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Tips for Buying Native American Products
Guide to Buying Authentic Native American Wares

From freestanding trading posts to lodge gift shops, travelers throughout the Southwest have a variety of places to purchase Native American goods. For many travelers, however, identifying truly authentic rugs, jewelry and other artwork can be difficult.

“There are many places that sell mass-produced products with a Native American look or flair, and that kind of piece is often just fine for the casual traveler,” said Mary Jones, owner and operator of the Thunderbird Lodge in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle, Arizona. “Travelers looking for something authentic or one-of-a-kind, however, need to be more careful and much more selective. Fortunately, travelers do not have to be experts to find a classic Native American piece.”

Jones offered tips for those purchasing Native American arts and crafts, stressing that it is impossible for the general public to definitively determine authenticity. Instead, it is easier to determine if an item has been mass-produced.

The first suggestion is to look for tags or stamps that say “Indian Hand-Made” or “Indian Style.” “Indian Style” indicates a mass-produced item. “Indian Hand-Made,” on the other hand, can be either mass-produced or authentic.

Jones’s second tip is to simply ask a lot of questions. Ask who made an item, what tribe the artist is from and what kinds of materials were used. Silver items, for example, should be made of sterling silver. Turquoise jewelry is often made of plastic or the turquoise has been “stabilized” with dye to change its color.

“There’s nothing wrong with mass-produced items,” said Jones. “They meet customer demand, but customers simply have the right to know what they are buying.”

Jones has operated Thunderbird Lodge since the mid-1980s, coming from the American Indian hand-made arts and crafts business. As a licensed American Indian Trader for 13 years in Gallup, N.M., she became very familiar with local Navajo and Hopi artists and the wholesale arts and crafts market. She has worked closely with the Thunderbird Lodge staff to ensure the authenticity of the American Indian items the gift shop sells.

“For the first few years I did all of the buying myself alongside our gift shop staff,” said Jones. “They all learned what to look for and how to determine a fair price.”

In addition to knowing what to look for, the staff knows many of the artisans, especially those involved in creating Navajo rugs. The weavers, wool suppliers and retailers comprise a very tight community, said Jones. “A couple of times people have tried to trick us, but we saw through them immediately.”

Because authentic Navajo rugs are expensive and the result of many weeks or months of work, it is important that buyers receive assurance. “We offer a 100 percent guarantee that our rugs are authentic and come from Navajo artists,” said Jones. “Yes, rugs are expensive, but people who come here to purchase them are looking for something they will treasure and will pass down to their heirs.”

For more information, visit Thunderbird Lodge