THE SUCCESS OF THE NAVAJO ARTS AND CRAFTS ENTERPRISE, by Lenora Begay Trahant photographs by Monty Roessel, Walker and Company, 435 Hudson St., N.Y., NY 10014, (800) AT-WALKER, (212) 307-1764 FAX. Simultaneously published by Thomas Allen and Son, Ltd., Markham, Ontario, Canada. 1996. 78 pages hardbound, illustrated, index, glossary, lists of Native Associations.$15.95 hardbound. 0-8027-8336-8
This very fine book whose writer and illustrator are both Navajos, belongs in every Native school library, and can be profitably read by many business-minded Native adults. Receently I was asked if any curriculum materials for Native business development courses were available; I had to say ther were not. Now there is: this one. It's writyten at a level high school students can readily follow, but the facts it chronicles are suitable for reading by anyone concerned with the development of tribal economic enterprises.
NACE is an enterprise of the Navajo Nation, whose reservation is as large as the state of West Virginia, though most of it is rugged desert with long, poor roads to reach many isolated communities. In 1977, the tribal enterprise was nearly bankrupt, had lost more than $1 million, and there was discussion of clolsing it. Instead, they asked Raymond Smith, a rtired Navajo, to take over from a succession of bigtime white management experts who had driven it into the ground, with assembly-line techniques and ignoranc of both quality of jewelry and rugs and of the craftspeople and main customers (Navajo people themselves).
I told them there were a lot of people who had MBA degrees to pick from. But they insistd on someone who had experience with tribal government." That was probably one factor in the success of the growing enterprise which almost immediately was hit by a crisis: the price of silver escalated rapidly fgrom about $4/oz to $50/oz in the early 80's, a crisis for all the jewelers, forcing many out of the business. It's clear that Smith's unique capabilities as a team-builder, who insisted on quality, and who has built a team of Native people (almost all except the comptroller -- a Hopi/Acoma -- are Navajo) have been a major cause of success.
But it's also clear that the Native team itself has unique qualities that white managers wouldn't see. Most of the major managers have experience in the crafts of silversmithing or weaving, and therefore know quality and can explain to craftspeople how to improve their products, or why a product is being rejected. The managers must also negotiate with the craftspeople, because the entrprise has to buy at wholesale so they can sell at retail, and much of this talk is in Navajo. Finally, expansion plans are now undertaken with intelligent knowldge of conditions -- not only abstract studies and business plans, though those are also done.
For example, it is important to the craftspeople that they can get supplies -- silver, turquoise, tools, wool, dyes -- through NACE. But to shorten the travel, since many live in distant, isolated communities, and reduce craftspeople;'s costs, NACE's first expansion was a mobile supplies store, in a van, which was also able to sell to Navajos living in Gallup, a dreary off-reservation town, which is the capital of the wholesale southwestern jewelry trade. This service was needed and appreciated, and has helped to build a loyal group fo crtaftspeople, willing to maintain the quality that NACE wants to be known for, though they cannot compete for the top artists, since those command very high prices on commissioned work to individuals and classy boutiques.
Several of the artisans are interviewed by the author, all prefer to speak Navajo, and some of the elders don't really speak much English. All express concern that these arts and crafts continue to live "But if we forget the history and all the stories that go with it (weaving), it will just be another moneymaking venture." This attitude is something the white managers never caught on about and helps to account for their failures. Main store saleswoman Lottie Nez is in her 70's. Speaking good Navajo is essential, because the on-reservation store's biggest customer base is Navajos, "tribal employees and elderly Navajos who are interested in items used in ceremonies: wedding baskets, mocassins, buckskins, sash belts, and Pendleton blankets," as well as a great deal of personal and gift purchases of turquoise. "People are willing to help me improve my skills," she says. Another part of management is in the comptrollers office, where they ar gradually becoming computerized. Dennis Wyna knows the real secrt in business success: he watches the cash flow extremely closely. That is often ignored in management training, but cash: liquidity and cash flow is the most critical factor to be watched on a daily basis for any enterprise.
NACE is now moving into wholesaling, and has intelligntly chosen a method of mass production which will both keep uyp quality of jewelry and allow production of a catalog of some 250 designs. The comm7unity of silversmiths chosen as the start of this operation wanted it, for good reasons. They have opened a wholesale store in Gallup, and are prparing the catalog. Perhaps at the next powwow you attend, jewelry from one of the vendors will come from the Navajo enterprise, rather than the more slipshod assembly lines operated in Gallup. This book is very highly ecommended for Native high schools, colleges, and training seminars. Reviewed by Paula Giese
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Last Updated: Thursday, March 21, 1996 - 6:07:15 AM