For Abbie Lalopa Ford, a member of the Meherrin tribe, opening her own Annapolis-based American Indian specialty shop and gallery is more than just a business venture; it's an educational tool.
"You'd be surprised at what they want to know," Mrs. Ford said of children who visit the shop with their parents. "And you'll be surprised at what they know."
Next year, if the store does well, Mrs. Ford said she plans to open a learning center upstairs for children, as well as an art gallery and a library. She wants schools to bring students to her shop, called Meherrin, to learn more about American Indian culture.
Opening a shop to expose people to the breadth of American Indian history and goods, including beadwork, pottery, clothing, dolls, peace pipes, artwork, books and music, "is something I always wanted to do," said Mrs. Ford, who worked 15 years for the Library of Congress as an editorial assistant for congressional research.
Located at 238 West St., the shop displays a wide range of goods made by American Indians, as well as work by others that depicts their way of life.
Movies such as "Last of the Mohicans" and "Geronimo" have helped spur a renewed interest in American Indian culture, said Mrs. Ford, who opened her shop in November.
"You can see it in the vests, blouses and skirts," she said, commenting on the popularity of items that display an American Indian motif.
The Meherrin tribe, which traces its history back to the 1600s, is known as the "People of the River." Members traveled along the Meherrin River from the area of Nansemond County, Va., down to North Carolina and settled in Hertford County, near Parker's Ferry, said Mrs. Ford, president of Meherrin Corp. The tribe's reservation is in Winton, N.C.
Her husband, Francis H. Ford Sr., who worked 33 years for the Library of Congress in the printing department, is vice president of the family-owned business.
The couple's son, Francis Jr., serves as controller. Daughter Teresa Cunningham is general manager. Daughter Rhonda Lordet lives in New York with her husband, but helps the business financially and assists in the store when she is in town, Mrs. Ford said.
The prices in the store range from 99 cents for a bookmark to $2,000 for some paintings and sculptures, said Mrs. Ford, who lives in Upper Marlboro.
A deer-foot walking cane, with fox fur at the top and center of its staff, goes for $150. Some small pottery items cost about $11.
"Everything [American Indians] have and everything they do has meaning," said Mrs. Ford, noting that feathers and rattles are used in different ceremonies.
When setting up shop, Mrs. Ford said, she considered sites on Maryland Avenue and Main Street, which would have placed her closer to the City Dock and the tourist trade. But she passed on both, for several reasons, she said, including cost and the lack of parking on Main Street.
"I chose not to do that because my heart is set on setting up this educational program," said Mrs. Ford. School buses, she noted, can park in the lot behind her West Street store.
If a customer wants a specific item from a specific tribe, Meherrin will make every effort to obtain it for them, Mrs. Ford said. That is not always easy. "So many of the tribes just died and are no longer in existence," she said.
In those instances, with the customer's knowledge, Mrs. Ford said her shop tries to find a photograph of what the customer wants and asks another tribe to make it for them.
Exactly how many members the Meherrin tribe has is hard to say, Mrs. Ford said. About 650 are registered, meaning they carry numbered identification cards as proof of their tribe and heritage, as required by the Department of the Interior, Mrs. Ford said.
But some American Indians, who resent having to carry the cards, do not register, she said, despite the government's claim that the registrations are meant to protect them and their culture.