On the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon, incomes are low and unemployment is high. In this context, where people confront daily and weekly challenges in meeting personal and family needs, local artists sometimes struggle to live in accordance with time-honored cultural practices in producing their art and finding outlets to sell their work at fair prices.
Now, the artists of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation are coming together. With the support of First Nations Development Institute’s Native Arts Initiative, they are collaborating and organizing to increase buying power, visibility and sales channels. From improving access to supplies to capitalizing on local and nearby events like the solar eclipse in 2017, this newly developed organization is bolstering arts and culture and thriving in the name of Tananáwit.
Need for Community and Structure
In recent years, art at Warm Springs has been a private affair. Most artists work individually and art has been sold primarily on the reservation, usually from artists’ homes. Art has been part of the culture, but not widely visible outside the community.
Efforts to change this started when a group of artists sat down to talk, said Leah Guliasi, IDA Program Administrator and Arts Co-op Program Manager for the Warm Springs Community Action Team (WSCAT), a nonprofit dedicated to empowering individuals in the community and affecting positive change. Since 2013, WSCAT has provided facilitation, guidance and a work space for artists. Through this support, the first-ever Warm Springs Artisans’ Community was formed.
Initial work for the Artisans’ Community involved establishing a steering committee and surveying the community to ascertain the state of Warm Springs art: What types of art were being created? How could artists work together to best market and promote their products? And did artists see the value of a cooperative?
Survey results showed that interest was there, but what was needed went beyond the capacity of WSCAT staff. The Artisans’ Community required its own structure and its own identity to create a brand and further unite these solo-functioning artists.
Further compelling the formation of the Artisans’ Community was the state of the economy. Low-income, low-asset families and individuals make up the majority of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, where 4,000 of the 5,614 members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Indians live. The unemployment rate on the reservation is more than five times that of the state of Oregon, while the per-capita income is less than half of other Oregon residents. Further, the overall poverty rate on the reservation is almost 25% – nearly double the rate of Oregon.
All this has added up to hardship for local artists, noted Guliasi, which affected both supply and demand. “It’s been challenging for artists to even come up with money for supplies,” she said. “Once you did, it is also difficult to find ways to sell outside the informal channels of the reservation.”
Most artists have used their art sales to supplement their incomes. But for elders who are no longer working, having extra money through art sales can make a big difference in their livelihoods, she said.
The Forming of Tananáwit
Indeed, the Warm Springs community had a pressing need to find a way to present local art in a way that would promote both culture and livelihoods. At this point, WSCAT sought funding through the First Nations’ Native Arts Initiative to incorporate the Warm Springs Artisans’ Community, which involved developing a board of directors, creating staff positions and writing policies and bylaws. To increase its economic power, WSCAT also aimed to train community members on the scope and function of a cooperative, create opportunities for artists to gain business experience, and provide opportunities for them to sell their work.
From there, the group of artists formed Tananáwit: A Community of Warm Springs Artists, which roughly translated means “Indian People.” They elected a six-person board of directors, drafted articles of incorporation and laid the groundwork for becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. They also worked with an organization called ONABEN, which hosted trainings for artists on pricing and marketing their work, creating business cards, writing biographies, and pursuing sales opportunities.
For Marge Kalama, a local artist who would soon serve on the board of Tananáwit, the organization of Tananáwit made a dream come true. “This is something that had been discussed for generations, but efforts to get a structure off the ground always fell short,” she says.
Now, through the funding and organization of the nonprofit, Warm Springs artists have more opportunities. Art is identified, people have a venue and method to share their work, and there is a network of artists who are working together to improve their livelihoods.
“We’re now able to shift the mindset to envisioning and producing art in the manner in which it has been taught by elders,” Marge said. “And we can develop a value for the techniques and teachings handed down from one generation to the next.”
Going to Market
As the Tananáwit organization has gained momentum, 12 different types of products, including beadwork, huckleberry baskets, ceramics, cedar root baskets, quilts, moccasins, buckskin dresses and other pieces, have been cultivated. A website and Facebook group have been established, and over 15 artists have taken part in four business trainings.
Through the organization operating on cooperative principles, artists have organized and participated in a series of events including the Warm Springs Outdoor Market, Trading on the River, and Madras Art Adventure Gallery. Armed with business cards and bios, they were also able to move aggressively on a unique tourist opportunity – the selling of art during the 2017 Solar Eclipse, which attracted over 50,000 people from all over the world to Warm Springs and nearby Madras, which were among the eclipse’s best viewing spots.
With revenues still growing, the forming of Tananáwit has so far resulted in the selling of art by more than 20 artists, with each artist making up to $400 at most major events, and up to $6,000 during the solar eclipse.
More Appreciation, More Opportunities
Beyond revenue is the intergenerational transfer of artists’ skills within the community, and the enhanced knowledge throughout the region about the Native art of peoples from the Columbia River Plateau. There is increased cultural visibility, and more appreciation for artistic skill. And, true to the purpose of the First Nations funding, access and awareness of art is being fostered and the value of art is increasing.
Guliasi said funding from First Nations is what made it possible for the cooperative to move from a small grassroots group of artists to the official nonprofit that it is today. In addition to financial resources, First Nations brought technical support and created the flexibility in operations for Guliasi to spend the time needed to work with the artists.
“They’ve given us the reassurance and power to keep moving on,” she said. “First Nations is helping bring to life and reestablish what Warm Springs has always had – art.”
Collaboration for the Future
Poverty and unemployment remain issues for the Warm Springs community. But through Tananáwit, progress is underway to at least uphold the cultural and economic value of its art. Today, the Artisans’ Community is hosting two board meetings a month, advertising more than a dozen events and opportunities for artists online, selling art at the newly opened Plateau Travel Plaza and working on a membership agreement to recruit even more artists. Goals are in place to further distinguish “crafts from art,” attract more artists, and moreover keep art thriving in the community. In addition, by 2020, Tananáwit will have a storefront in the newly renovated Old Commissary building, as part of a small business incubator that will further promote economic development and local art in Warm Springs.
“I’m proud that Tananáwit has decided to work with WSCAT in service of artists in the community. I think the growth of Tananáwit will inspire and empower Warm Springs Artists, both old and young,” said Guliasi.
By Amy Jakober