What Is Indian Art and Who Can Sell It? (Who Decides ...)

By Grant, Daniel | Consumers' Research Magazine, August 2002 | Go to article overview
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What Is Indian Art and Who Can Sell It? (Who Decides ...)

Grant, Daniel, Consumers' Research Magazine

It's a plus in this day and age to be a Native American artist, because there are collectors just of Native American art," says Joanne Swanson, a painter and enrolled member of a federally recognized Alaskan tribe. In another day and age, there was far less value in proclaiming oneself a Native American or American Indian, reflecting the low regard European settlers had toward aboriginal peoples. Nowadays, as more than $1 billion in American Indian artwork and crafts objects are estimated to be sold annually and a number of tribes have entered the lucrative gaming industry, more and more people are claiming Native American ancestry.

The bulk of sales of American Indian art takes place in Arizona, New Mexico, and throughout the southwest--at roadside stands, art galleries, and special fairs often called "Indian Markets"--although buyers may also find works sold online through eBay, as well as on other Web sites. The strength of this market has led to some instances of fraud, such as the selling of mass-produced items--sometimes imported from abroad--as American Indian-made, and individual artists proclaiming themselves Native American but unable to produce any proof of that assertion.

"We get reports of people claiming to be Seminoles all the time, selling their copies of Seminole designs, when they don't have a speck of Seminole blood in them," says a spokeswoman for the Seminole Tribe of Florida in Hollywood. "We call them members of the Wannabe tribe." To be an enrolled member of the Seminoles, one must have no less than 25% Seminole blood line.

Numerous claims of misrepresented American Indian art and other objects led Congress to pass the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, a truth-in-advertising statute that stipulated stiff penalties (up to $1 million in fines and five years in jail for the first offense) for creators and sellers who knowingly make false claims about the heritage of those who make artwork. Under the law, "someone who claims to be an American Indian must be an enrolled member" of one of the 557 federally recognized tribes in the United States, according to Meredith Z. Stanton, chairman of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board in Washington, D.C. The tribes themselves, as legally established sovereign nations, determine qualifications for enrollment, and the federal government is bound to support their decisions with both criminal and civil prosecutions.

The law has helped to rid the market of many artworks and objects that were not created by an actual Native American, says Stanton, as have advertisements in southwestern magazines and brochures (e.g., "Know the Law," "How to File a Complaint Under the Law") that the Indian Arts and Crafts Board has published. "Consumers are asking for information in writing" before they make purchases, says Stanton, "and the complaints we've received have increased in quantity and quality."

In spite of all the reports of fraud that led up to the enactment of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, the effectiveness of the law cannot be judged on the number of cases brought by the federal government since then. The Federal Trade Commission filed complaints against two Seattle companies, Ivory Jacks and Northwest Tribal Arts, for mass-producing so-called American Indian artifacts in the mid-1990s. The two companies were fined $20,000 apiece. The Justice Department has filed only two cases, both against individuals. "We know there are more instances of illegal actions than cases filed," says Chris Chaney, an administrator in the executive office of U.S. Attorneys of the Department of Justice. "There are not as many investigations or provable cases as we'd like."

However, the statute has proven effective, because "invoking the law generally accomplishes its intent without cases needing to be brought or brought to fruition," says Susan Harjo, President of the Washington, D.C.-based Morningstar Institute, a Native American advocacy organization.

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