Tlingit artist Archie Cavanaugh presents a Raven paddle to Rosita Worl, the president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, for an auction in 2013. Photo: SHI

House committee sets markup on bill to protect Alaska Native artists

A bill to protect Alaska Native artists from being punished for practicing their traditions is taking a step forward on Capitol Hill.

For thousands of years, Native artists have used bird feathers and parts in their clothing, artwork and other items. But oversights in federal law and regulation have led to enforcement actions -- including a controversial case involving Tlingit carver and musician Archie Cavanaugh for a hat and headdress he created.

“They told me that under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act they can charge me up to $10,000 and throw me in jail for a couple of years and they told me that under the Lacey Act they could charge me up to $100,000 and put me in jail for 10 years," Cavanaugh said after the 2012 incident, according to Sealaska Heritage Institute, a non-profit that has repeatedly called for a fix to the issue.

Cavanaugh ended up paying a $2,005 fine to the federal government to settle violations of the law, describing the entire affair as "very scary." "I went into complete depression," he said at the time.

The Department of the Interior has since finalized a regulation that would correct one of the oversights. But Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) wants to make sure what happened to Cavanaugh doesn't happen again.

To do that, Young has introduced a bill to amend the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and exempt certain Alaska Native items from future enforcement actions. H.R.4069 is being considered at a markup on Wednesday, a key step in the legislative process.

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"The Alaskan Federation of Natives, Sealaska Heritage Institute, and the Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council all support this legislative fix," a markup memo on H.R.4069 reads. The Alaskan Federation of Natives is largest organization of its kind in the state.

Despite attention to the issue, Native artists in Alaska still encounter obstacles when marketing their goods. In February, Inupiat artist Marcu Gho saw items containing sea otter fur removed from the popular website

After Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) criticized Etsy, the site re-listed the items, which are permissible to sell under federal law.

"Your company’s actions – due to your well-meaning, but frankly misguided policies and terms of service – are having unintended consequences that are harming Alaska Natives and their communities in my state,” Sullivan wrote in a letter to the site.

Sullivan is sponsoring S.1941, a companion version to Young's legislation. He also has introduced S.1965, the Allowing Alaska IVORY Act, which prevents states from trying to restrict the sale of Native goods that are already allowed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Wednesday's markup on H.R.4069 takes place at 10:15am Eastern. It will be webcast by the House Committee on Natural Resources.

House Committee on Natural Resources Notice:
Full Committee Markup (April 18, 2018)

Federal Register Notice:
Migratory Bird Subsistence Harvest in Alaska; Use of Inedible Bird Parts in Authentic Alaska Native Handicrafts for Sale (July 24, 2017)

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