Super Bowl LII Exploits Native American Tradition
The Warm Welcome Lanyard Project asking Native American beadworkers to volunteer to make 15,000 beaded lanyards to welcome guests of Super Bowl LII is probably done with good intent but it is misguided.
It’s called beadwork because it involves a lot of work! Do you go into businesses and ask for free stuff? Personally, I’ve never tried asking for free gasoline, electricity or groceries, maybe it works. Most people don’t understand that some beadworkers rely on the small income from their efforts to make ends meet. They spend years building their reputations as artisans from mostly word-of-mouth in order to eek out steady income from their work.
While Natives understand the culture of the giveaway a Super Bowl crowd is not familiar with this concept. We might have face-painting in common but this audience may not value receiving a beaded gift as Natives do. And with no mention of exactly how these individualized, handcrafted works of art will be gifted, it pains me to think of them being thrown into a swag bag alongside standard branded fare, only to be tossed out as trash at game’s end.
This project grossly undervalues the time and labor of life-long beadworkers. There is no union to protect them, no 401-k or paid vacations. Giving away beadwork in this manner harms their livelihood. Creating an expectation that beadwork is “free” degrades the market for actual beadwork. Though the committee states they are “trying to provide value through other avenues” it is unclear how they would honor this half-promise. It is an injustice to place so little value on this work, especially at an event that is so grossly commercialized.
Now let’s crunch some numbers. Is this project even feasible?
Optimistically, say it takes 4 hours to bead a lanyard. Realistically, it takes much longer than that to design, create and complete a quality piece.
You must commit to producing 5 lanyards to receive the free beads and lanyards from the program. Beadworkers provide thread, needles, scissors, wax and time.
If one person makes 5 lanyards, to reach the goal of 15,000 lanyards, 3,000 artists are needed
Participants sacrifice time from their own projects to work for free at a chance to showcase their work at the Super Bowl. Suppose a $15 wage on their work. Doing 5 lanyards at 4 hours times $15 = $300. Would you pay $300 for the chance to win unspecified valuable prizes and possibly win a spot to showcase your work to a tailgating crowd on their way to the concession stand? And if you did win that spot would you even profit being an out-of-town vendor with expenses for meals, lodging and transportation?
Given the fact that Native Americans experience the highest national poverty rates of any race in the United States at 27 percent, it is insulting to ask artists and beadworkers to contribute this much with little chance for any return on their investment of time, energy and materials. Artists have a right to fair compensation just as any other profession does. The lack of understanding to the complexity of this art form and the low value placed on the time to create it wounds my soul.
This is not to criticize the generosity motivating the people behind this project. The Super Bowl LII host committee’s intent to welcome visitors while acknowledging the Twin Cities’ thriving Native community is commendable—their vague pledge to reward Native artisans by allowing them to be “around” the stadium on game day to sell their work, less so. Also, given that the 2017 Super Bowl brought in at least $350 million in revenue to Houston’s local economy, it is baffling that Minnesota’s Super Bowl host committee requires Native artisans to donate significant labor just to earn a chance to participate.
Super Bowl hospitality should not be at the expense of Native artists and beadworkers. No one gets rich off beadwork because it is so labor intensive, misunderstood and undervalued. The Super Bowl LII host committee has the opportunity to elevate and showcase these unique talents and welcome previously excluded Native artisans into the local economic windfall that accompanies this football extravaganza. Unfortunately, they instead have opted to only confirm that earning a living wage as a Native beadworker is nearly impossible.