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Native American Artists to Lawmakers: Clamp Down on Counterfeiters

  • Cecily Hilleary

In this file photo, sellers and buyers trade under the historic portal in Old Town Albuquerque, N.M., Feb. 8, 2006. Native American artists and craftsmen say counterfeit "tribal" art manufactured abroad devalues the market and robs them of business.

Search the Internet for "Native American Art” and you’ll find dozens of sites offering tribal jewelry, paintings and crafts at low prices. But as much as 80 percent of these products aren’t “Indian” at all; they are manufactured in Asia or the Middle East. Native American artists say, “Enough.” With all the phony products in the marketplace, they can no longer compete and they are calling on the government to take action.

At a Senate committee field hearing July 7 in Sante Fe, New Mexico, U.S. Senators Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Martin Heinrich, both New Mexico Democrats, heard testimony from tribal artists who described the scope of the problem:

“Time and time again, I hear from my fellow Indian artists about their art and craft work being knocked off by non-Indians and sold as Indian made,” Southern Cheyenne artist Harvey Pratt said. “When Indian artists are undercut by the sale of fake Indian art, the integrity of authentic Indian art and artists suffers. We are being robbed economically, culturally, and spiritually.”

Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico oversees a hearing in Santa Fe, N.M., on Friday, July 7, 2017, about efforts to modernize the Indian Arts and Crafts Act that outlaws the sale and marketing of fake Native American artwork and jewelry.
Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico oversees a hearing in Santa Fe, N.M., on Friday, July 7, 2017, about efforts to modernize the Indian Arts and Crafts Act that outlaws the sale and marketing of fake Native American artwork and jewelry.

Native American art is big business, not just in the United States but worldwide, and an important driver of tribal economies. For nearly a century, Sante Fe has hosted an annual seven-day Indian market, where as many as 1,000 Native artists from tribes across the country offer their work for sale.

“The Indian market itself has an $80 million economic impact just from that one-week period on the state of New Mexico and the city of Sante Fe,” said Dallin Maybee, Northern Arapaho/Seneca lawyer and chief operating officer of the Southwestern Association of Indian Arts (SWAIA), which organizes the event. “And that’s just here in Sante Fe. The Native American art industry generates millions of dollars a year throughout North America.”

The First Peoples Fund estimates a third of all Native Americans are practicing or potential artists. Many live in isolated areas below the poverty line and depend on art sales to survive.

This ca. 1913 photo by Edward S. Curtis shows a Skokomish woman from Washington state holding a woven basket. Tribal arts and crafts draw on traditions passed down for generations.
This ca. 1913 photo by Edward S. Curtis shows a Skokomish woman from Washington state holding a woven basket. Tribal arts and crafts draw on traditions passed down for generations.

“But with all these knock-offs that have flooded the market, Indians can’t sell their product,” Pratt told VOA. “So what ends up happening is that artists just quit making art, because they can no longer make a living doing it. And what this means is that they lose touch with their traditions.”

Before last week’s hearing, Udall acknowledged the fake Indian art business is a “serious problem” that has been going on for decades, despite laws designed to fight it.

“We in Congress need to hear if there are ways the Indian Arts and Crafts Act needs to be updated and strengthened to fulfill the goals we all agree with,” Udall said.

Passed in 1935 and twice amended, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act bans the display or sale of art misrepresented as “Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization.” It established an Indian Arts and Crafts Board under the U.S. Interior Department, which works to promote and protect the rights of Native American artists who belong to federally-recognized tribes.

This undated photo provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows fake Native American-styled jewelry seized by federal officials during a 2015 investigation in New Mexico.
This undated photo provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows fake Native American-styled jewelry seized by federal officials during a 2015 investigation in New Mexico.

Next week, a federal jury in New Mexico is scheduled to hear the case against four individuals alleged to have manufactured Native American-style jewelry in the Philippines and passed it off as genuine in shops and galleries. If convicted, they could face $250,000 in fines and/or five years in prison.

But arrests like this are the exception, not the rule, and, as Udall noted, only two enforcement officers are dedicated to investigating tribal art forgers and fraudsters.

“We must take action to stop this assault on artists' ability to carry on deeply significant traditions that have helped hold families and communities together for generations," Udall said.

U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement officials today are trained to spot and identify looted cultural artifacts and pirated electronics coming into the country, but Pratt complains no such program is set up to deal with counterfeit Indian art, and few have enough expertise in tribal art to identify fraudulent items.

Pratt says, “You’ve got to have an investigative body, somebody that has expertise to run this stuff down at the border.”

During last week’s hearing, Pratt and Maybee urged Senators to tighten existing laws and allocate more funds to combat the problem.

“We’re asking Senators for more resources. More boots on the ground. More people who can give federal and state prosecutors the evidence they need to really send a tough message to fraudulent dealers,” said Maybee.

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