'It's sacrilegious': The lucrative market in fake Native American art

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Julia Munslow
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Fake Native American-styled jewelry
Fake Native American-styled jewelry seized by federal officials during a 2015 investigation in New Mexico. (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP, Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal via ZUMA Wire)

Teri Greeves, a Kiowa beadworker, has an eye for spotting fake Native American art.

Greeves grew up watching her mother run a trading post on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, in the middle of Indian country. Dealers traveled between the Plains states reservations and the Southwest, buying and selling jewelry. Eventually, they began hawking imported, fake pieces at dirt-cheap prices.

Greeves’ mother refused to deal with them. But others did, or the traders themselves started selling directly to customers.

“They were able to sell for five dollars apiece,” Greeves said. “That had a huge impact on jewelers in Navajo country.”

Native American jewelry is often made of natural materials, such as metals and stones. Designs include symbolic carvings, shapes and patterns inspired by traditional art. Turquoise jewelry, which often features the light-blue gemstone encased in silver, is especially popular with tourists.

Teri Greeves with one of her artworks
Teri Greeves with one of her artworks. (Photo: courtesy Carol Franco/Native Treasures Indian Art Festival)

Looking at both authentic and fake pieces (the counterfeits, usually made of materials imported from Asia or made entirely abroad, helped Greeves cultivate an eye for spotting fakes. Later in her career, she started to see forgeries all over, especially when she moved to Santa Fe, a city that is home to a massive tourist industry for Native American art.

Consumers’ interest in Native American art continues today, and with it, a market for counterfeit pieces of Native American art.

Fake art persists throughout the $1 billion Native American art industry, though the enforcement of laws barring counterfeits has recently improved. Over the past few years, the federal government has cracked down on counterfeiters, who peddle fakes made from cheap materials or imported from abroad, effectively driving down the price of authentic art. Though it’s impossible to measure the scope of the fake art, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, estimated that up to 80 percent of the market is counterfeit.

Counterfeiting affects the income of authentic Native American artists, and also their pride. They spend hours painstakingly crafting pieces from natural materials, following traditional procedures that have been passed down by their tribe. Some artists view the counterfeits as offensive, a distortion of a tribe’s culture. Navajo weaver Joyce Begay-Foss, educational director at the New Mexico Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, called the inappropriate use of traditional designs “disturbing.”

Everything from the pattern to the color to the way in which an artist constructs a particular piece can hold a specific traditional meaning, Begay-Foss said.

On Navajo rugs, an arrow can symbolize the movement of the sun, or a direction. Diagonal lines become feathers, and triangles can represent dynamism, vitality or fertility. A cross symbolizes stars, but if it has boxes, it becomes Spider Woman, a deity who gave Navajos the gift of weaving. Some rugs feature a storm pattern, in which a center box, which represents the universe, is connected by zigzagging lines, representing lightning bolts, to boxes that symbolize four mountains that watch over the Navajo nation.

Joyce Begay-Foss stands with a kid goat while purchasing mohair for her weavings. (Photo: Courtesy of Joyce Begay-Foss)
Joyce Begay-Foss stands with a kid goat while purchasing mohair for her weavings. (Photo: Courtesy of Joyce Begay-Foss)

Both Begay-Foss and Greeves said that Native Americans would continue to create art even if they didn’t sell it. “Not everything is for sale,” said Begay-Foss, noting that artists sometimes make pieces for cultural traditions, such as coming-of-age gifts for family members.

But at the end of the day, it’s about the money.

Like any other trend, the popularity of Native American art waxes and wanes. In the 1990s, it peaked, and mainstream fashion designers began producing colorful geometric patterns on clothing and blankets, branded as Native American or Indian. A college-age Greeves, who had just started selling her work in her mother’s shop, watched as her mother and other artists testified at congressional hearings intended to fight the spread of fake art.

One day, a high-profile designer’s employee wandered into the shop and took an interest in Greeves’ beadwork on a belt, promising to show it to the designer (whom Greeves declined to name).

Eventually, the company mailed the belt back, telling Greeves thank you, but that they weren’t interested. Later, the pattern appeared on mass-produced jeans manufactured in Asia.

Greeves didn’t take legal action. Neither have a few of her colleagues, who she says have had similar experiences, seeing their own designs appear on runways around the world. Lawyers are expensive, and Native American artists often work paycheck to paycheck. They’re hesitant to go up as individuals against corporations.

Additionally, artists don’t copyright their designs, Begay-Foss said, noting that an individual cannot “own” a traditional design. “I learned those designs from my relatives,” Begay-Foss said. “You don’t own it, you have that cultural relation with your people.” After the jeans incident, Greeves chose to give her work had a distinct, intricate flair, making it more difficult to counterfeit in mass quantities. For example, she carefully placed colorful glass beads in detailed patterns on modern pieces, such as Converse sneakers.

Upton S. Ethelbah Jr. with his artwork. (Photo: Courtesy of Upton S. Ethelbah Jr./greyshoes.com)
Upton S. Ethelbah Jr. with his artwork. (Photo: Courtesy of Upton S. Ethelbah Jr./greyshoes.com)

Jewelers are some of the most vulnerable artists, since jewelry is easier to market, both legally and illegally. Rugs, pottery, baskets and clothing are also counterfeited. And online, vendors on websites like eBay and Amazon deal in cheap knockoffs.

