Indian Art: Fakes and Frauds; Tribes and State Policymakers Take Steps to Protect Native Arts and Crafts

Article excerpt

It is art from the heart, the soul and the culture. The geometric lines, the vibrant and earthen colors. The shimmer of silver and blue of turquoise. The fine weaving and the richly designed basket.

American Indians celebrated their culture through their arts. And then it became popular...

D.Y. Begay, a Navajo weaver, says that art is an integral part of life, culture and traditions that are represented by various forms, symbols and colors. Her weaving is a strong part of her life and is very important to her and to her family. "The weaving traditions are associated with our womanhood. Weaving is a special gift and it is our responsibility to carry out the traditions of weaving."

While Begay's nimble fingers celebrate her heritage, people pay considerable sums for the handwoven Navajo blankets that result. And that popularity has been the native artisan's downfall.

In order to capitalize on the popularity, unscrupulous dealers and traders have flooded the market in Southwestern states, particularly with Navajo and Zuni knockoffs. Kate Duncan, art history professor at Arizona State University, says the high demand by tourists allows dealers to easily bring in imitations. Southwestern jewelry is "easy to copy, it's fast, there's a market for it, and people make a lot of money on it," she says. Indian traditions, as well as livelihoods, suffer.

And quality suffers. In the case of Begay, imitations of her fine, handwoven work appear in blankets made with synthetic, not natural, fibers.

Eleven years ago, congress passed the American Indian Arts and crafts Act to protect Native American artists, as well as consumers. So far only two cases have gone to trial, although others are being investigated. "The process is very time-consuming," says Meredith Stanton, Director of the Indian Arts and crafts Board. complaints under the act are filed with the board, processed and then referred on to the Department of Justice (FBI) for investigation.

One case involved a South Dakota man and ended in a guilty plea and his promise to stop using the words "Native American" on items.

But the other case proves, how difficult prosecution can be. After going to trial, charges were dropped against Nader Z. Pourhassen who was accused of selling dream catchers as authentic, Indian-made products. The hoop and fiber artworks were actually made by Vietnamese factory workers in a plant near Salt Lake city, Utah. But the case was weakened when prosecutors discovered during the trial that one merchant who bought a dream catcher was "under no illusion that it was Indian-made." They also discovered that Pourhassen had at one time employed an American Indian in his plant. His attorney argued that the phrase "Indian-produced" in the law was too vague. "Is it sufficient that a member of an Indian tribe design and supervise the production?" he asked. The U.S. attorney's office said the new evidence weakened their case so that they "would not be able to sustain our burden beyond a reasonable doubt."

So states are wondering if they can do something about the problem. And 12 are trying with laws designed to protect native crafts and ferret out the imitations.

In Arizona, John Wall, an assistant attorney general, says his office works with a trader who often accompanies an undercover investigator to catch violators selling imitations. Lawsuits have been brought against dealers for violating Arizona's Consumer Fraud Act and the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. Wall says it is easier to catch and prosecute offenders under the fraud act because it requires fewer elements of proof than the more detailed arts and crafts act. Violations are civil, so offenders don't serve jail terms, but they are liable for civil penalties and restitution and must obey an order prohibiting deceptive advertising.

During the past two years, the state consumer fraud unit has filed five actions centered on imitation Indian products. …