October 1, 2014

COMMENTARY: Searching for Authentic America

Calling on National Park Shops to Carry More American Made

By Wendy Rosen:

Why aren’t the National Park Service’s concession-run stores doing their part for economic recovery? They have won the privilege to do business on federal land, but have turned their backs on hundreds of American small businesses and tribal artisans who desperately need manufacturing work. Simply by committing to carry more authentic American gifts and souvenirs in their stores, these concession companies could sustain 5,000 small businesses and jobs.

They could fill their shelves with beautiful and authentic American-made products, but instead they favor suppliers who get them cheap goods overseas. Yet price point isn’t the only point. Cheaply made, imported merchandise that looks craft-like fails the test of authenticity. It’s not Made in America or a product of Native Americans. It’s not even handmade or artisan-made. It tells no special story: “I Hiked the Grand Canyon and Brought Back a Key Ring Made in China.”

Slapping a park logo on an item made overseas does not make it an American product or an Indian craft. Merchandise that is factory-made to look like handcraft or tribal artistry is more commonly stocked than the real thing. And too often, price stickers or packaging labels obscure the required mark telling the truth about country of origin, so the customer cannot figure out where the product really comes from.

This hurts us all. U.S. unemployment remains stubbornly high. Among those who design and make goods that could be sold in National Park gift stores, unemployment outpaces that of all other college-educated professional groups and all civilian workers. Tribal unemployment is even higher, in some regions estimated at 50 percent, at a time when Native American crafts are in demand and highly valued.

“As a nation, we have all got to be aware that one of the major reasons unemployment in this country is so high is because it is increasingly difficult to find products in our nation’s stores that are manufactured in this country,” U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), wrote in January, in a letter lamenting the lack of American-made items in Smithsonian museum gift stores.

He could have been writing about the stores operated by concession companies in the National Parks.

There was a time in the last century when the National Park stores valued authentic cultural, historical, tribal, folk and regional arts. That’s what you’d find in the early trading posts.

By 2005, however, leaders of the American Craft movement noticed a sharp decline in authentic crafts on display, and urged the National Parks Hospitality Association members’ gift stores to sell more authentic American-made and tribal art products. Most concession managers showed no interest. One corporation’s top executive declared that Made in China was the preferred source, and said he would “never” send his buyers to America’s top Made-in-America gift shows.

At a snail’s pace, times are changing. A few National Park stores have had success with American-made products for decades; a few more now are following the trail they blazed. In some stores, product labeling has improved. And now there are better laws governing the enforcement of claims of authenticity for Indian art and crafts. (Non-tribal artisans hope someday to have similar protections.)

Also, in March 2011, after years of urging by congressional, tribal and American advocates, the concessions finally have met with the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board. Their dialogue may eventually open doors for Native American artisans to demonstrate and sell their creations in gift stores in National Parks.

It’s about time.

The National Park Service’s concessions have a responsibility to uphold. It comes with the privilege and the symbolism inherent in their unique locations at taxpayer-owned and federally funded landmarks. With Congress and the National Park Service, these companies have begun preparing to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016. Millions in private and taxpayer dollars are being invested during the next five years in restoring the parks’ valuable natural resources, and in enhancing the visitors’ experience.

Amid all of this talk about preservation and sustainability, where is the commitment to the American workforce?

We urge the individual concession companies, their association, the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior (which oversees NPS) to do their part to create jobs for authentic American and Native American producers. And we urge park visitors to choose authentic tribal and Made in America gifts and souvenirs. Before you make a purchase, “shop slow” take a good look at the product labels or tags. Take home an authentic piece of America that helps sustain American jobs.

WENDY ROSEN is the founder of the American Made Alliance, a nonprofit trade association that engages in advocacy supporting fine craft artists and studios. She is the president and CEO of The Rosen Group, which publishes AmericanStyle magazine and produces the Buyers Market of American Craft wholesale tradeshows of artist-made products.


  1. Ken Manske says:

    Excellent commentary. Please keep us on your mailing list and action plan. How about pressure on congress?

  2. Have been preaching the same message in SD for years. If we can work with hundreds of native families and sell millions of dollars of art in 15 years, why can’t Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands and Devil’s Tower do the same? Let’s keep pushing the parks!

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