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History’s Biggest Fake American Indian Art Conspiracy Revealed

By John Haworth, Senior Executive Emeritus, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and CERF+ Board Member

Image result for native american jewelry“Our arts and crafts give us a really concrete way to stay connected to our culture and our history.  All this fake stuff feels like a very deep personal attack.”

The LA-based writer and photographer Maraya Cornell’s well-documented and powerful essay Biggest Fake Native American Art Conspiracy Revealed was published in the March issue of National Geographic.  Indeed, as Cornell argues so effectively, Native arts and crafts are deeply connected to culture, community, and sustaining local economies and family livelihoods.  

The related ethical and cultural issues deserve far greater public and legal attention, given that cheaply manufactured mass-produced items from abroad or fakes produced in the USA continue to be misrepresented as works made by Native Americans.  Indeed, Native artists have been undercut by nonnatives posing as Indians to sell fake work and when factory-made knockoffs are sold by dishonest dealers.

The Native American art market is enormous and on multiple levels – from established Indian Markets (in Santa Fe and American Indian museums throughout the country) to items sold at powwows and souvenir shops and dealers and galleries at all levels.  The curators, museum executives, and museum shop buyers are keenly aware of the issues yet must always stay informed and on guard.

As Cornell meticulously documents, the Albuquerque jewelry dealer Nael Ali will be sentenced in April for fraudulently selling imported jewelry as Native American made.  He will be the first defendant sentenced in the most extensive federal investigation into Indian arts and crafts fraud.

Image result for native american jewelryAt the federal level, the Indian Arts and Craft Act of 1990 protects Native American makers yet given the current anti-regulatory political environment in the Trump administration and shifting funding priorities, many concerns are not sufficiently addressed.  This 1990 Act, and its earlier version of 1935, focuses on sustaining economies of Indian communities and serves as a truth-in-advertising law that specifically prohibits misrepresentation in marketing Indian arts and craft products within the United States.  Another wrinkle, of course, is that the market for Native American work is global.   While the emphasis is on traditional items (especially baskets, pots, weavings, and jewelry), the Act has much broader reach.  The Act makes it illegal to falsely misrepresent what is Indian made and with substantial penalties; however, reporting a violation is complicated.

The media has called out similar issues which have undermined the fashion industry.  Certainly, responding to this is a legal challenge with severe financial implications for international brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Diesel, and Ralph Lauren, among others.  These international businesses have the clout and financial capacity to shut down venders and websites hawking fake products (adding a challenge, in some quarters, it has become chic to wear fake “designer wear” and jewelry).   For Native artists and tribal communities, however, the economic realities make it tougher to crack down on the unethical and criminal sellers. Preserving and protecting Native American art are serious issues in the art world demanding our collective attention.  All this certainly is on the radar at CERF+. Through all that we do, CERF+ is committed to providing proactive leadership on important issues.

All images from Wikimedia Commons.

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