Native Business Growing Capacity of Other Native Entrepreneurs

It's a project five years in the making.

Eighth Generation, led by First Peoples Fund Alumni Fellow Louie Gong (Nooksack), will begin selling the first Native-designed wool blankets in October.

The company was founded by Gong, who is based in Washington and is growing the small business to support fellow Native artists and engage communities in a commitment to grow Native art and business.

Gong received a 2014 Cultural Capital grant from First Peoples Fund to work on the project, which started as an idea in his home after receiving a "Native-inspired" honor blanket for speaking at the 2010 National Indian Education Association convention.

"I was curled up on the couch and looked closely at the tag and it said number 11 of 250," he recalled. Doing the math, he realized that the company probably made between $25,000 and $30,000.

"It got my wheels turning," he said, making him wonder how often non-Native companies were profiting off of well-meaning organizations or individuals looking for Native art or goods.

"As an entrepreneur, I thought one way to make my artwork sustainable and provoke discussion was to be the first Native run company that offers wool blankets," he said.

Eighth Generation has since launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund marketing and sales support. The first product run is planned for Evergreen State Longhouse's 20th anniversary—300 blankets that will be split between the two entities. The company will then open up the business to custom orders from tribes and organizations.

One of the strengths of the project is that Eighth Generation will partner with Native artists to create new designs. Michelle Lowden (Pueblo of Acoma) of New Mexico will be one of the first artists to work with Eighth Generation to create honor blankets featuring her art.

"We're not just taking their money and running with it," Gong said. "They'll be able to sell the blankets on their own website."

The artists will make profit that far exceeds the typical two to three percent they might earn through a royalty in a traditional artwork deal. Once the crowdfunding phase wraps up, the company will be at the October NIEA convention as a vendor.

"It will be the formal launch and people can see them in person," Gong said.

The partnership with Evergreen is an example of the strength in partnership. "When Native companies and individuals come together to support each other, anything is possible," he said.

Gong said the idea is catching on. The Little Creek Casino, owned by the Squaxin tribe, chose to use Eighth Generation for its blanket order instead of a non-Native business recently. "They were able to look at the big picture," he said.

Right now, people assume they have no other option, or don't realize the danger in non-Native companies misappropriating Native art.

"It doesn't just hurt our feelings," he said. "It's an economic loss. Every spot on a shelf they occupy is a lost spot for a Native entrepreneur like myself."

Gong said much of the work ahead would be about educating people.

"If we support the growing capacity of Native entrepreneurs and business, we can all move forward together," he said.