After Scottsdale Super Bowl incident, Native-owned market works to support Indigenous artisans
Denise Rosales and her daughter, Heather Tracy, dreamed for a long time of opening a Native-owned art market that would provide a safe space for Indigenous artists and performers. They hoped Native Art Market in Old Town Scottsdale would fulfill that dream.
The reality was different. Native Art Market was well received by Indigenous jewelry makers and artists and the Native community, and was welcomed by others in Scottsdale. Rosales said the friction grew between her gallery and other nearby galleries selling the same type of products — authentic and not so authentic — but operated by non-Native owners.
It all came to a head earlier this year in the week before Super Bowl LVII. ESPN shot a segment on the street near the Native Art Market and the Gilbert Ortega Gallery, an established and well known gallery and shop.
On a sunny February day, Indigenous performers were outside, ready to dance in front of a large Super Bowl sign. With no warning, an irate Gilbert Ortega Jr. emerged from his gallery and, as performers and ESPN crew members looked on, started yelling at the performers, calling them insulting names and using racist language. In not-so-clear Navajo, he uttered some sexually derogatory words to the crowd, while making suggestive movements. Said in English, the words could’ve added more to the seriousness of the incident, which was all caught on video.
This incident made nationwide news, circulated throughout social media and in the end Oretga was charged with three counts of disorderly conduct. The incident has been submitted to the city prosecutors’ office, Scottsdale Police Department said in an email to The Republic.
Rosales said this type of behavior isn't new for Native Art Market, but it was the first time they were able to get it on camera.
“The incident was unfortunate,” Rosales told The Republic. “We created Native Art Market to provide a safe place for our artists and cultural dancers to sell directly and to practice their culture. But to have him (Ortega) do what he did and to have it finally filmed, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is what we deal with.’ At least in this situation we finally got it on film.”
After the incident, she said they received a lot of love and support from community members. The mayor of Scottsdale came in to apologize and members of the City Council called them to see how they were doing.
“We had a lot of support from people coming in,” Rosales said.
Ortega issued a written apology after his arrest.
“I have watched the video and I am both embarrassed and ashamed by my actions," he said. "I see that I came off as incredibly insensitive toward the Native American community and that was not my intention. I deeply apologize for this."
He noted that his family has worked with Native artists for "over five generations" and he said he respects and admires Native Americans "and their ingenuity."
"If I could go back and change my words and behavior, I certainly would.”
Art market gives Native creators a platform
Native Art Market sits on a busy street of Old Town Scottsdale, where nearby galleries post signs in their windows claiming to sell authentic Native art and jewelry. In front of one stands a stereotypical statue of a stoic Native American.
Upon walking inside Native Art Market, a visitor finds walls upon walls of not just Native jewelry but skateboards, shirts, paintings, mugs, crafts, soap bars — all made by Indigenous artists. Each of the items carries a small card, informing the buyer who the artist is and how they can be reached if the buyer wants to purchase more from them.
“We are the platform for our artisans to get their brand out, get their name out there,” Rosales said. “We are here to promote our artisans so people can buy off their websites. Everything in the store is authentic. We don't have any imports, imitations, or mass-produced products. All the artists create their own designs, even if it's a print, it's still their design. It's nothing you can find anywhere else.”
So far, the Native Art Market has been able to send $2 million back to Native artisans who have their pieces in the gallery. They were named 2022 Business of the Year from Phoenix Indian Center for serving their community. Native Art Market has garnered much respect and support from Native artists, whether they have worked with the gallery or not, like San Carlos Apache-Akimel O'odham artist Douglas Miles.
Miles and other Native artists weren't surprised by Ortega’s racist rant even though Oretga’s wealth and successful business derives from selling Native jewelry.
Gilbert Ortega Gallery was established in Scottsdale in 1980. Ortega Jr., the current owner, comes from a family of trading post owners who have long dealt with Native silversmiths and Navajo rug weavers. His grandfather owned a trading post in Lupton, where Ortega's dad worked before eventually opening a store of his own in Gallup, New Mexico, paving the way for him to become a wealthy individual.
This type of mistreatment doesn’t only happen within galleries like Ortega’s, the artists say, but in other spaces as well. But many Native artists, silversmiths and weavers believe trading posts have long exploited their work and failed to treat them fairly.
“Many institutions disguise their disdain for Native life, art and people doling out piecemeal opportunities,” Miles said. “The business practices of ethno-art dealers is just another form of cultural extraction and exploitation to cash in or get fame from the culture and hard work we create. We see this same attitude also amongst anti-Native Native Art curators, ethnologists, anthropologists and art critics.
"The fact that Natives have allowed these cultural creepers to define our own cultural process and art isn’t our fault but is something we have to deal with now: racism and anti-Native sentiment in the art field,” he said. “Native artists must always reserve the right to define our own work no matter how complex or simple it may sound. The culture we create is job security for many in the industry but our unique voices and innovations are often last to be acknowledged due to this hidden racism.”
'A longtime dream of ours': Navajo family behind Native Art Market opens Scottsdale store
Art market emerges after scandal among other sellers
Only a couple of years before Native Art Market’s 2020 opening, gallery owners in Scottsdale and New Mexico were being busted for selling fake and forged Native American jewelry manufactured in the Philippines.
In August 2018, U.S. District Judge Judith C. Herrera sentenced Nael Ali to six months in prison after Ali pled guilty to two felony charges that he violated the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act. Ali also had to pay $9,048 in restitution. Federal prosecutors alleged that Ali or his employees sold counterfeit jewelry to an undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent at his stores, including the Old Town Scottsdale location.
