Boutique West: Tina Willis shares her passion for Native American jewelry with customers
Tina Willis of Wheatland owns and operates Bootique West, a traveling Native American jewelry business. Tina grew up on the Andrew Kortes and Sons Ranch in northern Carbon County on the North Platte River.
“We were isolated, remote and didn’t have a telephone growing up,” she says. “We raised cows, sheep and horses.”
Tina’s family has owned the property since 1914. Although Tina is no longer involved with the operation, she states she is grateful for growing up on a ranch and being surrounded by agriculture as a child.
“I am very proud of my ranching background, of my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, and I am grateful for their examples of honesty, hard work and faith in God,” she says.
Tina’s husband Dick was raised on a ranch in Arizona and permanently moved to Wyoming in the 1970s. Both Tina and Dick worked closely with agriculture through their past careers.
Dick worked for Vigortone Ag Products, and Tina was employed as a facilitator with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture and a district manager for the Converse County Conservation District.
Bootique West history
Tina’s love for Native American jewelry started at a young age.
“When I was a baby, my father brought back turquoise jewelry from Native Americans in Tucson, Ariz., so I grew up seeing the jewelry in our house in Wyoming,” she says.
In 2003, Tina was diagnosed with neurological invasive West Nile. Her diagnosis included encephalitis, meningitis and polio. She was paralyzed on her left side with great diminishment. The neurological damage was deemed permanent.
Tina could no longer work and was struggling to find activities she could do. Tina’s daughter-in-law saw Tina struggling with daily tasks and decided they needed to find an activity for Tina to spend her time doing.
“She watched me fumbling and stumbling and not being able to do anything,” says Tina. “She asked if I could play the piano, or perhaps paint, and I couldn’t. Then, she asked me if I could do beadwork, and I figured I could.”
Tina went to a shop for jewelry supplies and purchased rocks with holes in them and chains to make necklaces.
“I would sit and force myself to use my left hand to make the little necklaces,” she says.
After months of beading necklaces, Tina had four necklaces made, and Dick suggested Tina should bring the necklaces to a Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) meeting and sell them at his booth.
Tina sold her first piece of jewelry at the WSGA convention. Her husband Dick began working for Vigortone Ag Products in 1986, and even after he was promoted, he continued to attend the WSGA trade show for 35 years.
“I didn’t think anyone would buy them, but I took my four little necklaces which had taken me months to make, laid them on the table and people bought them,” she adds. “I think they bought them because they felt sorry for me, but it was appreciated. I realized it was something I enjoyed doing.”
Tina’s friends at WSGA suggested she should start selling Native American jewelry.
“My friends said, ‘You wear all this beautiful Native American jewelry, why don’t you buy some of it and bring it to WSGA?’” she says. “It seemed like a crazy idea to me to spend money on jewelry and then sell it to people.”
“I had never had a sales job in my life,” Tina adds.
Tina took her friends’ advice and purchased four small Native American-made necklaces.
“I took those and some of my homemade necklaces back to the next WSGA meeting, and they bought them,” she says. “My husband told me to take the money I made at the meeting and buy more jewelry.”
Tina recalls Dick saying, “You’re good at this. You can do this.”
“Thanks to the generosity, spirit and pocketbooks of WSGA members, Bootique West came about,” Tina says.
Tina does not have a storefront for the Bootique West, she solely sells the jewelry at trade shows. She attends WSGA and Colorado Cattlemen’s Association meetings, Cheyenne Frontier Days and the Wyoming State Fair each year.
Tina only sells Native American jewelry, no longer selling her homemade necklaces.
“It was too confusing selling Native American jewelry and mine,” she says.
Tina is passionate about the high-quality jewelry she sells and says she fights the fraudulent importation of jewelry made in places offshore such as the Philippines and Thailand.
“I buy only from those Native Americans I know and trust,” she says. “I work predominantly with the Navajo Nation.”
“I began purchasing jewelry from Native Americans in 2006 when I laid my first piece on a table at a WSGA tradeshow,” she adds. “We now have over 2,000 pieces.”
Tina is grateful for WSGA members and the opportunity she has to showcase Native American jewelry at conventions.
“Dick and I always feel so at home at WSGA conventions,” she says.
Love for the business
Tina is grateful for the opportunity to sell Native American jewelry.
“Jewelry is a very personal thing,” she says. “It is amazing to me how different pieces speak to different people.”
Tina has enjoyed getting to know the Native Americans who make the jewelry she sells.
“The Native Americans’ dedication to their craft and their ancestors comes through every piece of jewelry, and then it lays on the table and someone is able to pick it up, take it home and add it to their personal collection,” she says.
Tina values the jewelry she sells and is happy to know the pieces will be loved and cherished by the next owner.
“I am so happy to connect customers with a piece of jewelry, and the friendships mean so much to me. To go to WSGA and see all those friends is wonderful,” she says.
Tina feels she and Dick have been blessed.
“The most important thing to Dick and I is our faith in God and His divine provenance in taking care of us and making this little jewelry business into such a wonderful opportunity for both of us,” she says. “We feel God has always watched out for us.”
For more information, visit Bootique West on Facebook.
Kaitlyn Root is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.