Art

Do the laws on counterfeit Native art go far enough?

Ubiquitous fakes have far-reaching impacts on Indian Country.

 

“This guy showed me a pendant he was wearing, he’d bought it in some flea market,” Ben Nighthorse Campbell recalled. “I looked at and said, ‘I don’t want to hurt your feelings but it’s not very well made: the stones aren’t set well and it’s not a quality piece of jewelry’.”

“It should be,” the stranger replied. “You made it!”

Sure enough, the piece had Campbell’s name on it, but he knew it wasn’t one of his. He never bothered to ask what the stranger had paid for the pendant.

Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, it is illegal to market or sell fake Indian art as the real thing. However, since 1996 there have been more than 1,700 complaints of alleged violations resulting in a total of 22 prosecutions in New Mexico, Alaska, Utah, South Dakota and Missouri while another 400 complaints have yet to be reviewed. At present, only two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers are dedicated to investigations that can range from locally produced bogus items to international forgery rings unloading knock-offs on naïve consumers.

According to New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, counterfeit jewelry could make up as much as 80 percent of what is sold as “Indian made” in a market valued at approximately a billion dollars a year. To stop the surge of fake Indian art, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is taking another look at the IACA.

Created in 1935 as part of the Depression Era New Deal worker protections and later amended during both Bush presidencies with the help of Sen. Campbell, the act serves as a truth-in-advertising law. But eight decades of chronic underfunding and little-to-no enforcement have spurred many Native arts entrepreneurs to demand the federal government get real about enforcement. “It’s one thing to pass legislation with good intentions,” said Dallin Maybee Chief Operating Officer of Southwestern Association of Indian Arts. “But without appropriations for enforcement, that’s all it is.”

Native American crafters and artists at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Earlier this month, New Mexico Senator and Committee on Indian Affairs vice-chair Tom Udall held field hearings on modernizing the act in Santa Fe. However, according to artists, the hearing left much to be desired. “Though well intentioned, the hearing appears to be an opportunity lost,” said Seattle attorney Gabriel Galanda. “Virtually no attention was given to internet commerce which is the primary catalyst of counterfeit Indian art these days.”

According to Louie Gong of Eighth Generation, a Native American design emporium with the tagline “Inspired Natives, Not Native-Inspired,” lawmakers need to make a legislative fix to prohibit non-Native companies from taking advantage of Google adware and search terms. “‘Native,’ ‘Native Art,’ all of these terms addressed by the IACA are already being dominated by non-Native companies,” Gong said. “Most people are finding our work and products via Google search.”

“E-commerce is where the action is,” said Dallin Maybee. “E-Bay pages created to sell (counterfeit native art) are everywhere; there’s no way all those are real. The pages can disappear after selling the fakes.”

The Southwestern Association of Indian Arts produces the annual Santa Fe Indian Market, known for its strict artist verification standards, but Maybee says the internet is much more elusive and hopes that tribal courts with sophisticated judicial systems could be authorized to prosecute IACA infractions in the same way that some tribes have been able to deal with violations of the Violence Against Women Act. In 2013, the VAWA was expanded to restore the right of tribes to prosecute non-tribal members for certain crimes. “From a pro-sovereignty model, I say let’s look at VAWA as a model,” Maybee said. “IACA violations are an economic, health and welfare issues. Allow us to exercise our inherent sovereignty and deal with (fakes) ourselves.”

Counterfeit art has far-reaching repercussions on all areas of the Indian art market. Traditional Navajo weavers, for example, have had to compete with knock-offs manufactured in Guatemala, Nepal, India, Romania, Japan and Thailand to name a few, while a town in the Philippines went to extraordinary lengths to cash in on Native art by changing its name to “Zuni” after the Pueblo of Zuni in New Mexico so it could label its mass-produced facsimiles of katsina dolls and Native jewelry as “Made in Zuni” to circumvent the IACA’s labeling provisions.

Meanwhile, on Zuni Pueblo, the Zuni tourism division estimates that “about 80 percent of Zuni families are involved to some extent in the production of arts and crafts. Zuni may have one of the highest concentrations of craftspeople per capita in the United States.”

In 2004, Northwest Coast silversmith Allen Thompson was approached to travel to Indonesia to teach workers there how to copy his style. “The dealer said he’d pay for my trip and it’d be ‘a great way to get Northwest Coast Native artwork produced for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics,’” Thompson recalled. “I wasn’t interested.”

Thompson was also told that workers trained to rip off his jewelry style would receive compensation of 8 cents an hour.

In recent years, successful cases have centered on bone art carvings in Alaska, fraudulently marketed as Indian made, as well as the use of fraudulent tribal identification cards used to sell artwork. Individuals representing themselves as Indian artists have also been convicted. However, online transgressors have yet to be prosecuted, and fines levied at mass producers can be absorbed as business expenses. That could soon change, though.

Later this year, federal prosecutors will bring five defendants to court in Albuquerque on “an international scheme to fraudulently import and sell Filipino-made jewelry as Native American-made.” The accused face up to $250,000 in fines and up to five years in prison.

However, under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, the Department of Interior faces a $1.4 billion cut. That means the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which is housed under Interior, may see even more hurdles to enforcing the law. “As things stand now,” said Campbell, “(The) IACA is just another one of those laws that keeps the honest people honest.”

Frances Madeson is a Santa Fe-based freelance journalist, a non-Native member of the Native American Journalist Association, and the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ANCESTRAL LANDS ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGER
    Starting Salary: Grade C, $19.00 to 24.00 per/hour Location: Albuquerque or Gallup, NM Status: Full-Time, Non-Exempt Benefit Eligible: Full Benefits Eligible per Personnel Policies Program...
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers