Standing Stone Mazopeh: Savvy business model and varied inventory helps gift shop thrive

Published in Indian Country Today in 2008. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Wagner, S.D. — A tiny town in a region where you can drive for miles without passing another car hardly seems the spot for a thriving gift shop and trading post. But a smart business model that serves both Native and non-Native residents of the area, and also attracts visitors from Europe and Canada, has allowed Faith Spotted Eagle, Ihanktowan Dakota (shown here), to make a success of her growing enterprise.

            When you open the door to Standing Stone Mazopeh, the first thing that strikes you is the delicate aroma of medicinal and ceremonial herbs gathered for the shop by tribal members on the nearby Yankton Sioux reservation. (“Standing Stone” is Spotted Eagle’s Indian name, and “mazopeh” means store.)

Next, you perceive a cozy charm arising from the artfully displayed goods and the hospitality of the store manager, Bianca Lisa Old Bull Axdahl, Northern Cheyenne. Axdahl is in charge of the day-to-day work of running the two-room shop, doing everything from ordering stock to dusting. She started in October 2007, three years after Spotted Eagle, who is also a cultural resource specialist, therapist and training consultant, opened the business with a $14,000 loan from her community, the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

“I spent $4,000 to secure the lease for this building and $10,000 on inventory,” said Spotted Eagle, seated at a small table where the two women offer coffee to visitors. “And I’m happy to say I’ve paid most of it back.”

The mix of goods is designed to attract a range of customers. Hanks of beads and other art supplies are purchased mostly by Native people. Items that appeal to both Native and non-Native visitors include beaded jewelry in a glass-fronted case; teas, smoking mixtures and natural remedies ranged on a hutch; star quilts and clothes on racks; toys, shampoos, soaps and lotions on shelves; and Plains ledger-style paintings and other art on the walls. Some products, including moccasins and blankets, come from distant suppliers. Other items are sourced locally.

“Our Native friends bring in artwork they want to trade, so I bargain with them,” said Axdahl. “That’s how we Indians are; we bargain and trade.”

Getting the better of the artist is not the point, though. “Our people have been affected by pawn shops, which undervalue their work,” said Spotted Eagle. “We try to honor the work and give people what they want.” For Spotted Eagle, the store is a way to “live the artist’s life vicariously.” When she graduated from college, she wanted to be an artist, but life led her in other directions. Now she has the privilege of visiting artists’ homes to see their work. “When they show you their things, you go into their world,” she said. “You partake of the spirit of the artist.” 

Customers have a similar experience on days when Axdahl brings her beading to work. “One day, a Canadian couple arrived hoping to see people making crafts. They were so excited to watch me beading and took lots of pictures,” she recalled.

Advertising for the store is almost entirely word of mouth. Other area shops, including the gift shop at the Fort Randall Hotel and Casino in nearby Marty, South Dakota, refer customers to Standing Stone Mazopeh. As a result, it has continual customer traffic. In summer, Spotted Eagle complements store sales by traveling to small powwows, selling T-shirts and CDs. “Asian businessmen selling cheaper, Asian-made goods have taken over the big powwows,” she said. “So the small ones are more lucrative for us.” She currently does not have either a Web site or a mail order catalog.

She’ll soon add to the store’s range of stock with two athletic-wear franchises. They will provide much-needed running shoes and other gear for local kids, who otherwise must persuade parents to take them shopping in cities a good 50 miles away.

Owning a gift shop has provided one uncomfortable lesson for Spotted Eagle. “You discover people don’t necessarily like the things you do,” she sighed. “See that little woodcut of an elk? When I saw it, I thought it was so interesting. But obviously no one else does.”

“And what about those purses?” exclaimed Axdahl. “They’re all still here!”

“Whose idea was that?” laughed Spotted Eagle.

The enthusiasm of the two women was contagious. “We’re here to stay,” said Axdahl.

Text and photo c. Stephanie Woodard.

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