Christina Rose
Scotti and Juliana Clifford, Oglala, are the founding band members of Scatter Their Own, who are in their second year of workshops with the First Peoples Fund.

Pine Ridge: Building an Artists' Economy

Christina Rose

The First People's Fund is helping emerging artists learn how to make money and expand their market, and the nonprofit's new report, “Establishing A Creative Economy: Art as an Economic Engine in Native Communities,” sheds light on the Fund's success.

With training and financial support through the First People's Fund, some artists have raised their incomes from under $10,000 a year to as much as $50,000 a year. According to Lori Pourier (Oglala/Mnicoujou Lakota), president of the First People's Fund, traditional Native arts may be the kind of economic catalyst the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has been looking for.

RELATED: Pine Ridge's Scatter Their Own: Rez Rockers on the Rise

The First People’s Fund began in 1995 as a donor fund through the Tides Foundation. Jennifer Easton—a philanthropist and activist who has produced award-winning documentaries about Native American issues, and founding member of the Fund, as well as the namesake of the Fund's Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Awards—had backed numerous small businesses and entrepreneurial projects in Indian country. While her financial support has spanned a number of fields, her heart has always remained with the culture bearers: the elders, and those who make traditional art.

Nearly two decades later Easton’s vision has come to pass. Since its inception, the fund has served 540 artists from 26 Native communities across the country, and provided over $1 million in support. Through workshops and capital, artists are increasing their business acumen while promoting the values and craftsmanship of their communities.

Working with Elouise Cobell and Kevin Red Star in the early days of the First People's Fund, Pourier said they emphasized the importance of the Fund encouraging artists to pursue their crafts and thus instill a sense of cultural self-esteem, dignity and pride through carrying on their heritage.

“We wanted those values to remind us of our responsibilities as leaders in the field,” Pourier said.

Today, the First People’s Fund partners with ArtSpace, offering mentors, workshops and financing that allows artists to develop their businesses. With access to supplies, financing to travel to other markets, access to the Internet, studio spaces and other resources, the First People's Fund is in the planning stages for an arts center in Kyle, South Dakota, at the Lakota Prairie Motel mall across from the Oglala Lakota College.

Their goal is for the center to have a Wifi-equipped computer lab, which will allow artists access to the online art market. There may be a gallery and group space for classes and training. An art bus will travel to each of the nine districts in Pine Ridge to allow even those without transportation much-needed access to resources and materials.

The center and bus will fill many needs cited in the recent First People's Fund survey, “Establishing A Creative Economy: Art as an Economic Engine in Native Communities.” The survey explored the challenges and successes experienced by Lakota artists. 

According to the report, more than half of the Native households on Pine Ridge are engaged in a home-based business, and 79 percent of them are in the arts. The arts reflect about 30 percent of Native businesses across the country, and most of the artists live below the poverty line, the report states.

The Fund report states that 61 percent of emerging artists have incomes of less than $10,000, but for those who go through the workshops and participate in the program, only 7.5 percent of Fund artists earn less than $10,000.

Artists who participated in the “Artists in Business Leadership Program” were able to increase their individual annual revenues by nearly 38 percent, from $19,575 to $26,982, and some saw their earnings go from below $10,000 to above $50,000, the report said.

Scotti and Julianna Clifford, musicians from the Pine Ridge band Scatter Their Own, have been participating in the Fund workshops. “This is our second year, and if it wasn’t for First Peoples Fund we couldn’t have produced our album,” Scotti said, noting that the First People's Fund paid for studio time and for manufacturing.  “The workshop helped a lot. It really speaks to how to sell your art, how to price your art. I never thought about the business side that much. Music is such a self-expression and we forget about expenses, or how to be compensated for the music we made. Most artists aren’t in art to make money anyway,” he said.

Watch Scatter Their Own's video "Taste the Time":

According to Pourier, the funding group focuses on artists who are emerging, who are putting in a solid amount of time each week but are limited to their community markets. Pourier said, “We provide business coaching to help the artists understand business practices, increase their skill sets and knowledge; things like, if you change the size of your beads, you would get a higher end product.”

The survey showed that among emerging artists, 75 percent of women and 61 percent of men want access to other markets. The artists want the training, support and opportunity to see their work in a professional environment. Pourier said that building confidence is often a key step in the artists ability to go from what the Fund calls the “emerging artist” to one who leads by example, teaches others, and becomes an important asset to the community.

While many artists look toward expanding their markets outside of the reservation, almost all continue to sell to their own network of friends, community members and tourists. The report noted that 45 percent of artists enjoy selling their art from home, while 74 percent of emerging artists and 90 percent of Fund artists sell their work year-round.

On the Pine Ridge Reservation, tourism is increasing, and tourists are buying art. In 2011, 8 percent more tourists visited than in 2010. Tourists are interested in the culture and history and in 2011, tourists spent an average of $172 on souvenirs, according to the report. Increased tourism increases demand for art, allowing Native artists to sell their work in their own community for higher prices.

“But we want to stress that it’s about sustaining the traditional knowledge, not just business,” Pourier said. “The values of generosity, respect, integrity, fortitude, wisdom, strength and humility runs throughout the workshops and intentions of the program.”

The survey report stated, “By the end of their fellowship periods, 55 percent of Fund artists say their understanding of generosity changed; 87 percent are willing to share documentation about their art with others.”

Creating a strong economy can increase salaries and opportunities for economic development while strengthening the nations and communities. According to the report, “If an emerging artist could sell just one item at the same average price as a Fund artist, they would increase individual annual sales by $1,750,” which would be an increase of nearly 20 percent.  “If all of the artists were able to appreciate the value of their work, that could add a substantial amount of income to the reservation economy.”

Pourier said the bottom line is “about building confidence, and building the cost of doing business, what is the difference between wholesale and retail, knowing the total cost, how much you need to make to break even.  Our goal is to help the artists become successful, have the experience of leaving the community and being able to come back home.”

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