- By Tamara Ikenberg
LEWISTON, Idaho — Native-owned Traditions Gift Shop offers a stunning spectrum of products and price points.
The Lewiston, Idaho-based retail store’s wares run the gamut from $5 Tupac Shakur stickers, $8 slabs of huckleberry soap and $40 colorful sherpa-lined blankets with funky Cree tribal prints, to a slew of sparkling earrings for less than $100, to powerful paintings by Nez Perce artist John Seven for $500, breathtakingly intricate $1,500 beaded cuffs by master Choctaw artist Marcus Amermam and $2,400 vintage Louis Vuitton purses indigenized with turquoise stones and long leather fringe.
Just about all of it, from the super-affordable to the spendy splurges, is quickly disappearing from both the brick-and-mortar and online store, to the delight of vendors and Traditions Gift Shop owner Stacia Morfin, a Nez Perce entrepreneur.
“She’s selling so well. I go in every other weekend either to just say hi or drop something off, and all the merchandise is different. It’s amazing,” said Kim Pate (Eastern Band of Cherokee, Mississippi Choctaw), who’s served as Morfin’s business mentor and also sells hand salve and lip balm at Traditions. “Stacia is having tremendous impact already and she just opened around Memorial Day.”
Morfin’s professionalism, natural charm, and ardor for authentically representing the culture and talent of the Nez Perce and the tribes they have traditionally traded with have made Traditions a pandemic-era pivot success story.
Traditions is an extension of Morfin’s Nez Perce Tourism company, which launched in March 2019 and offers Native-led experiences including Apaloosa horseback riding, jet boat cruises, whitewater rafting and cultural experiences with Nez Perce people.
“We had an awesome first year,” said Morfin, who has degrees in hospitality management, business administration and marketing. “We were profitable not even six months in. I was already paying myself last year, which is crazy because you don’t usually get paid until honestly the second to fifth year. Last year, I had 55 contractors that I worked with, and they were all Nez Perce.”
Then COVID hit, and the river cruises on the Snake and Columbia rivers that bring thousands of tourists to the region stopped sailing into town.
“My biggest target market are the river cruise boats that come in from the Pacific Ocean, like The Queen of the West,” Morfin said. “I realized, ‘Oh my goodness, I have to come up with another revenue stream because we are at a 95 percent loss, and we are not growing. We’re just kind of at a standstill.’
“It does something to your spirit when you’re stagnant like that. I just prayed and prayed and prayed. Next thing you know, there was this space inside the heart of Nimiipuu Country in beautiful downtown Lewiston in a very popular shopping mall called Newberry Square.”
As dozens of vendors vied for that coveted space in Newberry Square, Morfin had an in: She was already renting office space at the mall from downtown property owner Vikky Ross. Ross had gotten to know her tenant well, and envisioned her opening a store celebrating regional Native artists even before Morfin did.
“She presented me with an opportunity,” Morfin told Tribal Business News. “She said, ‘Stacia, I really would like to offer this to you first. I really want you to think about expanding and starting a gift shop upstairs and selling authentic Nez Perce items. You need a presence in your homeland.’ She was hyping me up.”
Morfin credits the best practices she developed with Nez Perce Tourism for partially preparing her for a retail venture.
“With Nez Perce Tourism, I would sell authentic Nez Perce-made items to my tourism guests, and I also had agreements with the Nez Perce Historical Society and Newberry Square and other places that saw value in holding authentic things. I would work with my tribal artists and sell wholesale,” she said. “I had maybe $3,000 in inventory on hand at all times just for the tourism season, whether it was beadwork, earrings, key chains (or) medicine bags.”
Ross gave Morfin a short 48 hours to respond to her offer, and the potential shop owner swiftly sought advice from family, friends and mentors. Half of them encouraged her to go for it, and the rest deduced it was too risky in the pandemic economy.
She was fielding questions about what her monthly rent was going to be and whether she would be able to make it up in sales. Still, Morfin was fearless and unfazed.
“Even though some people didn’t think it was a good time, I did it anyway,” she said. “The first day I opened my doors, I made my rent for that month in net sales.”
‘DOING SOMETHING RIGHT’
As a friend, business mentor and vendor, Pate fully appreciates Morfin’s potential.
While serving as vice president of NDN Collective, Pate also is a consultant and board member of the Nimiipuu Fund, a Native community development financial institution (CDFI) serving the Nez Perce Reservation and surrounding areas.
As well, Nimiipuu Fund provided Morfin with training and mentorship.
“There’s been a need for Stacia. If she weren’t doing this, there would be no store like this. There would be no market for these artists because of COVID,” Pate said. “Not only did she pivot and find a way to continue to bring in income for her family, she is also creating a marketplace for all these artists. Some of our best artists, not just here, but all the way up in Nespelem, Washington, are selling through the store.”
Closer to home, world-famous beading brothers and Traditions vendors Roger and Marcus Amermam are working hard to make sure they have items ready to go as soon as Morfin needs them.
“If you can sell at this time in our country’s history, you’re doing something right,” Roger Amermam said.
The Amermams are acclaimed artists with work in museums including the Portland Art Museum in Oregon and The McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina.
However, even master artists found themselves stifled by COVID.
