Fighting forgeries in Indian Country
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MAY 18, 2000

Native artisans and Native art are admired throughout Indian Country and the world. Markets like the annual Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico help contribute to the lucrative $1.2 billion a year and growing business. In spite of the numbers and increasing demand for Native arts, the artists themselves are losing valuable money to knock-offs, forgeries, and fakes.

The Indian Arts and Craft Board (IACB) was instituted by the Indian Arts and Crafts Act in 1935 to promote Native artists. But the Board never had any real powers to protect artists and their buyers.

In response to an increasing numbers of fraudulent art, artists fought for changes and in 1990, the Act was strengthened, making it illegal to market non-Native goods as Native made. Violators of the truth in advertising Act can be fined $250,000 or may face a 5-year prison term, or both. Businesses can be fined up to $1,000,000 for a first offense and $5,000,000 for subsequent.

But artists and tribal leaders told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday the government isn't enforcing the law.

According to the Indian Arts and Crafts Association (IACA), a New Mexico based non-profit organization dedicated to stamping out frauds, up to 50 percent of goods marketed as Indian made may not be authentic.

This type of fraud is costly to Indian artists, where up to 85 percent of the population on some reservations rely on art as a primary or secondary source of income.

Andy Abeita, an Isleta Pueblo sculptor and first Native president of the IACA, said fakes have "made it almost impossible to compete fairly in the commercial market place."

Abeita pointed out a clear problem to the Committee. Despite a growth in the Native arts market, unemployment on reservations has increased over the last 20 years. "The supply is growing," questions Abeita, "but who is making the product?"

Most in the industry point to foreign countries as the source of non-Native made goods. The United States Customs Office estimates that countries like the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand, Pakistan, and China have been importing $30 million annually since 1990. Abeita travels to customs ports to teach inspectors how to identify fraudulent goods.

Since the law took effect in November 1996, only one case has ever been brought to prosecution. The IACB says it has received just 45 written complaints so far. However, the Board has no investigative authority and can only refer complaints it feels actionable to the Department of Justice.

Tony Eriacho Jr, a Zuni Pueblo jeweler and business owner, believes no one in the Board can tell the difference between fake and real Native art. He also said the Board needs to be empowered to do more than simply pay "lip service" to the Act.

Given these problems, what will happen to the artists themselves? Abeita constructs a compelling response. His pueblo of Isleta has seen its artist population drop from 150 full time artists to just 30 over the last 50 years. If the trend and other problems continue, admirers of Native art may have no more authentic art to purchase.

Relevant Links:
The Indian Arts and Crafts Board:
The Indian Arts and Crafts Association: