Indigenous Excellence — A Pueblo Jewelry Brand’s Path to Success
In an era of growing Native leadership, such as the newly confirmed Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, we need to continue to celebrate Indigenous innovators and entrepreneurs, like Elizabeth Kirk of Kirk Jewelry!
Indigenous peoples are this continent’s original entrepreneurs, members of vibrant communities with centuries-old histories of trade and business. The creatives in Tribal lands laid the bedrock for their region’s culture and commerce, and, in the face of hurdles from geographical remoteness to discrimination and misrepresentation, each successful Native business is a celebration of resilience and strength. The prosperity of these artisans is a crucial element of sustainable economic development on and off reservations.
National movements and policies point to the importance of Native business-owners and entrepreneurs. In 2020, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs sponsored the Indian Community Economic Enhancement Act, promoting entrepreneurship and access to funds by reinforcing existing programs and laws. Organizations like the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development or the Tribal Link Foundation continue to provide programs, services, and scholarships for Native entrepreneurs. For New Mexico’s 19 Pueblos, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is gearing up to open their new Opportunity Center and has partnered with Creative Startups to present a LABS pre-accelerator for Indigenous Creatives, a five-week intensive course designed to guide entrepreneurs to move their businesses towards substantial growth.
In these Pueblos, Kirk Jewelry is a perfect example of New Mexican Indigenous entrepreneurial excellence. This jewelry brand is run by Michael and Elizabeth Kirk, a father/daughter duo born and raised in Isleta Pueblo, and their unique pieces have been featured in the Smithsonian and the American Indian Museum galleries. In a recent interview with Elizabeth, we learned more about her story and how she developed Kirk Jewelry into the success it is today, including how she set their business-model apart from other artisans and her tips for burgeoning Native entrepreneurs.
Creative Startups— What is Kirk Jewelry’s origin story?
Elizabeth— My father is a Vietnam War veteran, and when he returned back, my uncle (his older brother) had been taking jewelry classes at the community college. While my father had enrolled to be a computer engineer (of all things), his brother said, “Hey, you know, I think we can do this on the side and earn money while we’re going for our degrees.”
So they turned my grandmother’s kitchen into their workshop, and if you could ask her (she just passed a few months ago), she’d tell you how dirty her kitchen was. She was furious — just such a clean freak! And from there, the business just took off! I don’t think either of them realized how well it would work out.
CS — Why do you think it worked so well? What were they doing that piqued their customers’ interest?
EK — Even in the beginning, they set out to be different from what other people were doing. They set themselves apart from other artists by working in high carat gold or really high quality turquoise. And so, just a few months after they started, they both realized that it was actually making them more money than what they would be doing with their degrees — that they were pretty good at it! So they officially started the business.
CS — When did you realize that you wanted to join your father in making jewelry and also take the reins business-wise?
EK — When I was about eight, he had converted the garage into his workshop. I was and still very much am a daddy’s girl, so I was always wanting to be by him and doing whatever he was doing. I would be running around, and one day I spun around and hit an oxygen tank. It fell, and he almost had a heart attack. In order to get me to sit still, he handed me a jeweler saw and a piece of silver and told me he wanted me to learn to make patterns. And from then on, I would just be in there working alongside him.
I came into the business aspect of it at about 17, right after I had graduated from high school. My dad was looking at how he could better put things together, and I just thought “I have the summer off, let me start pulling paperwork and getting in touch with buyers.”
Then that took over, and I enabled my dad to be able to just create. I took care of getting in contact with new store owners or galleries and reestablishing connections with people he had dealt with over the past 20 years. At the time, that meant getting in contact with potential buyers and saying, “Hey, can I put together a box of our best sellers, and you can let me know if you’re interested? If not, just send it back. No big deal.”
Every time I sent out a box, I would just get a check back because everyone was keeping whatever I had sent out.
CS — Is that a typical business model for artisans in your area?
EK — Not for the vast majority of artists. I would say a good 90% of our artists make their income attending in-person shows, be that bigger art markets or Powwow circuits. Within New Mexico, we have 19 Pueblos here, and each has a feast day with their own celebrations. People show up and sell things as well.
That’s probably a big difference between myself and other artists — that I do retail and wholesale. I don’t rely on art markets in the same manner as other artists do. It costs a significant amount of money to actually travel and get out there, and really, when you get down to it, it was better to be home and create than it would be to be on the road. Out there, I’m thinking, “We’re selling all of these pieces, so we have to go back home and create new ones in order to keep going.”