“This year, Stacia’s store was one of the few outlets my brother or I had to sell our work. It’s a tremendous new asset to the community here. We don’t have to go a long distance or negotiate or pay high overhead costs or gallery fees,” Amermam said. “Stacia has a lot of really good energy and she’s a hard worker and she’s a great salesperson. We trust her. Emotionally, it’s a lot more satisfying to work with her.”
Amermam is a master Choctaw artist, and he’s also immersed in Nez Perce culture. His wife is Nez Perce and they reside on the Nez Perce Reservation.
His $325 neck bag — made with vintage beads in traditional dusty pinks, powder blues, and mustard yellows, tapering triangles and more signature geometric patterns — is the epitome of Nez Perce style, and encapsulates the essence of Traditions.
“That’s a very southern plateau convention — nice, bold colors and designs. The eye goes right to it,” Amermam said. “It looks good from a distance. In the southern plateau arts, the colors, art, texture and design look good very far away on a horse coming toward you. It’s not really ornate where you have to be right next to it to appreciate how beautiful it is.”
FINDING HER CALLING
In 2018, long before Traditions came to life, Morfin said she had a supernatural mountain-top moment that propelled her into building Nez Perce Tourism.
She said she asked God what he wanted her to do with her life, and she took her husband and daughter on a long hike to find her answer.
“We have these special sacred power places inside Nimiipuu Country, and these aren’t places that we publicize. These aren’t places that I’ll take tourists to, they’re places that maybe only my family knows about or specific bands of Nez Perce know about,” Morfin said. “We went hiking for miles and miles and miles to the top of this mountain and I started singing one of our old, old Nez Perce songs. In my second or third verse, this man appeared to me, and he told me exactly what I was going to do. He told me that I was going to start a cultural preservation business, and it was centered around tourism.”
In that instance, Morfin found her purpose.
“That was my green light to knowing that this is my destiny. When your ancestors or your elders tell you to do something, you do it. You don’t sleep on it. You don’t wait around for somebody else to do it,” she said. “Literally that next day, I went into the Lewiston Small Business Development Center.”
There, she connected with the Nimiipuu Fund. Morfin already had startup capital — money saved from three years working as a marketing consultant with Lewiston’s Pacific Empire Communications — but what she needed was mentorship and training.
“The Nimiipuu Fund does a phenomenal job of offering no-cost workshops,” Morfin said. “I did every single training that was offered at no cost.”
Morfin learned skills and strategies essential to running an independent business through “Indianpreneurship” courses, a training program developed by Onaben, a Portland, Ore.-based Native entrepreneurial service organization. Onaben offers “train the trainer” services to people like Pate, who then go out and deliver the courses to Indigenous entrepreneurs.
“Stacia was like a duck to water with all the Indianpreneurship courses that she took,” Pate said. “I’ve trained hundreds of people in my career, and she by far was the most receptive to the material and the most courageous in terms of quitting her job and starting Nez Perce Tourism and providing a service that did not currently exist. I’m hopeful that she’s a model for other places.”
Morfin recently received a $5,000 grant from the Nimiipuu Fund, which she will use to hire more employees once the pandemic passes. She also took monthly workshops through the Plymouth, Calif.-based IDRS Acorn Project, a small business center supporting Native American entrepreneurs.
“What I learned from all the trainings is that marketing works,” Morfin said. “You have to be able to invest in marketing in order to succeed so people know who you are.”
Early on, Morfin plunged into developing a marketing plan for Nez Perce Tourism. She knew she had to catch the attention of the river cruisers, and she strategized, reached out to cruise ships and cruise-related businesses, putting together pre- and post-cruise tour packages and researching how to draw them into Nez Perce Tourism before they even disembarked from the ship.
“I started developing these relationships. I put press kits together for all of the cruise line industries that came in. I went on every single cruise boat that came into our docks in our area. I introduced myself to the directors,” Morfin said. “Every single day I was up there.”
Morfin also hooked up with the Holiday Inn Express in Parkston, Idaho, which has agreements to provide overnight accommodations for cruisers.
“When you come right off the dock, you walk right into that hotel,” Morfin said. “I dressed in regalia, set up a booth in the lobby, set up some things to sell, and set up my banners. I would say, ‘Hey, welcome to Nimiipuu Country’ after visitors checked in.”
Eventually, Morfin started holding elaborate promotional dinners in the hotel, with Nez Perce singing, drumming and dancing.
“We had historians. We had performances. We made it fun. We made it alive and dynamic and just very vibrant,” Morfin said. “I would have folks sign up and buy tickets right at my booth.”
Morfin is eager to get Nez Perce Tourism rolling again after the pandemic. In the meantime, she’s totally engaged in Traditions Gift Shop, always searching out the next products to stock.
“I’m all excited about these new articles and these new things that I just got,” she said. I “I got two pairs of baby moccasins, an elk tooth dress, and a glass beaded belt buckle that has a bear on it.”
Once life and business return to normal, Traditions and Nez Perce Tourism will work in perfect harmony, Morfin said.
“We have agreements with a few of the river cruise boats when they do come back,” Morfin said. “Newberry Square is a dedicated stop: They will be coming here and shopping.”