In October 2020, Laura Marye Wesley, 32, Christian Coxon, 46, and Waleed Sarrar, 44, were each sentenced to 36 months of probation and ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution to the Sedona store called The Humiovi, and a fine of $5,000 to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. Each is also ordered to pay a $100 special assessment fee.
Sarrar forfeited 314 pieces of counterfeit Native American-style jewelry that was seized during a search of Scottsdale Jewels and Coxon forfeited 623 pieces of counterfeit Native American-style jewelry seized during a search of Turquoise River Trading in San Antonio, Texas.
Navajo Arts and Crafts on the Navajo Nation is a retail store that sells authentic Native jewelry and is tribally run. It was established in 1941, when the Navajo Council created the Navajo Tribe’s Arts and Crafts Guild. In 1972, the Navajo Arts and Crafts Guild became Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise. There are stores located in Window Rock, Cameron, Kayenta, Chinle, and in Shiprock, New Mexico.
Their wide variety of merchandise in Native American Arts and Crafts includes jewelry from local vendors, pottery, moccasins, Navajo cradleboards, Navajo rugs, Native American Church instruments and peyote fans.
Tracy said the enterprise would be visiting Native Art Market to discuss their business. JT Willie, the CEO of Navajo Arts and Crafts, said that group will be providing resource information for Native Art Market and guidance on certain topics.
“As Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise, we pride ourselves in promoting and supporting authentic Native American arts and crafts from Indigenous creators,” Willie said. “NACE supports artisans from our own Navajo Nation and neighboring tribes.”
When other art walks passed, she created her own
Rosales, the art market's founder, is originally from Cameron and is also a jewelry maker. Her daughter and business partner, Heather, is a pottery maker. Rosales has been selling jewelry all her life and is the third generation of her family to do so.
“My grandmother was one of the first to say no to the trading post,” said Rosales. “Because they were going to give her pennies on the dollar for her work, and so she said I can sell it directly to the public for what it's worth.”
She remembers selling alongside the road with her grandmother, Grace Tsinnie Yellowmexican, and to attract the tourists her grandmother would dress her up in traditional attire. She said her uncles taught her how to sell and told her they had to engage with the customers, so Rosales and her sister wrote little stories on a typewriter and handed them out to the customers.
When Rosales moved to Phoenix in 2005, she said her grandmother was upset, because she believed once she moved off the Navajo Nation she would not return.
“Before she passed she said, ‘Don’t forget your people,'” Rosales said of her grandmother.
To sell her jewelry, Rosales would travel back and forth from Phoenix to the Navajo Nation. She’s sold by the Grand Canyon, between Sedona and Flagstaff, and in Phoenix she tried to find art walks to sell at but she found that surprisingly impossible.
“A lot of the art walks wouldn’t allow me to sell Native American jewelry because of all the surrounding businesses," Rosales said. “It competed against the galleries. They wouldn’t allow it. So I couldn’t be a Native American selling Native American jewelry at these art walks.”
Finally, after Rosales wasn’t allowed to sell her jewelry at an art walk again, she told her daughter, “I’m going to create an art walk specifically for Native Americans.”
In 2018, a few years after she told her daughter this, Rosales said she was able to get her art walk going at the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community's Talking Stick Pavilion. It started off small with 16 vendors, and she made her entire family come out just for the event.
“All of a sudden it was a huge success and we had so many people come out,” Rosales said. “That was at the time they had a huge bust in the Scottsdale area of the galleries selling fake jewelry. That’s what helped us, because people were finally able to buy directly from Native artisans.”
Artisans believed in the concept of a Native market
In 2020, when the pandemic started, Rosales and her daughter established what is now Native Art Market. She said it became a community effort to get the space renovated, a big help especially since they had used their entire savings to get the space.
“The artisans were so excited about what we were doing,” Rosales said. “It just became everyone coming together to build this place for our artisans, because they believed in our concept and what we wanted to do. Our grand opening was huge because it was the first and only Native American-run store.”
Artisans continuing to sell their art and jewelry to non-Native-owned galleries is a cycle that was taught, something they are trained as the only viable to sell their products, she said. She understands that many artisans still rely heavily on selling their creations to galleries for a lot less than what it's worth.
Usually Rosales and Tracy run out to the Navajo Nation to purchase from Native vendors. She said they don't haggle with the artisans, instead telling them to name their price. She said if there is use of a synthetic stone, they note on the item that it is made out of a synthetic stone, in an attempt to be honest with their customers.
"I went to a gallery one time when I was a younger," Rosales said. "There was a whole line of artisans that were selling to the gallery owner. The grandma was selling her rug for $100, and the owner said he'd give her $50. She said, 'No, I want a $100 for this rug.'"
He ordered the woman out of the gallery, calling her a profane name. "I was shocked," Rosales said.
Rosales said the granddaughter was with her grandmother and tried to get her to sell the rug for $50, but the grandmother defiantly walked out with her rug. Being young, Rosales said she and her sister walked out also and wished she had said something. This type of gallery owner treatment is still evident today as shown by Ortega.
"It was sad to see the artisans standing in line," Rosales said. "They put up with the abuse because they felt like it was their only option. Why should we have to put up with that? This is our work. We are providing for them, for their fortune. So why do we have to put up with it? This is why we created Native Art Market. So people don't have to go through that."
Arlyssa Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Native Art Market in Scottsdale gives Indigenous creators a platform