It was about finding a happy medium. I got to a point where I would pick what show we did better at, which had the better return or the lowest expenses. That’s how I would decide what shows we would do.
CS — How did the pandemic affect that sort of business model? What was it like in the Pueblo?
EK — I would say that last year was rough because our Tribe shut down all businesses the first part of March all the way until July 31st. A great concern of mine when I was on the board of the Santa Fe Indian Market was that, if shows went away, what would Native artists have to fall back on because the vast majority of rural Natives have slow or no internet access. Within the reservation, it’s a pretty big struggle. Because I didn’t have a need for it before the pandemic, I just launched our website, I believe, in November. When all of the art shows and gallery openings came to a halt, I saw I needed to change how I had conducted business in the past.
There’s a lot to learn with choosing photos, writing descriptions, and marketing online. It’s about looking at what would work best to engage your customer. I’m someone who’s very comfortable in person. I can tell you stories about everything we make, but I struggle to do it on video because you don’t get to see who you’re speaking too. I would say a good portion of people also struggle in that same area. But we have a great deal of businesses coming forth to help in that aspect, and IPCC and Creative Startup’s program is a great start for a good many artists! I really think it would help them. I’m excited for what IPCC is building and what they are putting together to help with entrepreneurs. It’s exciting to see it come to fruition.
CS — What advice would you give to these Native entrepreneurs who are trying to start or revitalize their own businesses?
EK — I would say first and foremost, get your business set up properly. That’s one thing a lot of Native artists struggle with, and it’s something I’ve had to deal with because my father always operated as a sole proprietorship. Being able to set it up properly as either a sole proprietorship or a LLC, getting the necessary tax numbers together — that’s the part we as artists do not like. It would be nice to have an outlet, like what [the accelerator] is doing, to get you in touch with someone who can walk you through those steps.
And that goes along with recognizing what your strong points and weak points are and finding people who can help you. It’s something I’ve had to discipline myself on. You have to tell yourself what you can’t add to your plate and then look for someone who has the same mindset and knows what you are wanting to do and then work with that person. That’s exactly what I did with my website. You do still have to become familiar with the things you aren’t an expert in. If I don’t know something, I’ll take a class so that I know the basics but still find someone who can take that on. It helps you in the long run. If you someone asks you questions, you’ll be able to have answers.
“You also have to be able to see the opportunities available to you, reach out and establish those connections that get your name out there.”
Another tip is that you also have to be able to see the opportunities available to you, reach out and establish those connections that get your name out there. It’s a constant process, and I think that more artists need to know that — that they definitely still need to be able to look out and stay relevant. My dad always says you either evolve or die off. He says, “Do you want to be a dinosaur, or do you want to still be here?”
That’s why I say, with our jewelry, it’s a habit of continuing the fine tradition of jewelry making and blending modern technology with traditional aesthetics. And that’s exactly what we do. It’s a tough process, but it’s definitely one that you want to keep with because you have to evolve.
CS — What makes all of this hard worth it? Why are you passionate about wearable art like your jewelry?
EK — When I wake up, my day is never the same. Sometimes I’m going to be working on jewelry. Other times, I’m doing photography because I have to take snapshots of the pieces because they can fly out of the building so fast that I need to have a record somehow. There’ll be other days that I’ll be completely dressed up to do an interview or meet a client. I don’t have days that look the same all the way through. When I get up, I have to ask what hat am I wearing? It’s always an adventure. It’s different.
But really, for me, it’s the connection to my father first and foremost, and then it’s where we are on the reservation and with my culture, having that connection not just as a Native but also as a person with anyone across the board. It’s my way to communicate exactly what is most important to me and to be able to share part of my world with others.
Start or strengthen your Native business by applying to Creative Startups and IPCC’s LABS Pre-Accelerator program for Indigenous creatives in New Mexico! LABS is a 5-week program taking place online from April — May 2021 and is ideal for entrepreneurs, artists, and creatives (like you!) who are either in early stages of starting and growing a creative company or who are looking to take their existing creative practice to the next level.
Applications are open until Sunday, March 28th, so apply today!
Our Indigenous accelerators are funded in part by the Thoma Equity Grant from the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation. The Thoma Equity Grant supports rural youth, art-focused community programming, and education. Through this grant, the Thoma Foundation honors the power of the arts, education, and community to inspire the next generation of leaders, changemakers, and entrepreneurs.