Knockoff Act on Native American art faces new criticism

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Selling counterfeit Indigenous artwork is a federal crime, but it’s a law that many say doesn’t help Indigenous artists either.

SHELTON, Wash. — It’s a billion-dollar industry built on Native American art and design. Selling counterfeit Native art is a federal crime, but that doesn’t stop people from making a profit.

It’s a law that many say doesn’t help aboriginal artists either.

In his studio in Shelton, art is a language that speaks to Andrea Wilbur-Sigo, sculptor of the Squaxin tribe. Every nudge, every nickname is a dialect.

“It’s our written language. It has always been said that we have no written language. But that’s it,” Wilbur-Sigo said. “Our whole story is in each of these works of art.”

From fashion shows to fleece blankets, for decades American companies have pasted Native American art and design on all of their products. But consumers may not know that very few of these mass-produced works are made by actual Indigenous artists.

“I’ve been beaten by a lot of non-native artists for good jobs,” said Wilbur Sigo. “I have to say they get better prices than us.”

In 1990, Congress created the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA). Under federal law, if you are selling or representing your work as a native, and you are not, you are committing a federal crime. Instead, you must be honest: saying that the work is “Indigenous-inspired” or “Indigenous-style”.

Law without bite

“It’s a law that doesn’t have the teeth it should have to protect India’s legitimate arts and crafts industry,” said Gabe Galanda, a Seattle-based indigenous rights lawyer.

Galanda said that as of 2022 the law is outdated and does not include any enforcement measures.

“[Enforcement] seems that is what is missing. There has to be a process by which the question is asked, “Are you indigenous?” Is your art indigenous? And if you say you are and you say so, can you please show us the proof,” Galanda said.

Penalties for misrepresenting “native” art are steep — a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison — but not enough to stop everyone.

Washington men charged

In December, two western Washington men were charged with violating the IACA. Lewis Anthony Rath (aka Tona Rath), 52, and Chris Van Dyke (aka Jerry Witten), 67, are accused of creating and selling works they marketed as natives. Some of the pieces were sold at Pike Place Market in Seattle.

“These acts have the effect of displacing Indigenous artists, from their craft, from their livelihoods and from the economy in which they deserve to have a place,” Galanda said.

RELATED: 2 Men Charged After Pretending To Be Native Americans To Sell Art At Pike Place Market

A multi-million dollar international business

Tearing down Native American artwork is a multi-million dollar business.

In 2016, law enforcement seizures in New Mexico and California uncovered $35 million worth of counterfeit artwork. The US Department of Justice recently charged eight people with smuggling jewelry that appeared to be Native American, but the items were actually counterfeits smuggled in from the Philippines.

“I think people think it’s an easy way to make money,” said Eighth Generation store CEO Colleen Echohawk. “This whole shop is about the Native people who are inspired and create this beautiful art.”

Echohawk said she didn’t know, but even here, at a shop dedicated to Native American art, they sold a counterfeit Rath item.

“I have been made aware of this. And it was because of that example that we started collecting tribal IDs and asking people to show us, you know, their tribal registration cards so we could make sure the art that we post there will go back to the Indigenous community and see prosperity for Indigenous people, Indigenous artists,” Echohawk said.

Harmful to Indigenous artists

Back at Wilbur-Sigo’s Shelton studio, she said there was another problem with the law. If she or any other Indigenous artist allows a non-Indigenous person to assist in the creation of a work of art, under applicable law, that work must be labeled “Indigenous Style” or “Indigenous Inspired”.

“Now you’re telling me I have to market my work like any other non-native? said Wilbur-Sigo.

Wilbur-Sigo has promised that she will “change this federal law in my lifetime.”

She added that she would really need the help of her mother, who is also a sculptor, but because her mother is not indigenous, it is not possible.

“We should be able to say it’s indigenous, it’s up to us. It’s cultural, it’s spiritual. It comes from the roots from which we are all born. And no one can cut those roots,” Wilbur-Sigo said. “The only thing this law does is prevent aboriginal people from succeeding, from succeeding, from doing exactly what we have always done. Dream bigger.”

In a few weeks, Wilbur-Sigo’s biggest dream, his latest work, a 21-foot sculpture of Grandma Frog, will find a permanent home in downtown Seattle.

“It’s our written history and our future and our present,” Wilbur-Sigo said. “Without it, we lose a lot of our soul about where we came from and where we are going.”

How to spot counterfeits

If you are looking for Indigenous artwork, you should ask for proof that the artwork was made by an Indigenous artist and that it is authentic. This could include a biography of the artist and information about their tribal affiliation. Beware of words like “Indigenous Inspired” or “Indigenous Style”. These pieces could be made by anyone.

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