Lanapo is a not-for-profit marketplace that connects
Native American Artisans and their crafts to a broad, online community of shoppers.
LANAPO is an online marketplace and cultural learning and exchange platform. It seeks to empower American Indian artisans to sell their work directly through the Lanapo online marketplace and receive absolutely one hundred percent of the profits they generate. Through its artisan-centered and narrative-driven approach, Lanapo provides a space for cultural learning, advocacy, and preservation of heritage.
In a product-centric world, artisans on Lanapo are free to convey their culture and traditions for themselves, and have less pressure put upon them to adhere to imperialist constructs of what it means to be “American Indian,” and what “American Indian artwork” should be.
Lanapo provides an opportunity for the consumer to learn something valuable, buying a story, biography, or culture rather than just a product, and a space for artisans to convey the cultural history of their work.
By removing the profit-taking middle-men, who often buy artwork and resell it at much higher prices, from the selling process, artisans are free to receive a price they deserve for their intricate and time-consuming work.
Indian crafts, and the traditions woven into the making of those crafts, have always constituted a large part of many tribes cultural heritage in the United States. As such, the processes for craftwork and the crafts themselves contain strong ties to “ancestry, a communal history, and a relationship with a tribal nation” (Reynolds-White Hawk, 2012).
In response to generational poverty and lack of access to services on reservations, the federal government initiated policy during the 1950s-1970s, which pressured Indian populations to move to cities. The effort, largely unpopular on reservations, prompted a migration, but, upon arrival, many who had relocated were faced with a lack of job opportunity (Williams, 2013). Today, over 70% of American Indians (AIs) live in urban settings, where they continue to contend with poverty levels that rival the nation’s poorest reservations—Denver, Phoenix, and Tuscon have poverty levels for Indians approaching 30% (Macartney, 2013). The jobs that relocated AIs do occupy tend to be inline with job training offered by government programs decades ago, and today the large percentage of AIs in urban environments work in the social services sector and retail (Census, 2013). With urbanization comes a departure from traditional occupations, chiefly arts and crafts (R. Lossie, personal communication, 2013). Additionally, many have spoken to the way urban environments make it more difficult for relocated AIs to stay in touch with traditions and other members of their tribe. This makes it harder for these urban AIs to express, reinforce and grow their cultures, notably, through the continued heritage of craftwork.
On tribal lands, where poverty is equally rampant, craftwork and other traditional occupations remain an option for many, although numbers of AIs engaged in the occupation are decreasing. On the Navajo Nation “only 2,702 households are engaged inarts and crafts” and other traditional practices as a form of livelihood (NNDED, 2002). The general consensus is that craftwork is no longer a viable occupational alternative—craftwork “provides an average of only $8,680.0 per annum to a household” (NNDED, 2002). This lack of viability stems from a
“lack of appropriate retail outlets for [artisans] wonderful works, these crafts people are unable to sell their products to the tourists, and end up selling them to the scrupulous traders in the border towns, who in turn sell the same stuff to the tourists at exorbitant prices. Thus, the Navajo craftsmen as well as the tourists - both end up being losers. We have a large number of tourists visiting the Navajo Nation, but we capture a very small amount of tourist dollars” (NNDED, 2002).
As the world globalizes, young AI artisans across the country are abandoning their cultures’ traditional craftwork in search of modern jobs, forced by economic realities to give up their cultural heritage, and leave their homes, families, and friends, in search of financial stability. When this happens, exquisite artistic traditions passed down for generations are lost, along with the enormous amount of cultural capital craftwork keeps alive.
While trekking in and exploring the artistic culture of Morocco’s remote Atlas Mountains during the spring of 2014, I came to a realization that has profoundly affected the way I think about how traditional craftspeople sell their work. The artisans I met on my travels echoed much of what I’d heard from Native American artisans here in the U.S.—that avenues through which they can sell their crafts are few. As a result, even when working through fair-trade organizations, it is nearly impossible for artisans to make a living while perpetuating their cultures through the creation of their traditional crafts.
I realized that the ability for artisans to sell their own work online—and, in so doing, remove the profit-taking ‘middleman’ from the equation—was now possible. I’ve noticed how dependent traditional craftspeople are on middlemen to sell their work and how easy it is for those middlemen to unfairly profit by reselling crafts at a huge markup. It is only rarely, I’ve found, that artisans in many parts of the country are able to make a livelihood by selling their crafts through middlemen—whether they be local traders or ‘fair-trade’ organizations. However, most are left with no choice.
At the same time, I’ve witnessed mobile technology and Internet connectivity spreading into rural communities around the country. Of course, such technological development coincides with the destructive Americanization and encroaching monoculture that has brought about the very issues that traditional artisans face. In many cases, Internet connectivity can be seen as synonymous with harmful development. However, within this framework I see an opportunity to use the Internet, the very harbinger of destructive modernization, in an empowering way. If such new technologies could be harnessed to empower artisans to sell their work to a new international market without the need for profit-taking middlemen, I see a future for artistic heritage in remote parts of the country, which, year-by-year, are lost beneath the march of modernization. For such an opportunity to be viable requires a unique combination of elements—most notably an artistic community in need of a wider market with the infrastructural ability to market and sell handicrafts online. It is my belief that these communities exist in the US among Native American Artisans, and it is from this belief that Lanapo was born.
I think it’s important to note that in no way do I intend to impose the use of the Internet on anyone, nor would I want Lanapo to overshadow other AI-led organizations doing similar work. I have learned that there are indeed communities of AI craftspeople in the United States that maintain a livelihood by selling their work locally to fellow AIs as well as tourists. For example, the organization Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise (NACE) takes enormous pride in being the “only Navajo Nation-owned arts and crafts business servicing the needs of the Navajo artisan and craftsperson” (NNDED, 2002), and operates an online store. I believe Lanapo should work in coordination with these organizations, and, if it is the wish of the artisans serviced by these extablished organizations, not at all. Such models should be valued and supported to tremendous lengths. In fact, they are in essence what I hope Lanapo can engender in places where such systems no longer exist.
Unfortunately, these communities are becoming few and far between. I discovered in Ladakh, India a much larger community of artisans who have been forced to relocate from their home villages, countries and cultures to seek out a larger consumer base. They have sacrificed an extraordinary amount to maintain the ability to sell directly to the consumer, and it is here that I believe there might be a space for Lanapo. Similar communities of AI artisans exist in the cities of Albuquerque, Phoenix, Los Angeles and beyond. By empowering artisans to reach consumers without relocating and continuing to practice their crafts in a traditional space, tribal-level economic systems and traditional artisan communities could be revitalized and a reversal of the urbanization trend, which threatens to dry up so many traditional forms of occupation, might be possible.
- Taylor Graham, 2016