Quite aside from the inherent rights of nature-based people to live on their lands as they choose, many endangered tribes are repositories of ancient wisdom that could offer solutions to modern problems. They are caretakers of some of the world’s most rare and precious natural resources. And they often possess a knowledge of the healing properties of these resources exceeding that of our most advanced science.
But unless their arts and crafts become valued commodities to first-world consumers, their ways of life are in danger of being lost forever. Only by forging a mutually beneficial symbiosis with traditional peoples in remote areas around the globe, can we hope to preserve their land, their freedom, and the many gifts they can bring to those outside their vanishing worlds.
From Rugs To Riches
A number of people have achieved financial success and personal fulfillment by bringing indigenous arts and crafts to the international marketplace, and then bringing prosperity back to the native people who produce them. Michael Wineland is one such ‘environmental capitalist.’
In 1979, Michael followed his passion for the native arts and crafts of the Americas into the Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle. Located in the valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, this 3500-year-old village occupied an important position in the pre-Columbian world, well before the time of the Aztecs.
The people of Teotitlan del Valle, which means ‘land of the Gods’, still speak their original language. Among the earliest weavers in the Americas, they continue to produce some of the finest hand-woven textiles in the world. But when Wineland first arrived, their way of life was in danger of collapsing under the weight of economic poverty.
Immediately taken by the charm of these peaceful people and the beauty of their functional crafts, Michael began buying hand-loomed Zapotec rugs and selling them in the U.S. from the back of his car. He had no idea at the time that he was embarking on a viable commercial enterprise that would eventually benefit thousands of people.
Helping Native People Stand Their Ground
A student of anthropology and art history, among many other favorite subjects, Michael spent months at a time, year after year, living among the weavers, learning about their culture and crafts. When he found that the original Zapotec designs had only limited appeal in the modern world, he began creating his own designs and paying the weavers to produce them.
Wineland’s fresh interpretations of traditional motifs from many of the world’s indigenous cultures have found a wide and appreciative audience among collectors and connoisseurs across the country. This response enabled him to create Santa Fe Interiors, a group of shops and reps that offered the Zapotec’s hand-woven rugs, throws, bedspreads, and fabrics to designers and consumers. [Michael has since sold his own retail stores and now makes his distinctive textiles available online and through exclusives with boutique stores and designers.]
Wineland is not the only purveyor of Zapotec arts and crafts, but he is one of the first and largest champions of their work. The pieces he has created with the weavers have been photographed for numerous articles in “Architectural Digest” and can be found in showrooms, commercial spaces and private collections across the country. Galleries in Europe are also beginning to showcase this work.
The results in Teotitlan del Valle of this mutually advantageous relationship have been quite dramatic: Infant mortality has all but disappeared. The new generation of adults is two inches taller than their parents. And many of the young people maintain the traditional values, language, and culture that comprise their rich heritage, while also enjoying the pleasures and conveniences of the modern world.
And just as every healthy eco-system supports a diversity of life, so there are other indigenous people who are sharing in the Zapotec’s windfall: The mountains high above Chiapas are home to the villagers who raise the sheep, and hand-card and spin the durable, lanolin-rich wool that the Zapotec’s use for their weavings. The increasing demand for the Zapotec’s work has enabled these mountain people to maintain their ancient land and life ways relatively undisturbed by the steamroller of commercialization that flattens much of the world below them.
This way of introducing dollars into tribal economies short-circuits the usual exodus of traditional people from their forests and villages into industrial centers. And when indigenous people escape such global homogenization, their urban neighbors also prosper through eco-tourist dollars. Such is the case for the now thriving City of Oaxaca.
Extraordinary shifts in consciousness can also occur when first-world tourists, who may only be able to trace their roots back to their grandparents, meet tribal people whose known genealogy extends back thousands of years. The interchange of energy between them can create the foundation for inspired, empathic action that will support the perpetuation of both the oldest and newest ways of living on the planet.
Based on the difference his own actions have made, Wineland consults with other entrepreneurs who are looking to link their own fortunes with those of native people. He cautions purists that tribal artists may need to be guided to update their traditional, home-based crafts to appeal to contemporary aesthetics. But he believes such adaptations are a small price to pay to help a threatened way of life become viable in the world economy. He is also convinced that a consortium of environmental capitalists could become a powerful force for the preservation of ancient peoples and sacred places all over the world.
Michael dreams of creating living arts cultural centers that will introduce people from industrial societies to the arts and crafts, rituals, festivals, worldview and lifestyles of many remote, indigenous people from around the world. As the pace of urban life accelerates, and cultural differences are lost through westernization, the diversity in perspectives and aesthetics that tribal people can offer could help us all to find more richness and purpose in our lives.
Written by Laurel Airica, a freelance writer, PR consultant and events coordinator for visionary people with life-enhancing projects.