Duluth's American Indian Community Housing Organization had to close its gift shop when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

Like many retailers, Indigenous First Arts and Gift Shop's profits were slashed as customers could only shop for products in-store. Coordinator Jazmin Wong's work on a website for the store couldn't have come at a better time, she said. She was able to quickly list all of its products on its new website, indigenousfirst.org, which has since boosted sales.

The gift shop sells items done by predominately Native American artists. Their work includes books, paintings, food, jewelry, giclee prints, clothing, health products, purses, seeds and much more.

"We use a lot of local artists and companies to make this gift shop what it is," Wong said. "(The website has) been pretty successful considering it's brand-new."

Paintings fill the walls in the Indigenous First gift shop Thursday at the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth. Even though the gift shop is closed to the public, all the artwork can be purchased online.  (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Paintings fill the walls in the Indigenous First gift shop Thursday at the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth. Even though the gift shop is closed to the public, all the artwork can be purchased online. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

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Executive Director Michelle LeBeau said people have requested online access to the shop for years. But AICHO was concerned about handling a larger number of orders because the store was already busy.

"It was kind of a perfect opportunity as soon as we knew we had to close the gift shop," she said.

Wong wanted to ensure artists were still receiving some income during the shutdown. Although Indigenous First has only sold a few art pieces, sending a check in the mail to artists is "a big deal, right now, to get an extra $300 or $400 in the mail that they weren't expecting."

One of the online shop's biggest sellers is indigenous food boxes. The boxes offer a multitude of Native American foods and cooking ingredients in one box that, when packaged together, is sold at a lower cost.

The boxes haven't always been sold online — they were initially distributed to only AICHO tenants.

"Just seeing people's reactions at AICHO when we give them our food boxes is enough to say that they were happy," Wong said. This pushed them to bring the boxes to a wider audience.

"It circulates income for the Native American food vendors and producers, which most of them are organic ... natural or hand-picked," Wong said.

These beaded earrings created by Bead Art by Chenoa are among the jewelry items for sale at Indigenous First in Duluth.  (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
These beaded earrings created by Bead Art by Chenoa are among the jewelry items for sale at Indigenous First in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Since launching food boxes, they've seen major orders come through. The Bois Forte Reservation ordered 60 boxes to help feed their elders and members. Along with the boxes, members will also be delivering COVID-19 information flyers that AICHO made.

"(In) this culture, food is medicine. It brings people together and ... families together around the dinner table," Wong said.

With the launch of the website, sales in March were better than the previous year. April's sales were down this year, but "that's still good," Wong said.

They've earned $17,000 since the start of the pandemic — it's revenue that supports Wong's salary and payments to the farmers and artists.

"Those four boxes not only helped the farmers and those food producers, but it also helped us stay in business," Wong said.

The shop has also benefited from a City of Duluth 1200 Fund grant, which is also supporting staff pay and inventory and postage costs.

Online sales are ensuring the physical gift shop can open again when allowed, LeBeau said. The online store will continue when the pandemic subsides.

"(It's) an opportunity for Native American artists to showcase and highlight their art in a space that accepts their art for everything that it is. And (doesn't try) to change any of that or hide anything," Wong said.