Two Washington state artists are facing federal charges for falsely representing themselves as Native American. The separate cases involve Lewis Anthony Rath, who claimed to be an enrolled member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, and Jerry Chris Van Dyke, who used the pseudonym Jerry Witten and said he was a Nez Perce Indian. Neither man has any tribal affiliation or heritage, according to a press release from the office of US Attorney Nick Brown in Washington’s Western District.
The investigations began in early 2019 after the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, an agency of the Department of the Interior, received complaints regarding Rath and Van Dyke. US Fish and Wildlife agents then made undercover purchases of sculptures, totem poles, and other pieces by the artists sold at two downtown Seattle galleries.
They found that Van Dyke had sold more than $1,000 worth of carved pendants fraudulently represented as contemporary Native American art inspired by Aleut masks through the gallery Raven’s Nest Treasure.
Agents purchased a carved totem pole and necklace by Rath at the same gallery for over $1,300, as well as similar works by the artist at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. A biography of Rath at both galleries falsely stated that he was of Indigenous descent, as did several websites he used to sell his work. According to the Associated Press, an employee of Ye Older Curiosity Shop told investigators that she had written the biography based on information provided by the artist.
Neither gallery has been charged at this time, a spokesperson for the US Attorney’s office told Hyperallergic.
Matthew Steinbrueck, the owner of Raven’s Nest Treasure, told Hyperallergic that he believed the artist’s tribal affiliation in good faith and did not knowingly sell forgeries. The problem, he said, is that “there is no actual legal avenue” to determine whether someone is of Native background.
“I’ve been here for 32 years and I have over 100 Native artists,” Steinbrueck told Hyperallergic. “We never assign them a status of Native legitimacy, they themselves claim that. Unless you have a tribal ID, you could validly be a Native person but there’s no way for us to verify that.”
“I feel that the prosecutors are going after these small-fry nobodies just to bolster their own credentials,” Steinbrueck added. “I’m not defending their right to lie, he shouldn’t have misrepresented himself, but these are small-time guys who are trying to survive, and they basically destroyed [Van Dyke’s] life.”
Rath and Van Dyke have been charged with violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA) of 1990, a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits the sale of artworks falsely marketed as Indigenous-produced. They face four and two counts of Misrepresentation of Indian Produced Goods and Products, respectively. Rath has also been charged with two misdemeanor counts related to his possession of feathers from protected birds, including golden eagles, hawks, jays, and other migratory species, discovered by agents in his Whatcom County home and studio.
Individuals found guilty of a first-time IACA violation may be fined up to $250,000 or imprisoned for a maximum of five years, or both, while businesses and other entities can be fined up to $1,000,000. But such penalties are rarely upheld. The first person to go to jail for violating IACA was defendant and jewelry seller Neal Ali as recently as 2018, as part of a high-profile case involving the largest Native American art forgery in history. He was sentenced to six months in federal prison and ordered to pay $9,048.78 in restitution for selling and fraudulently marketing counterfeit Native American jewelry.
Hyperallergic has contacted the US Fish and Wildlife Service Office for further clarity on how businesses can avoid selling works that violate the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. The agency has not yet responded to our immediate request for comment.
“By flooding the market with counterfeit Native American art and craftwork, these crimes cheat the consumer, undermine the economic livelihood of Native American artists, and impairs Indian culture,” Edward Grace, assistant director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, said in the US Attorney Brown’s recent statement.