For sale: the low end of Indian lore


Replicas: Dusty Henson sells inexpensive imitations of Native American blankets, crafts and leather goods.

March 24, 2000|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

EL PASO, Texas -- Inside an immense, two-story warehouse a few blocks north of the Mexican border, boxes are packed and ready to ship, filled with Indian-theme saddle blankets, steer horns, serapes, woven baskets. Each week, the Mexican curios and Southwest gear bring a little piece of the Old West to mom-and-pop stores and retail outfits around the world.

But many of the items don't hail from Mexico, the Southwest or Indian reservations. The saddle blankets are woven in India. The Texas mounted longhorns are the polished horns of African cattle.

Dusty Henson doesn't claim that the merchandise is anything it is not. The catalog of El Paso Saddleblanket Co., which he started 30 years ago, is filled with disclaimers. All merchandise made outside the United States is tagged with the company logo and marked with the country where it was made.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people don't care where the items are from," says Henson, who has built El Paso Saddleblanket into one of the nation's largest distributors of cultural goods, doing $6 million in business a year. "They go for price and quality. Other people prefer the real thing, and they don't buy here."

Several of his products are authentic, including sand paintings made by Native Americans and clay pottery baked at a well-known foundry in Mexico.

Some people, though, don't fool with the fine print.

At Smith Chevron, along Interstate 95 in Santee, S.C., clerk Cecile Haley has bought one each of El Paso Saddleblanket's mandellas and dream catchers for her 14-year-old grandson, who "loves everything to do with Indian relics."

Mandellas, round decorations adorned with wool and feathers, are said to bring prosperity and good luck. Dream catchers are also round hangings, designed to catch bad dreams in a web until they are vanquished by the light of day. Good dreams find their way to a hole in the middle and slide down feather extensions to the sleeper.

"It doesn't matter to me where these things are made," says Haley. "I'm quite sure it's made in China. Everything nowadays comes from China or Taiwan or somewhere over there."

El Paso Saddleblanket's mandellas have no single origin. The centerpieces for some are Brazilian place mats. The wool hanging is scrap from carpet factories in the Southeastern United States. And feathers are plucked from turkeys and quails. Mexican workers assemble the hodgepodge.

Selling or displaying any product in a way that "falsely suggests" it is made by an American Indian is a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine, or both. But Henson says his mandellas and dream catchers, drums, ceremonial dance rattles and bow-and-arrow sets are truthfully touted. He calls them replicas.

"People deserve to be punished if they are misrepresenting anything," he says. "They give all of us importers a bad name -- hooky crookies, frauds and scammers."

At his Country & Indian Store in Pearblossom, Calif., 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles, Richard Kemper offers Henson's Navajo-design saddle blankets because, he says, Native American products are too expensive. Indian blankets crafted on hand looms cost as much as $3,000. El Paso Saddleblanket's sell for $30 on average, plus a mark-up.

Kemper, who is one-fourth Cherokee, says that's the only El Paso Saddleblanket ware he hawks. "I try to deal mainly with Indian artisans as much as I can," he says. "The mandellas and dream catchers are spiritual things. They don't have spirit in them when they are made in a mass-produced fashion like they do down in Mexico."

So the dream catchers he sells are Indian-made and priced at $40 to $150. The El Paso Saddleblanket replicas may be as little as $2.

Henson's trademark item has been the saddle blanket since he started buying, selling and trading in the 1960s. Before he opened the 36,000-square-foot store in El Paso, he hit the road in a pickup horse trailer loaded with the blankets and assorted items. He upgraded to a travel trailer when he married his wife, Bonnie, and together they drove through Arizona, California, Colorado, Oklahoma.

The blankets he sold and traded were in basic stripes until an Arizona trading-post owner asked if the Mexican weavers could handle the more complicated geometric patterns characteristic of Navajo work.

"I said, `I don't know. What's a Navajo design?' I'm from Texas, and I didn't know what that was," Henson says. "Somewhere down the line, we just put a little design on them and then realized you can call a saddle blanket a rug and sell it for twice as much money."

Eventually, he found cheaper labor and new products overseas. He once sold kangaroo hides from Australia and freeze-dried piranhas from South America. He still sells rabbit skins from Spain and reindeer hides from Norway. Displayed on a glass case in his warehouse are freeze-dried snakes, coiled and poised to strike, that he purchased from a "road warrior" trader who stopped by his store a few months ago and didn't leave an address.

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