Navajo artisans hit by recession at annual sale
Downsize » Hard times force weavers to make smaller and lower-priced rugs at 20th annual show.
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William Whitehair, a Navajo weaver, usually sells out of his intricately designed rugs each fall during the Navajo Rug Show at Deer Valley Resort.

But not this year. He still had several rugs for sale in his booth Sunday afternoon. "It has been real slow," said Whitehair, who lives in the small Navajo community called Big Mountain.

The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression affected sales of the handmade rugs, as well as jewelry and crafts at the 20th annual show Sunday. Fewer people are willing to pay from $100 to as much as $15,000 for a hand-woven piece of art, artisans said.

While the show itself was crowded much of the weekend, crafts people said actual sales -- especially of higher-priced items -- were markedly down from previous years.

And that's a major problem for many of the artisans, many who live in poverty and depend on sales of their crafts to make ends meet. The show is the primary fundraiser for the Park City-based nonprofit Adopt-A-Native Elder Program, which delivers food, clothing and medical supplies to more than 500 older Navajos living on reservations in Utah and Arizona.

The show, which features the work of about 70 artisans, also is designed to help Navajos by allowing them to keep more of the proceeds from what they produce. Unlike a for-profit show or a dealer, the Adopt-A-Native Elder Program takes no cut of the rug sales at the three-day annual event, and organizers even help pay the gas and other expenses involved in getting the artisans, many of whom are seniors, to the show.

The recession "is just killing us," said Mary Phillips, who handles development for the nonprofit group. "On the reservation, they are calling it catastrophic. Last year, sales were down, but this year, it's just terrible."

Weavers said, however, they started feeling the first hints of a recession two years ago, and have been able to adapt a bit before conditions worsened to where they are now.

For example, Gloria Hardy and her mother, Louise Reed, who live in the tiny and remote Navajo outpost called Tsaile, are producing mostly small rugs now, including a fairly tiny 15-inch by 17½-inch variety. These smaller rugs can be had for less than $200, some for less than $100. Others are producing smaller keepsake items that can be sold at even lower price points.

A number said they had lowered prices a bit, but that given the price of wool and the time it takes to make a rug, there's not really much wiggle room for prices.

Their strategy of producing smaller, less expensive items, seemed to fit the profile of many of the attendees, who said while they were interested in the handmade items on display, they had no plans to spend a lot of money.

Salt Lake City resident Dayna Reale, who attended the show Sunday, said she was interested in jewelry, especially turquoise. Her friend Mary Dodge said she was interested in the rugs. But both had plans only to "look around" and maybe "buy something small."

Anita Jackson, who lives in the small Navajo community of Teesto on the Navajo Reservation, lamented that the big rugs -- the works of art that are the real money-makers for artisans -- are just so hard to sell right now. Like her fellow weavers, she too was peddling smaller varieties.

Grace Smith Yellowhammer, who has been selling her rugs and crafts at the Utah show for two decades, said the current economic climate is disappointing, which makes her appreciate the efforts of the Adopt-A-Native Elder Program even more.

"The economy is bad," she said. "But I'm not complaining. I'm just so grateful that I'm here."

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Adopt-A-Native Elder Program

With rug sales down and the cost of some necessities, such as firewood, higher than last year, the nonprofit Park City-based organization is seeking those interested in making sure Navajo elders, many of whom have no electricity or running water, have enough supplies to get through the winter. Visit www.anelder.org for more information.

Adopt-A-Native Elder Program

With rug sales down and the cost of some necessities, such as firewood, higher than last year, the nonprofit Park City-based organization is seeking those interested in making sure Navajo elders, many of whom have no electricity or running water, have enough supplies to get through the winter. Visit www.anelder.org for more information.