An Interview with Mark Ford of American Dakota

American Dakota, established in 2009 has lead the way in the rug market. From partnering with indigenous artists, battling stolen copyrights, to building a business that's sustainable with zero landfill waste in an industry that's known for large environmental footprint. Here's how he did it.

So Mark, introduce yourself a bit, and tell us where it all started, where did American Dakota come from?
Well, my family lives in a textile town! All the big players are in our backyard. I’ve been designing rugs since I was 15. When I went to college, I said I was not getting in the rug business, that "I was going to get a real job!" (laughs). In college I majored in Fine Arts with a minor in Native American Studies. My goal was to work at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the Native American. After volunteering in the curators’ office in Yellowstone National Park; to build my resume, I realized this dream was not going to happen. It was at this time that I wanted to marry the love of my life who was going to school back in Georgia, so I came back to my home town. We got married and I got a job at a big textile plant and over the next 14 years I worked for various mills developing product and pitching rug lines to accounts like Target, Kohls, Home Depot and JCPenney. In 2009 when the economy tanked, I got laid off.

I decided if I wanted to start my own company, God had given me the opportunity. So, my wife and I paired my passion for textiles with our love for the woods, the West and our admiration for our Indigenous friends into a rug company called American Dakota.

Tell us a little bit about your time spent working in National Parks & Reservations.
I think you are referring to my first visits, which were when I lived in East Glacier Montana on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. My very first visit was when I was in college working on a massive paper for school on Plains Indian dance regalia between the years of approximately 1920-1934-ish. This is when Plains tribes were getting adjusted to the reservation lifestyle. For the entire summer I researched and worked on the illustrations for this paper. I also worked alongside many Blackfeet in my part time job in the adjoining National Park. It was a thrill to be immersed in the Blackfeet community. Gosh, I think I visited the Plains Indian Museum in Browning, Montana ten times that Summer. Because I spent the whole Summer on the Reservation, I got to frequent the Tribe’s trading posts, grocery stores and local businesses which revealed much about their current lifestyle and opened my eyes to life on the Reservation. I think it was from those visits that helped me see the many obstacles a Native has regarding trying to sustain themselves. It’s from some of these early impressions that today American Dakota seeks out Positive Native American artists to partner with and to share profits (a 50/50 split) from the sale of the artist’s rugs. The idea is to help artists create passive income from their work. Since my college days I’ve been back to the Reservation working summers and more recently have been on some work projects on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Our goal as a company is to be intentional and to work with an Indigenous artist when we can. All this stems from time spent on Reservations.

What about your time with the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota?
Well, American Dakota was seeking to align themselves with a charity group who worked on the Lakota Tribe’s, Pine Ridge Reservation. Our first efforts were to see a group called Re-member ( https://www.re-member.org/ ), firsthand in action. The reason we wanted to see their work for ourselves, was because in the past there had been some charity groups who have had some questionable behavior, and this was personal for us. When we visited Re-member we were sent out on work projects and saw first hand the wheel chair ramps being made since diabetes has created a number of amputees on the Reservation and we saw under skirting done on trailers. We heard their plans to build green houses, which they are now doing, and the goal of building community grounds for the
tribe.

We also saw how the locals responded to them being on Native land and the impression the tribal members had on the work being done.

One thing that struck us was how long Re-member had been working there. Our impression was that the locals finally felt like this charity group is there to stay and not a flash in the pan. After seeing their work first hand and then hearing the Lakota speak in the evenings to the volunteers, we became convinced this was good group to support. Another thing we liked was Re-member invites Native artisans on Wednesday nights to their site, to sell their wares to the volunteers. American Dakota has personally delivered blankets to the Re member organization and we provide exposure for them on our web site and we plan to do more in the future.

What about your sponsor program with a Lakota Family in South Dakota?
Well, on Pine Ridge there is a charity group called One Spirit (nativeprogress.org/en/) that hosts a sponsorship program that allows willing outsiders to sponsor a deserving Lakota Family on the Reservation.

It’s through this wonderful program that American Dakota works alongside a young Indian family. The goal is to do life together, we check in, we give them a reliable “constant” in their life that is more rewarding to us then to the family. The Grandmother in the family is so fun and the children all have unique personalities; it’s been a true blessing. Not all life-events are happy, there is some drama and emergencies that happen living on a Reservation.

For example, we hosted a fund raiser to provide travel expenses for a heart surgery for one of the children in the family. Together we are currently working on ways to help the family generate income. We will never post images of the family or exploit them because they are not a marketing ploy, it’s super personal for us and we cherish the relationship. If anyone is interesting in learning more about either of these worthy organizations click on the “charities” tab on our website www.americandakota.com. A simple way of participating is to simply purchase a food basket with One Spirit which is a quick credit card deduction. Trust me your donation goes a long way and tribe members are active delivering the baskets and it’s a community event. This program helps our company live out it’s mission to do more than just make rugs. This program is very special to us!

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