PINE RIDGE, S.D. — In this sprawling expanse of South Dakota badlands, dozens of families make ends meet by creating and selling earrings, paintings, decorated feathers, moccasins and other crafts. This community's artists take pride in their work, but challenges abound for their arts-based economy.
The artists live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is dozens of miles and many tax brackets away from the nearest urban area, meaning arts supplies are not easily accessible and training on business, marketing and e-commerce is even harder to find.
But help is now literally on its way to some of those artists — some of whom sell their wares just to afford dinner — in the form of a small passenger bus.
The retrofitted vehicle crisscrossing the reservation, which is one of the most impoverished in the U.S., has an art studio and a business training center. The Rolling Rez Arts bus provides anyone interested in the arts — established and emerging artists, children and adults — a space to explore their creativity. It also brings arts supplies, gives business lessons and even offers banking services; the bus has space for a bank teller and safe and is equipped with video cameras.
The bus, managed by the First Peoples Fund nonprofit, came in response to a market study showing that nearly 80 percent of the reservation's home-based businesses are arts-related.
"A lot of the artists have amazing art skills, but may lack some of the basic business skills, marketing, pricing, financial management, things like that," said Jeremy Staab, program manager with First Peoples Fund. "We have a two-day comprehensive business training ... but what we were seeing is that some of our artists were having to hitchhike to get here because they have transportation challenges. ... Many of them are in survival mode."
On a sweltering June afternoon, the Wi-Fi-equipped, air-conditioned bus was parked in the lot of Oglala Lakota College in Pine Ridge to offer free featherwork lessons taught by Jay Garnett. Four young adults showed up for a class on how to decorate feathers typically used during ceremonies.
The 19-year-old Garnett makes a living out of creating earrings, rawhide bags, featherwork and other artwork, charging about $175 for decorating a single eagle feather and between $45 and $65 for a pair of earrings. Like other artists in the community, he allows people to pay on installments or trades his work for other craft supplies such as glue and feathers.
"This is an art form that puts bread and butter on the table," said Garnett, who has been creating art since eighth grade. "But it's really important for people to really understand the time, the quality and the effort that is put in to some of the art pieces."
Garnett's workshop, which focused on how to decorate feathers that are typically used during ceremonies and other events, was LaQuita Cortier's second class in the mobile studio. She learned how to make earrings out of hide during the first.
"It helps you learn more about your culture," Cortier, a 21-year-old Allen resident, said. "It's learning the arts of Natives."
Artists who participated in the market study expressed the need for physical and online marketplaces. Guss Yellow Hair, the coordinator and driver of the bus, said the trainings emphasize the need for artists to appropriately price their items and expand their market. He said many of the artists sell their work within the reservation, but they could reach more customers by taking a well-lit photo to sell it online.
"They need that technical support," Yellow Hair said. "We provide them what we can so that they can increase their sales and give them the edge that they need."
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