Education efforts help, Begay-Foss said, especially those targeted at tourists, who are prone to pick up cheap jewelry from street vendors and lack the knowledge to discern fakes. Sometimes they just want to save money, and don’t care if a piece is real.

“There’s no way that you can compete [with fake art],” Greeves said, pointing to the cheap price of counterfeits. “It’s a bread-and-butter issue. It’s how we feed our children issue.”

But artists are afforded protections under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits the sale of art that falsely claims to be Native American-made.

“If they’re breaking the law, they’re breaking the law,” said Native American sculptor Upton Greyshoes Ethelbah. “There are so many symbols or types of symbols or almost generic symbols, so symbols themselves don’t bother me — it’s the fraudulent use of the word ‘authentic.’”

When Ethelbah started out in the art industry 20 years ago, there was little enforcement of the 1990 law. Stories of busted scammers rarely made the news, he said. But today, he usually learns about a new arrest or indictment almost weekly from Southwestern U.S. media outlets.

Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, counterfeit artists face for a first violation civil or criminal penalties up to $1,000 in fines or up to five years in prison. Some could face both.

Fedral agents, left, remove evidence from the Gold House Fine Jewelry store in Santa Fe
Fedral agents remove evidence from the Gold House Fine Jewelry store in Santa Fe, Oct. 28, 2015. (Photo: Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal via ZUMA Wire)

The Department of the Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which oversees the enforcement of the act, has recently expanded the scope of investigations. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed an amendment to the act that permitted all federal law enforcement agencies to conduct investigations. (Prior to the amendment, only the FBI had the authority to investigate those violations.) And a 2012 agreement between the board and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permitted the latter agency to help oversee enforcement of the law.

Last year, Navajo Nation settled a lawsuit against fashion giant Urban Outfitters, which had marketed clothing and accessories as “Navajo” or “Navaho.” The company agreed to work with the Navajo Nation to sell authentic Native-made products.

And in February, a grand jury handed down indictments to five individuals allegedly tied to an international scheme involving the import and sale of fake art. The indictments are part of the years-long “El Zuni” investigation into violations of the act. At a 2015 news conference, FBI Special Agent Nicolas Chavez called El Zuni “the largest investigation since the inception of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.”

According to court documents, the five individuals allegedly imported Native American-style jewelry from the Philippines and then marketed it as authentic Native American jewelry. The defendants could each face up to $250,000 in fines or a 5-year prison term, since the art was sold for at least $1,000 total.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

“Eliminating the flow of counterfeit Native American art and craftwork provides a level playing field for the highly talented, dedicated and hard-working producers of genuine Native American art,” chairman of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Harvey Pratt said in a Justice Department press release.

But the Department of the Interior, which oversees enforcement of the Act, would see a $1.6 billion funding cut (about 12 percent) under President Trump’s 2017–2018 proposed budget. In March, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke vowed to push back against the cuts, telling staffers, “I think I’m going to win at the end of the day.” But in June, Zinke said in testimony before the Senate that he planned to lay off about 4,000 employees to help the department adjust to the budget cuts.

Meredith Stanton, Indian Arts and Crafts Act Board director, said that she doesn’t yet know how the cuts could affect the board or the enforcement of the act.

Local lawmakers have launched initiatives to crack down on the illegal trade in their communities. Some states offer state-certified tags for stores to display alongside their authentic art. In New Mexico, Santa Fe’s mayor proposed a Native American arts district, in which businesses who want to sell authentic Native American art would need a special license. But some say that these tags and licenses could be forged the same way counterfeiters forge the art itself, making the initiatives temporary solutions.

“Unfortunately, counterfeit Indian art is an old issue — it’s been happening for decades,” Udall said. “We’ve made progress, but … the problem is still out of control. We absolutely must make the law stronger and tougher so we can root out the black market and shut it down.”

But some say that 1990 federal law actually hurts those Native American artists who belong to tribes that lack federal recognition.

Native Americans selling arts and crafts
Native Americans selling arts and crafts in front of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, N.M., on Oct. 13, 2012. (Photo: Raunger Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

Artists who are members of tribes without coveted recognition status (which grants tribes governmental authority and federal support for housing, education and health care) could be prosecuted for selling their own art. And as members of recognized tribes marry those without Native American ancestry, their children face the challenge of meeting the standard of being “Native American enough” to claim tribal membership and legally sell their art.

There are more than 500 federally recognized tribes but dozens of them are undergoing the arduous application process required to gain federal recognition. The process often takes more than a decade and can last for upwards of 30 years, requiring piles of paperwork and proof that a tribe has continuously existed since 1900.

The past 20 years has brought tangible progress in the attempts to curb the spread of counterfeits, but the fake art is still so prevalent that it made its way into a Senate field hearing intended to shed light on the problem.

In early July, Udall chaired a Senate field hearing intended to determine better ways to combat counterfeit Native American art in the 21st century. The senator sat in front of a slipshod background — a few baskets with tribal designs attached to a faded curtain — listened to testimony from a panel of experts, including some Native American artists.

Begay-Foss, who testified during the hearing, pointed out that the baskets decorating the room were not authentic Navajo baskets.

Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico
Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico oversees a hearing in Santa Fe, in July about efforts to modernize the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. (Photo: Morgan Lee/AP)

“There are some baskets that are imported on the wall,” Begay-Foss said. “All these designs and symbols, especially traditional designs, not just from our people but throughout our country, these early designs mean something to our people. It’s beyond — it’s sacrilegious in a way.”

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