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Navajo Culture in the Marketplace, 1868–1940

Erika Marie Bsumek

New in Paperback: October 2012
xii, 292 pages, 30 photographs, 6 x 9
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1890-3, $19.95

Also available in cloth:
ISBN 978-0-7006-1595-7, $29.95

(Sponsored by the New Mexico Historical Society)

(Sponsored by the New Mexico Humanities Council)

book cover imageIn works of silver and wool, the Navajos have established a unique brand of American craft. And when their artisans were integrated into the American economy during the late nineteenth century, they became part of a complex cultural and economic framework in which their handmade crafts conveyed meanings beyond simple adornment.

As Anglo tourists discovered these crafts, the Navajo weavings and jewelry gained appeal from the romanticized notion that their producers were part of a primitive group whose traditions were destined to vanish. Erika Bsumek now explores the complex links between Indian identity and the emergence of tourism in the Southwest to reveal how production, distribution, and consumption became interdependent concepts shaped by the forces of consumerism, race relations, and federal policy.

Bsumek unravels the layers of meaning that surround the branding of “Indian made.” When Navajo artisans produced their goods, collaborating traders, tourist industry personnel, and even ethnologists created a vision of Navajo culture that had little to do with Navajos themselves. And as Anglos consumed Navajo crafts, they also consumed the romantic notion of Navajos as “primitives” perpetuated by the marketplace. These processes of production and consumption reinforced each other, creating a symbiotic relationship and influencing both mutual Anglo-Navajo perceptions and the ways in which Navajos participated in the modern marketplace.

Examining varied sites of production—artisans’ workshops, museums, trading posts—Bsumek shows how the market economy perpetuated “Navaho” stereotypes and cultural assumptions. She takes readers into the hogans where men worked silver and women wove rugs and into the outlets where middlemen dictated what buyers wanted and where Navajos influenced inventory. Exploring this process over seven decades, she describes how artisans’ increasing use of modern tools created controversy about authenticity and how the meaning of the “Indian made” label was even challenged in court.

Ultimately, Bsumek shows that the sale of Indian-made goods cannot be explained solely through supply and demand. It must also reckon with the multiple images and narratives that grew up around the goods themselves, integrating consumer culture, tourism, and history to open new perspectives on our understanding of American Indian material culture.

“This book represents an impressive historical analysis of the complex economic and social relationship that linked the Navajo to the consumer market in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. . . . It will be of considerable use to historians, anthropologists, museologists, and others with research interests in Native American production and market interactions.”—American Historical Review

“By revealing the market-driven ideas that fueled the demand for Navajo goods, and by examining the responses of Native people, this book sheds considerable light on a complicated cultural and economic issue.”—Business History Review

“This well-researched book gives valuable insights into the marketing of Navajo goods and culture [and] provides an interesting and informative view into the mentality of white traders and consumers of Navajo crafts.”—Southwestern Historical Quarterly

“The book is a testimony not only to Bsumek’s skill as a researcher but also to her knack for conveying the complex products of that research with expertise and style.”—Montana The Magazine of Western History

“An excellent study of Navajo arts and crafts and the origins of ‘Indian-made’ products in the marketplace.”—New Mexico Historical Review

“Bsumek throws light on the very human consequences of the commodification of Native craft and image. . . . She converts what some have seen as purely an economic phenomenon into one that is polyvalent and multilayered. Highly recommended.”—Choice

“A well-crafted study that draws from the best in the fields of cultural studies and social history to offer readers a theoretically sophisticated argument.”—Colleen O’Neill, author of Working the Navajo Way: Labor and Culture in the Twentieth Century

“Bsumek’s powerful work makes us think in fresh ways about the awkward and often anxious relationship between indigenous peoples’ creative expression and those who admire and collect it.”—James F. Brooks, author of Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands

“Bsumek brilliantly exposes the mercenary practices and advertising strategies by traders and assembly-line producers, the deep-seated romantic yearnings of adorers and purchasers of Navajo arts and crafts, the attempts to standardize and control shifting definitions of the ‘authentic,’ and the struggles of Navajo artisans themselves.”—Peter Nabokov, author of A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History

“A compelling and significant contribution that stands alongside the works of Philip Deloria, Colleen O’Neill, and Paige Raibmon, among others.”—Brian Hosmer, former director of the Newberry Library’s D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian History

ERIKA MARIE BSUMEK is associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.


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