beaded earrings. These are more typical examples of the labeling issue - owing to their cheaper costs compared to the Pendleton products, which range from $100-$200.

Prairie Edge general manager Dan Tribby explains that Pendleton works with Native American artists to create a design to be placed on a blanket, and acknowledged the product itself is not Indian-made.

“As with Pendleton, they purchase of work with the artists to create the artwork itself and not the product. If Pendleton is selling a blanket with Native artwork on the blanket, the company recognizes which Native person created that artwork,” Tribby says. “Not that the blanket is created by a Native person, but that the artists gets the credit for the piece of art that is transposed on the blanket.”

Tribby says artists also get a cut of the profits for each blanket sold, but he isn’t sure how much.

He also says the law “is difficult to understand as there are a number of versions of the act.”

“There’s so many different versions of it and add-ons and that kind of stuff. That’s up to us. We’re in that business, so that really boils down to me trying to find all the amendments and that sort of thing ... the largest point of the Arts and Crafts act is to be truthful about the piece of artwork and who created it,” Tribby says. “We strive here at Prairie Edge to follow the letter of the law when it comes to the Native American Arts and Crafts Act.”

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), which has an office at The Journey Museum and operates the attached Sioux Indian Museum, promotes buying art from Native Americans and enforces the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, a truth-in-advertising law that prevents non-Natives from advertising Indian-inspired goods as “Native-made” or other monikers.

We reached out to the IACB, who could not comment directly on the story, but pointed us to this brochure detailing the federal and state laws.

Tribby says there’s not much in the way of education and even enforcement in the state concerning how stores and galleries label Native American products. Tribby adds he would like to see more outreach from the IACB, whom he believes could do more to appraise retailers and the general public on Native arts laws.

“They’re three blocks away,” Tribby says. “I just don’t see them traveling ... If the gallery people really had their questions answered by the people who are calling the shots, we’d make the changes immediately.”

Consumerism in Native art

Prairie Edge gets tens of thousands of visitors to its website, and commercial goods are typically more popular - and cheaper - than handmade goods.

Tribby says Prairie Edge purchases Native American art directly from the artists, which they then put up for sale in southwestern section of the store.

Mass-produced articles, like jewelry, dreamcatcher kits and the aforementioned Pendleton blankets, are found in the store’s eastern wing.

The Indian retailer owner says Prairie Edge’s store model relies on selling non-Native goods to support their Native-centric functions.

“There is no way that Prairie Edge could ever make a living the way we do business on the Native gallery. We pay too high of a percentage to our artists and we keep our retail prices as low as we possibly can keep them,” Tribby says. “I have to be able to pay the bills, just like any other business.”

A statue in front of Prairie Edge, a Rapid City, S.D. Indian retail store.
A statue in front of Prairie Edge, a Rapid City, S.D. Indian retail store.(Dominik Dausch)

Tribby says each customer that walks into his store comes in with a different opinion on whether their purchase must be Native-made or simply Indian-adjacent.

“We don’t have any any problems selling non-Native-made artwork, but it just needs to be labeled. To some of our customers, it’s really important to buy something that’s Native-made. To other people, they just really want something that’s quality; the artist is important whether that person is Native or non-Native.”

This Native-inspired headdress can be found on the Prairie Edge's online catalog.

This Native-inspired headdress can be found on the Prairie Edge's online catalog. The product's caption clearly indicates its non-Native origin, which general manager Dan Tribby says is a labeling standard all of the high-end crafts follow. (Product picture and text repositioned for clarity.)(Prairie Edge)

For decades, Tribby says, American Indian artisan goods has been undervalued by the average American consumer, who hasn’t always been willing to pay prices comparable to traditional art.

“Back in the days when people paid nothing for the art - those days, they’re not gone, but we’ve done everything that we can to make those days be gone,” Tribby says.

From the producer side, Tribby says some of the elderly Native population have stopped making art outright because this consumer trend. He also points to the COVID pandemic as a general problem that has devastated Native artists livelihoods.

Plus, Tribby says the many instances of e-commerce stores advertising outright counterfeit Native goods on their websites diminishes the value of Native arts and crafts as a whole and hurts artists and Native-centric stores alike.

“There has been too much, over the years, of non-Native people posing as Native people, and that’s no good for anybody in this business. It’s no good for the Native artists. It’s no good for the galleries. Plus, I don’t think there’s any gallery owners that want to be deceived,” Tribby says.

Peter Strong, director of the Racing Magpie, a Lakota-centered arts organization, believes most people don’t think about where or how their goods are made, and even conscientious consumers don’t know to whom they should report mislabeled products.

“I think it’s not super clear to people here in the state who would enforce that state law and who to report to,” Strong says. “It’s probably not a high-priority law when it comes to state law enforcement as well ... it should be a high-priority. This is about truth and this is about protecting our citizens of our state and of the tribal nations that are here in the state as well.”

This report is the second in a three-part series on the labeling of Indian products laws and the impact of illegitimate goods on Native Americans.

Part one can be found here.

Part three can be found here.

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