- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Joan Hill’s art is living history. When she paints, she summons the images of her Indian ancestors. They are near to her, resting close by the prehistoric Indian mound that dominates her back yard on the Oklahoma plains.

Ms. Hill lives on the same 160-acre plot her great-grandmother received in an 1858 Indian allotment. She has been a professional artist for more than 40 years. Her paintings have been exhibited throughout the United States and in Europe, New Zealand and China.

“It’s just a thing that’s handed down from parent to child,” explained Ms. Hill, a member of the Creek Indian Nation with Cherokee lineage. “It’s something that a lot of Indian people just have naturally and you just have to express it — it’s like a compulsion, I suppose.”

But the global economy has created a new challenge for Ms. Hill and American Indian artists and craftsmen who make a living from their paintings, jewelry, baskets, rugs, pottery and other crafts.

The counterfeit Indian arts and crafts industry is booming. Most of the counterfeit crafts and jewelry arrive in bulk from countries like the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand, China and Pakistan.

Sold primarily over the Internet, imitation Indian art — paintings and crafts not made by a member of an American Indian tribe — can also be found at powwows, roadside stands, flea markets or tourist attractions like the Grand Canyon, according to the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB).

“It goes to the heart of Indian culture because art is intertwined in everything they do,” said Meridith Stanton, director of the IACB. The influx of counterfeit arts and crafts destroys economic development opportunities for Indians, she added. “The majority of these artists really rely on the sales of a couple days to carry them through the entire year.”

A division of the Department of the Interior, the IACB is responsible for enforcing the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which outlaws the sale of goods falsely advertised as Indian made. Under the act, a first-time offender convicted of knowingly selling counterfeit Indian art can receive up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine. A convicted business can face civil penalties of up to $1 million.

Imported crafts are often labeled appropriately before they are shipped to the United States, Ms. Stanton said, but upon arrival the stickers fall off or retailers purposefully remove them to pass the goods off as authentic Indian art.

“There may be some thought of, ‘Well it looks native, so it probably is and I’m going to say it’s American made,” she said.

Artists, tribes and consumers report the sale of potential counterfeit art to the IACB, which recently hired the Alexandria-based Potomac Management Group (PMG) to upgrade its counterfeit-art database.

“They are already tracking complaints using pen and paper,” said Jay Jayachandran, vice president of marketing at PMG. “All we are doing is increasing the database so that it will have all the modern features.”

The size of the contract award depends on how long the work takes, Mr. Jayachandran added.

While it is hard to tell how lucrative the counterfeit market is, Ms. Hill, a former IACB co-chairwoman, estimates that $30 million in counterfeit Indian art is sold each year.

In 2005, the IACB received 79 complaints of potential counterfeit sales, two of which were prosecuted. Ms. Stanton attributes the low number of prosecutions to a lack of available FBI resources during the war on terror, prompting the group to pursue a prosecution agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“We’re anticipating that we’re probably going to start getting a lot more [complaints] so we basically got involved with these folks to increase our capacity to handle these complaints,” she said.

Counterfeiting damages the integrity and prosperity of Indian artists, said Ms. Hill, whose work has received nearly 300 awards over several decades.

“In the beginning [art] was the way of communicating — it’s very important in keeping the culture alive,” she said. “Sometimes when Indians grow up on the reservation, they don’t have other ways to make a living.”

In addition to handling complaints, the IACB promotes Indian artists by purchasing or showcasing their work. The board also gives consumers on how to buy authentic Indian and Alaskan native arts and crafts.

“No matter how you go about purchasing something, write down as much detail as possible — who made it, what their tribe was, the materials used, the dates, what the images might mean,” Ms. Stanton said. She recommended that buyers try to purchase directly from the artist if possible.

Ms. Hill recalled an apt saying from an early art teacher.

“It’s better to be a bad original than a poor imitation,” she said.

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