By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily News reporter
business is gaining ground at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation - a cooperative using the traditional crafts of the Chippewa Cree Tribe.
Isabell Dotts is a member and the coordinator of the Chippewa Cree Native Crafts Cooperative, formed in September 2001. She said interest in the co-op seems to be increasing as word of its benefits get out.
Dotts said she likes what the co-op has done for her.
"It makes me money. It makes my bead work known, and it gets me out of the house," she said.
Cooperative members make craft items they have made for years, including various beaded items, leather work and other arts and crafts items, and the co-op helps them sell the products, member Hugh Big Knife said.
The co-op sells members' work at art shows and events, he said. The co-op members plan to use it for other marketing as well - perhaps at a store on the reservation and on the Internet, eventually tapping a Europeon market that has great demand for Native American crafts.
"The primary objective is to help members market their products, either on-hand products or custom orders," he said.
Luanne Belcourt, executive director of the Chippewa Cree Community Development Corp., said the cooperative is a revival of an effort made by tribal elders in the 1970s and 1980s. The reservation created a similar craft program then, with some success, she said, but the effort eventually trailed off.
"Now, in 2003, we're trying to do it again with modern technology," she said.
Belcourt said the co-op pays to have a table at fairs, shows and events, then displays items it buys from members for sale at the event. Profits from the sales go back into the co-op to buy more members' products, she said.
The co-op is still building capital, both to buy items and to reserve tables and to travel to the shows, she said.
"We have to make money to make money," Dotts added.
The co-op also allows members to sell their own products at the tables. Belcourt said the co-op receives 10 percent of any profits from those sales.
The cooperative is only doing about five shows a year, all in Montana, but plans to expand that as it raises more capital, she said.Other deals are being negotiated that also could increase sales, she said.
The development corporation and the Montana Cooperative Development Center, formerly housed at Montana State University-Northern in Havre, helped get the cooperative off the ground, Belcourt said.
The development center helped the Rocky Boy co-op obtain a $19,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant, and members of the cooperative development center staff traveled to the reservation regularly to help organize and plan, she said.
The Montana Cooperative Development Center was moved to Helena to be under the administration of the state Department of Agriculture in June. Belcourt said the Rocky Boy co-op will miss having it nearby.
"It was easier with the co-op center in Havre," she said.
The Chippewa Cree Community Development Corp. has allowed the arts and crafts co-op to use its office as needed. The tribal Water Resources Department lets the corporation use office space in its building.
Jim Morsette and Merle Belcourt of the department are the chair and vice chair of the corporation's board, she said.
The development corporation donates in-kind services, Belcourt said. The corporation also donated $2,000 to purchase materials for the arts and crafts cooperative when it began, she said.
Dotts said many people on the reservation have expressed interest in the cooperative, and the interest seems to be increasing. The membership is now about 30 people.
"We still have to sell the concept," Belcourt added. "Maybe we need to do more PR."
It costs $25, or a donation of a craft item, to join the co-op. Belcourt said it's difficult for some residents of the reservation to raise the fee. Many people don't have jobs and count on money made from their craft work to live, she said.
Cooperative members would like to set up a central office and store so they could field calls, answer questions and take orders, Belcourt added.
Big Knife predicted that having a location could increase sales significantly. Now, people who want to order Chippewa Cree products don't know who to contact, he said.
A center also could offer shopping to people who visit the reservation and possibly attract more tourists. Quite a few people come to Rocky Boy on business, but other than during Rocky Boy's Pow-Wow, few tourists come to the reservation, Belcourt said.
Big Knife envisions having a paid staff to run the cooperative. Now, volunteers, including Dotts, do all of the work.
Belcourt said she can see the cooperative going a step further. It could eventually pay wages to members to produce arts and crafts items, then pay commissions to the artists when the pieces are sold, she said.
The cooperative focuses creating traditional pieces of high quality. Every American Indian tribe has its own style, and the co-op encourages using Chippewa Cree styles.
Many members of the Chippewa Cree Tribe make arts and crafts items, Belcourt said. The tradition goes back generations.
"It's just a way of life for some people," Belcourt said.
Co-op member Irene Denny is a member of the Arapaho Tribe who married Darrell Denny, a member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe. She said she incorporates Arapaho styles into her work, although each person's work is very individual.
"They're just my own designs," she added.
Big Knife said one of the advantages of the cooperative is that members can refer customers to each other. Each member has a specialty, he said.
"It's like a network. We all know who specializes in a particular item," he said.
The co-op members plan to utilize the Internet to try to market their products, but they have to find someone with the ability and time to administer a Web site first, Belcourt said.
Big Knife said the cooperative has been in contact with several businesses about marketing Chippewa Cree products, including the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which owns the highly successful Foxwood Resorts in Connecticut.
Belcourt said some Chippewa Cree items displayed at Foxwood have been purchased, and its management said it would entertain a proposal to market Chippewa Cree items there.
Michelle Small, Big Knife's wife, said the Chippewa Cree have also been contacted by the North American Indigenous Games about making craft items. The games, first held in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1993, were created to give American Indians in the United States and Canada the opportunity to compete in sporting events and cultural activities. The next games are scheduled for 2005 in New York City.
Small said representatives of the games are talking to the Chippewa Cree Tribe about making medallions to give as awards at games in the future.
Belcourt added that the events' managers said the co-op can set up a table at the games to sell craft items.
Belcourt said she thinks the co-op's products could eventually travel around the world and be sold in places like France and Germany and Asia.
"We feel we could market this overseas," she said. "We just feel they haven't found us."