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Fraudulent Native artist charged with violating Indian Arts and Crafts Act
Wednesday, November 24, 2021

A Washington man who claims to be a Native artist has been charged with violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act and for illegally possessing eagle feathers and other bird parts.

Lewis Anthony Rath, who goes by Tony Rath, claimed to be a part of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, a federally recognized Indian nation in Arizona. As such, he was marketing and promoting his works as “Indian” made, according to a federal complaint first reported by The Daily Beast.

However, federal agents determined Rath was “not a lineal descendant or an enrolled member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, or any other federal or state recognized Indian tribe in the United States,” the November 23 complaint reads.

“RATH admitted that he is not a lineal descendant or an enrolled member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe,” Sean W. Hyrons, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, writes in the 14-page filing. “He initially denied ever representing himself as an Apache from San Carlos to any of his customers, but later admitted telling his customers that he was San Carlos Apache. RATH subsequently claimed that his birth mother told him he had some Indian bloodlines that may be Apache.”

“However, he explained that he later discovered through DNA testing that he had Mayan ancestry from Mexico,” Hyrons continued.

As part of an investigation that included undercover agents, Hyrons said federal authorities discovered Rath’s works were being sold at two locations in Seattle: Raven’s Nest Treasure and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. Both businesses said Rath held himself out to be an Indian and provided them with biographies claiming the same, according to the complaint.

However, the owner of Raven’s Nest Treasure — identified in the filing by the initials “MS” — became reticent when interviewed in person by federal agents and “stated he had never conspired or agreed with anyone to misrepresent goods sold at the gallery as Indian produced.”

Matthew Steinbrueck: Find your way to the Ravens Nest in Pike Place

Yet “MS” previously sold some of Rath’s works — a “carved, wooden totem pole and a necklace” — to undercover agents for a total of $1,334.96, the complaint reads. He told the buyers the artist was “Native American” and provided them with the fraudulent biography, according to the filing.

Additionally, “MS” was selling a carving made by Rath for $750, the document states. Raven’s Nest Treasure is located in historic Pike Place Market, one of the most heavily trafficked tourist areas in Seattle.

As for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, located nearby on the Seattle waterfront, undercover agents were able to purchase a “carved wooden mask and totem pole” created by Rath for $1,085.04. Three other cravings were being sold there for a total of $1,270, and all were marketed as being made by an artist from the San Carlos Apache Tribe, according to the complaint.

Federal agents also discovered Rath sold his works to someone through Facebook for a total of $1,050 and told the buyer he was “Apache, Mexican and Mayan.” He told another person he was “Apache and Mayan” before asking her for $700 for a “bentwood box,” the complaint states.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act was first enacted in 1990. The federal law makes it a crime for someone to market their goods as “Indian” unless they are belong to a federally or state recognized tribe, or are certified as an “Indian artist” by a federally or state recognized tribe.

The law is meant to protect consumers from buying fraudulent goods. But it also serves to protect the livelihoods of countless American Indian and Alaska Native artists, many of whom rely on their traditions, art, clothing and other items to make a living for themselves and their families.

“Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, it is illegal to market art or craft products in a manner that falsely suggests it is Native American produced if it is not,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is the first Native person to serve in a presidential cabinet, said in a video in support of Indian artists that was produced earlier this year.

Haaland leads the Department of the Interior, which includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose agents investigated Rath’s case. In addition to discovering his art sales, they found him to be in possession of golden eagle feathers and parts of other migratory birds without proper authorization.

Lewis Rath
Lewis Rath
Lewis Rath poses with carvings on one of his social media accounts.

Due to overhunting by non-Indians that diminished bald and golden eagle populations, eagle feathers and parts are often difficult to come by for citizens of federally recognized tribes. Only recently have golden eagle populations rebounded, Haaland announced earlier this year.

“The bald eagle has always been considered a sacred species to American Indian people,” Haaland said in March.

The complaint does not indicate how Rath came into possession of golden eagle feathers and the parts of protected birds, including owls, hawks and crows. The items were seized from his home in January 2020, according to the filing.

In addition to the complaint, Rath was issued a summons on Tuesday to answer to the six charges against him. He was told to appear on December 10 at the federal courthouse in Seattle, the document reads.

The courthouse is part of the Western District of Washington, which handles federal cases in the western part of the state. The court recently saw the arrival of Lauren J. King, an attorney citizen of the Muscogee Nation who is the first Native federal judge in Washington.

Pike Place Market
Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington. Photo: Jim Nix

Washington is home to 29 federally recognized Indian nations. Some of their tribal traditions include totem poles and carvings like the ones Rath was marketing as his own.

A note on Raven’s Nest Treasure’s website reads: “Out of respect for centuries-old traditions, we only carry authentic Native Art.”

Read More on the Story
‘Apache’ Artist Faked Native Heritage to Sell His Work, Feds Say (The Daily Beast November 24, 2021