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Native American artists call for an end to counterfeits

Native American artists are requesting the federal government strengthen a 1990 law that prohibits the sale of counterfeit tribal art, in an attempt to stop the flood of fakes that jeopardize their livelihood.

In a hearing on Friday, New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich heard from seven panelists, a mix of government officials and Native artists, who spoke of a need for the Indian Arts and Crafts Act to be revisited.

The act made it illegal to sell any good that “falsely suggests it is Indian produced.” Enforcement of the law, however, has long been seen by Native American arts groups as insufficient. Even after the act was updated in 2010 to authorize all federal law enforcement officers, not just the FBI, to conduct investigations, the issue of counterfeits remained.

“It disturbs me that people throughout the world are misappropriating our traditional designs and profiting from it,” Joyce Begay-Foss, former chair of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and a Navajo weaver, said in the hearing.

Udall, vice chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in the hearing that the law should be reevaluated to “make sure future generations of Native Americans have what their elders had — pride in Native American culture, and a way to practice time-honored traditions of craftsmanship while maintaining a livelihood.”

The unfair competition, he said, forces Native American artists to “drop prices to keep up with wholesale prices or so-called ‘Native American’ jewelry.”

Any damage to the arts has a rippling effect on Native communities, in which art is important to preserving culture.

“We’re not just losing our arts but also our traditional language,” Begay-Foss said. “Our young kids, they’re not learning the cultural value alongside the language.” It’s through art, she says, that language is passed on and preserved.

Fake Native American artifacts have been an issue for decades.

As much as 80 percent of the jewelry marketed as Indian-made may be counterfeit, according to a press release from Udall’s office. The Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which oversees enforcement of the law, has received over 1,700 complaints of alleged violations of the act, Meredith Stanton, the board’s director, said at the hearing. 

In February, five people were indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly conspiring to import and sell more than $300,000 worth of foreign-made jewelry as Native American-made.

Now, Native artists are calling for stricter punishments for people caught selling fakes and additional resources to patrol the online market.

None of this will be possible without more funding. Begay-Foss worries about the feasibility of reform under President Donald Trump, who has proposed $1.4 billion cuts to the Department of the Interior, which houses the Indian Arts and Crafts Board.

While she says there are Native American artists who are able to charge thousands for their work, a strengthened Indian Arts and Crafts Act would protect lesser-known artists.

“I’m talking about the weaver that wants to make a couple hundred dollars. She can’t sell that rug because you can buy a knockoff for thirty bucks. It’s really frustrating for artists,” she said.

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