Courtesy Louie Gong
The 'Inspired Natives' collection includes these mobile phone cases designed by Louie Gong and Michelle Lowden.

Why Buy 'Native Inspired' Products When You Can Get the Real Thing?

Richard Walker

When a big apparel or furnishings manufacturer looks to Native culture for inspiration, the result is "Native-inspired" product that has better distribution than most actual Native designers can hope for. These designers can get the feeling they're having their pockets picked by the big boys -- and in extreme cases they undoubtedly are. Louie Gong, Nooksack, one of today's most successful Native design entrepreneurs, has seen it happen enough in his field, and he's decided to do something about it with a project called Inspired Natives, an initiative to promote Native artists.

According to Gong’s website, the initiative’s goals include: build the business knowledge and capacity of popular Native-arts entrepreneurs so they can meet demand for their work worldwide; show companies how to create and sell products featuring Native art in a way that supports Native people; and raise awareness about the cultural and economic impact of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation.

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The first designer Gong has tapped for the project is Michelle Lowden, Acoma Pueblo. Lowden now has her own section at, featuring pillows, a blanket, and a notebook with her "Transformation" design, and mobile phone cases with her "Rainstorm" design.

The pillows and notebook designed by Michelle Lowden, Pueblo Acoma, are part of the Inspired Natives line of products.

Gong started Inspired Natives because he’s frustrated with “Native inspired” clothing and other products produced by large companies. He believes each "Native inspired" product represents not only a missed opportunity for talented Native artists to build knowledge through collaboration, “it also presents a tangible barrier to Native arts entrepreneurs who must compete for a spot on shelves already dominated by non-Native companies producing products featuring appropriated art. At the same time, socially conscious consumers who appreciate Native themes and aesthetics ... are consuming these products without conscious awareness of how patronage either supports or undermines the work of indigenous artists and entrepreneurs.”

Gong encourages consumers to support artists who are inspired Natives, not Native-inspired artists; think before they buy a product featuring indigenous art; and use the hash tag #INSPIREDNATIVES.

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bullbear's picture
Submitted by bullbear on
I have seen many artists whose comfort level is only being the creative portion of the enterise rather than the business rep. Sales, marketing, deadlines, filling back orders, accounting, packing and shipping can be overwhelming when an artist and their spouse/companion consider materials, overhead and budgeting. Unfortunately, artists know of business partnerships that became distressed and a bitter parting of ways occurred. If you have lived long enough, you will recall when Indian art took the country by storm and non-Indians wardrobe was not complete without a squash blossom, concho belt, or heishi necklace. Movie stars and politicians sported these bulky jewelry which trickled down to artists who painted and carved. Native artists were driving luxury vehicles, dining on steak dinners, wearing fine clothing and bringing home more than bacon. There has not been a time that the pendulum has swung that high again in nearly fifty years. Call it a phenomenon or rediscovery, but it brought forth throngs of fabulous artists from every corner of the country and America, literally, bought into it. Today, the art collectors who have deep pockets have filled their homes and can often be seen buying original works for the purpose of donating and benefitting from the tax credit. A person could write a book on Native American art including this happenstance, but they would find a challenge in capturing the history in its entirety in a single book. I wish Inspired Natives all the best in its every effort, particularly when our economy needs much more than a shot in the arm.