Buying Native American arts and crafts directly from the men and women who make them can be a highlight of a visit to Arizona. You’re not only getting treasured mementos of your trip, you’re also investing in the continuing traditions of the people who created them. But deciding what to purchase – and ensuring that it is genuine – is not always easy. Here are a few basic tips.
What to Know Before You Go
Before you visit, do your homework. Most particular to Arizona and evincing the widest range of styles are Navajo rugs, Hopi katsina doll carvings, Navajo and Hopi silver jewelry and Tohono O’odham and Apache baskets. Decide what you would like to buy based on your interests, and figure out how much you are willing to spend (genuine Navajo rugs, for example, range from $200 to more than $80,000 for antiques).
Then, read up on those items. A good place to start is Susanne and Jake Page’s Field Guide to Southwest Indian Arts and Crafts, which offers general information about spotting fakes, as well as specifics about hoaxes particular to individual crafts.
The more you know about a craft, the better equipped you are to discern examples that don’t fall into its parameters. For instance, the religious images known as katsina dolls are only made by Puebloan people, including the Hopis and Zunis in Arizona. Those crafted by others and found not to be part of the cultural heritage of the Puebloans are sometimes labeled as carvings and dolls. Thus, a “genuine Navajo katsina” is a contradiction in terms.
Where to Shop for Native American Crafts
Even if you’re not familiar with Native American crafts, you can feel comfortable investing in those that have been vetted by dealers with good credentials. Bruce McGee, Director of Retail Sales at Phoenix’s Heard Museum and a member of a family of longtime traders, says, “Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Find out how long the shop has been in business, and ask about the item you’re interested in.” McGee says if the response is “I don’t know who made it” or “I don’t know how it was created,” it could be a bad sign.
In addition to the Heard Museum’s gift shop, places that offer a wide range of reliably vetted crafts include (from north to south):
Thunderbird Lodge at Canyon de Chelly
Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado
McGee’s Indian Art Gallery in Keams Canyon
Tsakurshovi on Second Mesa
Museum of Northern Arizona gift shop in Flagstaff
Garland’s Navajo Rugs and Garland’s Indian Jewelry, both in Sedona
Faust Gallery, King Galleries and Old Territorial Indian Arts, all in Scottsdale
Bahti Indian Arts, Medicine Man Gallery and Grey Dog Trading, all in Tucson
Kitt Peak National Observatory gift shop (for Tohono O’odham baskets)
Even in these places, don’t hesitate to ask questions about the individual pieces in which you’re interested. If nothing else, information about the artist adds nuance and context to a purchase. Tribal museums and cultural centers offer authentic arts and craft items handmade by their tribal members.
If It’s Too Good to Be True, It Probably Is
Be wary of deep discounts “just for you,” 50-percent-off sales or “today only” sales. The creation of crafts involves a great deal of labor, and that’s reflected in the price. Bruce McGee of the Heard Museum also advises visitors to avoid paying in advance to commission an item, even if you’re dealing with a genuine crafter that you do know.
Even the best intentions may go awry. It’s best to proceed so that any advance purchases or compensation are handled with mutual understanding and benefit to both parties. More information about purchasing authentic Native American arts and crafts is available from the U. S. Department of the Interior Indian Arts & Crafts Board.
(Updated by the Arizona Office of Tourism 2009)