Contemplating Native American Art

Article excerpt

In spite of stringent legal considerations, Native American art remains a top seller

Last June, after toiling for 40 years as an advertising executive, Joe Zeller retired. Five months later, he opened River Trading Post in East Dundee, Ill., sparked by his intense appreciation of Native American art that developed during the several years he spent visiting Navajo country and the pueblos of the Southwest. In a building harking back to 1855, Zeller focuses primarily on high-end Navajo weavings and Pueblo pottery and also carries beaded items, artifacts created by the Plains people and sculptures by Jemez Pueblo artist Cliff Fragua.

He also faces the "huge challenges in selling Native American art that are totally different from selling traditional art" he said.

Legal Challenges

The primary challenge, according to many involved in Native American art, from creators to curators, show directors to gallery owners, involves understanding and adhering to the laws governing the genre. One of the main laws, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, strictly defines what can be termed "Native American art" in essence making it illegal to display or sell any art or craft in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian-produced. Under the act, an Indian is defined as a member of any federal- or state-recognized Indian tribe or an individual certified as an Indian artisan by an Indian tribe. This "truth-in-advertising" law makes it illegal, for example, to sell or market items as "Indian jewelry" that are produced by someone who is not a member--or a certified artisan--of a recognized Indian tribe. Businesses that violate the act for the first time can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1 million.

Another law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, primarily affects museums but can also influence galleries that deal in artifacts. It requires that museums must return all remains and artifacts to any tribe that requests them and can prove a "cultural affiliation" with the tribe from which they came. Said Zeller, "Selling an artifact that contains eagle feathers could put both the buyer and seller in jail. Selling an ancient pot that was recovered from public lands will produce the same result."

Demand Continues to Grow

These challenges, however, have not caused the public's interest in Native American art--whether jewelry, weavings, pottery, sculpture or paintings--or those items created in a Native American style to wane. Indeed, officials reportedly expect the new Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, scheduled to open late next year between the Capitol building and the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to draw six million visitors annually. According to Thomas W. Sweeney (Citizen Potawatomi), director of public affairs, the museum "is dedicated to presenting the historical and contemporary cultures and cultural achievements of Native Americans in direct collaboration with these communities"

Other established Indian art museums and festivals already draw large crowds. The Eiteljorg Indian Market, held each year since 1992 in Indianapolis, is an offshoot of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, which opened in 1989. According to Festival Manager Cynthia Schoolcraft, the Eiteljorg Market "helps bring the objects of the museum to life by showing that Native American art is not the art of the past but art that is being done presently and continues past traditions while at the same time expanding in new directions." All work shown at the market adheres to the Arts and Crafts Act and also must be original or a limited hand-produced reproduction. The festival maintains annual attendance of approximately 8,000 guests, with 120 to 130 artists showing and selling their work.

As with most fine art purchasers, those who buy Native American art tend to be upscale professionals who fall into two distinct categories, said Zeller. …