Fake arts suits owe survival to strengthened la
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In another test of recent changes to a law aimed at eliminating fraud and misrepresentation of Indian arts and crafts, a federal judge in Illinois has given permission for a case against a non-Indian company to continue.

U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras last Wednesday rejected an attempt by the Chrysalis Institute, an Illinois firm, to dismiss a lawsuit filed by members of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. The company claimed the tribal members filed their challenge too late.

But Kocoras pointed out that the case wasn't possible until Congress strengthened the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. Originally passed in 1990, amendments approved in 2000 allow individual artists and arts organizations to ensure its truth in advertising provisions are enforced, he noted.

Prior to the changes, which were part of a bill introduced by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), vice chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, and supported by New Mexico Senators and panel members Pete Domenici (R) and Jeff Bingaman (D), only tribes or the federal government could bring enforcement suits. That changed after then-President Bill Clinton signed a law putting action into the hands of the the artists themselves.

As for the Ho-Chunk artists, they own a an organization called Native American Arts, Inc. Formed in 1996 to market and distribute authentic Native goods, the group has been actively pursuing litigation against commercial retailers, small and large, which sell fake or mislabeled Indian goods.

With the support and encouragement of the tribe, the group has filed more than a dozen lawsuits. At least nine of the cases against firms throughout the country have been settled, with the one against Chrysalis, which claims to sell items made by Navajo and Apache artists, being among the most recent to owe its survival to the modified arts act.

The changes of the law don't necessarily guarantee success. Cases are extremely hard to prove, according to federal prosecutors and the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, the federal agency charged with regulating an industry estimated to be worth $1 billion and growing.

Only two cases have resulted in action by the federal government. In South Dakota, Wayne Eagleboy, a non-tribal member, pleaded guilty to possession of eagle feathers and paid a $250 fine, while prosecutors ended up dropping charges against Nader Z. Pourhassan, a Utah man accused of marketing Indian dream catchers made by Vietnamese workers.

With regulations finalized last year, the government is hoping to clarify key definitions under the act to aid cases. "The intent is to protect the economic livelihood of American Indian and Alaska Native craftspeople," said Meridith Stanton, a director within the IACB.

Fake or mislabeled goods are estimated to make up 40 to 50 percent of the Indian arts market. IACB's budget for fiscal year 2003 is a little more than $1 million, which represents a slash of $500,000.

"Continued funding for this program is not being sought in order to focus funding on programs of higher priority to tribes on a nationwide basis," Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb's budget documents state.

Relevant Links:
The Indian Arts and Crafts Board (currently inactive) -
The Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin -

Related Stories:
New arts act clears Congress (10/25)
Tribe works to protect art (10/10)
Fake arts still an issue (08/17)
Fighting forgeries in Indian Country (05/18)