A Washington artist who pretended to be a member of the Nez Perce Tribe was sentenced to 18 months of federal probation under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA), which mandates truth-in-advertising for Native art. Jerry Chris Van Dyke, also known as Jerry Witten, sold what he claimed was Indigenous artwork for over 10 years at the Raven’s Nest Treasure shop in downtown Seattle’s touristy Pike Place Market. The 67-year-old artist is not a registered tribal member and does not have Native heritage.
The United States Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Washington handed down the sentence on Wednesday, May 17. Van Dyke had sold over $1,000 worth of carved pendants in the style of Aleut masks (Aleut is an umbrella term for people native to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.) The decision has been a long time coming: The US Fish and Wildlife Service opened an investigation into Van Dyke in February 2019 after the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, a federal agency, received a complaint alleging the artist was not actually Native.
A few months later in May 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Service opened an investigation into fellow Raven’s Nest Treasure artist Lewis Anthony Rath following another complaint to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. Rath had falsely claimed he was a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe.
Over the course of their investigation, Fish and Wildlife agents purchased over $2,300 worth of Van Dyke’s and Rath’s art. In December 2021, both artists were charged with falsely representing themselves as Native (Rath was also charged with the possession of illegal feathers). The two men plead guilty in March 2023.
Rath’s sentencing is scheduled for September 27, 2023.
“All we have left is our identity, and that is under attack,” Chair of the Nez Perce Tribe Shannon F. Wheeler said at Wednesday’s sentencing, adding that the fake sales “continues a process of devaluing us as a people.”
“Artwork is full of our culture,” said Wheeler. “It is a piece of who we are.”
IACA was enacted in 1990. Van Dyke’s sentence is relatively light: First-time IACA offenders can face up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, or a combination of the two. Corporate offenders can be fined up to a million dollars.