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Now, at the age of 53, Fast Horse is an expert beadworker in Rapid City carrying on his family’s artistic traditions. Sometimes he focuses on turtle amulets, beaded animals filled with parts of a baby’s umbilical cord and herbs like sage or cedar. Parents give them to their newborn children for good luck and protection from evil spirits. Other times he makes purses, sets of moccasins, or cradleboards, a time-honored baby carrier. His goods are high-end and sell for prices in the three to four digit range.
Fast Horse attributes his success to being one of dozens of Native American artists with the backing of a stunning store in Rapid City named Prairie Edge. "I’ve been around it my whole life, and it’s my calling," he said. "I don’t want to see this all disappear; I want it to live as long as I can. And the only way that can happen is if I [make art] and other people [make art.] We will be fine as long as we have people who care about it like Prairie Edge."
Making a living as an artisan is not an easy pursuit in today’s world, explains Cliff Matias, an artist and spokesperson for Redhawk, a New York-based nonprofit that helps educate the public about Native American heritage and art. Raw materials like buffalo hides and pure Italian beads costs hundreds of dollars (Native Americans originally used easily accessible items like animal skins and bones in their artwork, but when Europeans started colonizing America, tribe members began to use goods they brought, including glass beads), making it difficult to make a profit. Stores like Walmart undercut the market by selling knock-off items made in China. In the past few decades shoppers have taken advantage of the often desperate state of reservation artists to buy items much cheaper than their value; if you need to feed your family, you will sell your goods at any price for immediate cash.
"Reservation life is tough, it’s pretty bad," he said. "Every time someone goes into a Walmart and buys fake Navajo pottery, another artist is unable to sell their work. So many artists are stopping to create." Prairie Edge, which was founded in the ‘70s by a group of South Dakota artists who hated the status quo, has been overcoming these realities by offering fair and decent treatment to their suppliers.
Sometimes they hear about artists who are exceptional at making items they need and ask them to contribute to the store. Other times, artists approach the store, having heard about it through friends, family, or word of mouth. The Native American community is close-knit in this part of America; when there’s a good opportunity, news travels fast.
The store operates like an old fashioned trading post. The management sits down with artists to talk about how much work they can create and what they need in exchange. Sometimes they need wages; other times they need a Pendleton blanket for their family or books or music for their children. "There is always a way to work something out where it is an equitable deal for artists and Prairie Edge," said General Manager Dan Tribby who has worked there for 33 years. "What’s important is that artists know they can bank on us. We are going to buy their goods no matter what."
Beyond the contracts, the store goes above and beyond to supply raw materials to artists. They have their own relationships with people in the area, mostly Native Americans, who specialize in getting items like skulls and hides and then pass them on to their suppliers for free. "It’s not a charity thing," said Tribby. "It is absolutely for the good of the business. That way I can buy buffalo robes from people I really trust, and I know that hide is doing to last." If an artist has a family emergency, Prairie Edge will help them out with whatever they need. They also encourage professional development.
Dawn Yellowbank, an artist originally from the Omaha Tribe in Nebraska, was working for another artist doing initial beadwork. Tribby set her up with a mentor, and now she makes finished products including beaded dresses, shirts, and weaponry of the kind used in the 1800s. She can support herself, and it’s had a profound effect on her self esteem. "I’ve learned to take pride in what I do because my name goes on it, and I want to outdo myself," she said. "You just want to add another touch to it or jazz it up in a different way. I’m challenging myself constantly."
Her daughter also works for the store as an artist, something that reassures her that her work will continue into future generations. "When I go into Prairie Edge, I see my artwork, and I see my daughter’s artwork, and she’s almost outdone me!"
Another source of pride is the fact that their work is helping educate people about Native American culture. Prairie Edge is set up like a museum with stunning items on display: fur coats made of buffalo fur, hair pins made of bird feathers, robes made of horse hides, shields made out of skulls. Each section has signs explaining who made the good, what significance it has for each tribe (they all have their own customs), and what it can be used for today. All the items are handmade, with some costing as much as $5,500.
Some of the shoppers who come into the store are tourists who use Rapid City as a homebase to explore nearby attractions like Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park. But many more are collectors from all over the world who scour the American Northwest for the highest quality, most interesting, or rarest Native American Goods. "They can’t wait for the next item to be released," said Tribby. "They snatch them up before they even get on the floor."
"It’s like a crash course in our culture here," said Fast Horse. "More people are learning about it, and they are loving it. We are able to express that we are a loving, caring people. It’s very emotional."