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Crackdown planned on fake Indian art
Scripps Howard News Service


July 25, 2005

WASHINGTON - An effort is under way in Congress to help stop the sale of fake American Indian arts and crafts.

At shops throughout the West, a customer will ask why a necklace or pot costs three times what a similar item costs down the street. The other piece is usually a cheap knockoff made by non-natives with non-native materials, most likely by machine in a foreign country.

"It looks the same, but the materials aren't as fine, and it's not made in the traditional way," said NaNa Ping, who makes inlay jewelry in New Mexico.

For 15 years, it's been against federal law to sell Indian art unless American Indians make it. It's also illegal to sell foreign-made Indian-style art or crafts without a label identifying the country of origin.

Last month, a woman was indicted in Albuquerque on federal charges of selling fake Navajo rugs.

Such prosecutions are rare, concedes New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias.

"Generally, with the FBI, their top mission in Indian County is investigating violent crime, and when you have a lot of those crimes there's not a lot of time to prosecute this class of criminal offenses. We do these occasionally," Iglesias said.

Arizona Republican Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain want to help the FBI.

They have introduced legislation to let agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs investigate fake art, on the reservation and off.

"These violations are serious, and we need to provide the necessary federal resources to preserve the cultural heritage of our native people," Kyl said.

NaNa Ping is president of the Indian Arts and Crafts Association, which represents 1,500 American Indian artists. He said sales of the cheaper fake art hurts the income of real American Indian artists.

"They need to stop this. They're hurting our market," he said.

David Cloutier, executive director of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, voiced similar concerns. The association sponsors the annual Santa Fe Indian Market, on Aug. 20-21 this year.

The association uses a review board to ensure that only American Indians selling their own goods occupy its booths, he said.

"This region is the marketplace of Native American arts worldwide and for tourists," said Cloutier. "There are people who deal in that kind of knockoff situation, and we'd like to see that curtailed, just for the sake of income to Native Americans."

Kyl said the federal agency that refers complaints about fake American Indian art for prosecution, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, is concerned that cases were not making it to the attorney general for prosecution.

"Indian country is getting slammed" by the number of cheap knockoffs, said the board's director, Meredith Stanton, but it's not an FBI priority, particularly since 9/11.

Sometimes, they are able to work with a retailer to resolve the complaint, Stanton said. The most serious cases are reported to the Federal Trade Commission or the FBI.

Bill Ellwell, spokesman for the FBI's Albuquerque field office, said agents take cases of fake American Indian art seriously and have worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But Iglesias said they could prosecute more cases if the bureau's agents had the investigative authority being considered by Kyl's bill.

New Mexico's senators have complained about the lack of enforcement of the counterfeit American Indian art for years.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who pressured Customs officials in the 1990s to step up efforts against foreign fakes, said the new bill is a good idea and he will support it.

"These fakes pose a serious economic threat to artists and craftsmen," he said. "Counterfeit goods amount to cheating these artisans and their customers."

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said he is studying the Kyl-McCain bill.

"Any action we can take to crack down on the sale of counterfeit Indian arts and crafts would be a major step in the right direction," he said. "But given that Indian programs have been dramatically cut in recent years, I have my doubts about whether will be available to make this legislation effective."


Contact James Brosnan at brosnanj(at)

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