Legitimate Indigenous souvenir businesses squeezed out

If we’re going to turn the tide on the volume of fake Indigenous art sold in souvenir shops, we need to support more Indigenous-owned shops and designers in Vancouver.

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The solution to the sale of fake Indigenous art could be as simple as opening and supporting more Indigenous-owned and -run outlets that sell authentic Indigenous goods.

My colleagues and I spent the last five months investigating Vancouver’s souvenir stores. In each of the 40 stores we visited, we took a sample of the Indigenous-themed products they sell and asked staff if they could name the Indigenous artists or nations behind them. In all, we catalogued more than 260 items and traced as many of their origins as we could find — and found that nearly 60 per cent of them lacked any information about an artist or their home community.

By the time we were done, we’d found that three quarters of the tourist shops we checked appear to be selling some knock-offs; many seemed mass-produced without any input from Indigenous artists at all.

The thing that struck me most is the sheer number of outlets selling fake Indigenous art produced overseas. They are squeezing out legitimate Indigenous businesses that are trying to supply authentic Indigenous goods.

There are a few examples of Indigenous-owned and -operated stores and businesses in the Lower Mainland that sell or produce authentic Indigenous products, like Spirit Works Limited, Copperknot Jewelry, the Wickaninnish Gallery on Granville Island,  and the Cedar Root Gallery on East Hastings Street.

But we need more if we’re going to someday turn the tide on this problem. And we need to think about how we can support such businesses if they’re going to not only survive but thrive.

As Shain Jackson, a Coast Salish artist who left a career in the law 12 years ago to run Spirit Works, told us: “It would be nice to make out — to be able to not just eke by as an Indigenous company — but to actually make a good living, to actually prosper.”

Hopefully, that’ll come someday, he said.

The time may be right for such businesses to come.

According to a 2018 Vancity survey, conducted with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, the Indigenous tourism industry is “experiencing remarkable growth.”

The survey cites statistics from Indigenous Tourism B.C. that show a 33 per cent increase from 2014 to 2016 in the number of Indigenous tourism-related businesses in the province. Those numbers include Indigenous-led businesses involved in arts and culture.

More Indigenous-owned businesses would provide additional options for people who want to buy genuine Indigenous art, designed and produced by Indigenous artists who honour the essence of their art — its history, traditions, protocols and worldviews.  It would also presumably give authentic Indigenous artists more venues willing to buy and showcase their work, even if it costs a bit more than the cheap knock-offs down the street. .

Overall it would expand the Indigenous footprint in the souvenir market and give us more options to feature our own goods on our own terms. It could even drive non-Indigenous souvenir shops to up their game by carrying more authentic Indigenous art.

As many of the artists and Indigenous business owners we interviewed in the last few months told us: educating the public about what’s authentic — and why that matters — is key.

People need to learn how to recognize authentic pieces and support Indigenous artists and the genuine cultural expressions they share, they say.

It’s never too soon to think about where we put our money, and which businesses and artists we choose to support. Let’s work on expanding our footprint together.

As for this investigation, we carried it out but we have you to thank for starting it. That’s because you voted for connection to culture as the first topic that you wanted us to dig into. It took us five months and a lot of resources to produce this series. If you want more stories like this please support us with a monthly contribution or whatever you can chip in.

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Culture Connections

Urban Nisga’a citizen Stephanie Martin says teachings from home give you courage, inspiration, compassion and hope. Wawmeesh Hamilton/The Discourse

Stephanie Martin lives and works in Vancouver, yet she is a testament to the teachings from the Nisga’a village of Laxgalts’ap where she grew up.

“I always identify first with my home community, one, because that’s who I am and that’s where I come from. A lot of my ideals or morals that I carry now come from that upbringing,” she says.

Living in the city has challenges when you’re Indigenous, says Stephanie, who is 47 years old. But being grounded in your identity and teachings from your family helps you navigate obstacles.

“I find that is something that I have taken for granted throughout these years — growing up in my home community and having close access to my grandparents and the elders within the community,” she says.

Being grounded in teachings gives you courage, compassion, hope and inspiration, as well as love and respect, Stephanie says. Not having them is like not having a compass. “You question who you are, why you’re here, what is your purpose in life?” she says. When you are grounded, you know who you are, where you came from, and you know where you want to go, she adds.  

“You are able to help the others that are going along a similar path because you have a reference point. You have that family unit, those memories to base something better from,” Stephanie says.

Lets gather

May 30: The UBC Museum of Anthropology is the site of a book signing by Susan Point and Robert D. Watt. The pair collaborated on the book People Among the People: The Public Art of Susan Point. The book chronicles Point re-establishing the Coast Salish footprint in the Pacific Northwest with her artworks. More info here.

June 1: Skoden Indigenous Film Festival: SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts is hosting an Indigenous film festival. The event features a series of films by B.C. Indigenous filmmakers. Other special events celebrating Indigenous voices and discussions about reconciliation are also scheduled. More info here.

June 2: Massey Books hosts an evening of Stories and Snagging and Urban Medicine. It’s an evening of poetry with Tenille Campbell, Smokii Sumac, and Joshua Whitehead. More info here.

June 3: Indigenous Vibrations: The Cultch will be shaking with songs from the Indigenous music scene. Performers include Edzi’u, Jb the FirstLady, Tawahum, and Taryn Laronge. More info here.

If you know about an event that you think should be included in this newsletter next week, send us an emailAnd if you like this newsletter, help us build this community by inviting your friends to subscribe. We value your feedback.


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