Federal commissioners and Congress members are seeking to update the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA), a law that aims to protect the work of Native artists and artisans by establishing standards for craft authenticity and by imposing criminal penalties for counterfeit Native American goods, a persistent and growing issue for Native artists whose livelihoods depend on their practices. However, some Native American tribal members are concerned that the proposed revisions are overly broad and may unravel important existing protections.

The Board is seeking to update the federal regulations under the IACA that would include new enforcements and expand the definition of “Indian Product” to include digital media and other mediums. Between April and August, the Department of the Interior conducted various listening sessions in Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, Fairbanks, and Santa Fe to gather public input on these revisions. 

“The most important change Washington can make — the one change that is absolutely necessary — is to protect Native American artists and Native American tribes by amending the Indian Arts and Crafts Act to ensure that only works and products made by citizens of federally recognized tribes may be deemed ‘Indian,’” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told Hyperallergic

In March, Hoskin addressed members of Congress on amending the Indian Arts and Crafts Act through the proposed Amendments to Respect Traditional Indigenous Skill and Talent (ARTIST) Act, an initiative that may impose additional changes to federal regulations. The updates would allow for “non-Indian labor to work on Indian Products in limited situations” as well as expand the legal definition of “Indian Tribe” to include Native Hawaiian Organizations.

First passed in 1935, the IACA established the Indian Arts and Crafts Board within the Department of the Interior. Composed of five federally appointed commissioners, the Board is responsible for promoting the welfare and development of Native artwork and craft. The Board also works with the Patent and Trademark Office to certify and regulate authentic Native American products through registered trademarks. The IACA also set forth penalties for individuals and businesses that violated the law, but over the course of the 20th century, the law suffered from a failure of enforcement, and more than 50 years later, it was revised. The 1990 IACA raised penalties to a maximum fine of $250,000 and a five-year prison sentence for individuals; for businesses, the maximum fine was raised to $1,000,000.

“Cinnamon Twist” by Leah Van Buskirk (photo by and courtesy Cherokee Nation)

In the decades since the 1990 revision, however, questions have continued to arise about the Act’s efficacy. In 2017, Meridith Stanton, director of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to point out the continued proliferation of “goods falsely represented as authentic Indian-produced arts and crafts” and urged Congress to modernize the legislation. In 2021, two Washington state artists were separately charged with violating the IACA for falsely representing themselves as tribal members, and one of them, Jerry Chris Van Dyke, was sentenced to 18 months in prison this year. 

“Bison Sunset” by Cathy Abercrombie (photo courtesy National Treasure and Cherokee Nation)

But not everyone believes that the proposed changes to IACA will alleviate the situation. Michael Garcia (also known as Na Na Ping), a Pascua Yaqui jeweler who is part Tewa and lives in Nambe Pueblo, expressed concerns about “big manufacturers taking advantage of this proposed law change.” A former chairperson of the Indian Arts and Crafts Association as well as a third-generation jeweler, Garcia began working professionally in the industry in 1973 and recalled a time when he “struggled to try to make a living” because of the overwhelming amount of counterfeit Native products.

“I don’t see it benefiting me as a jeweler or any of my friends as artists. It’s only going to benefit the people that are mass producing and have major money behind them,” Garcia told Hyperallergic.

President of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association Will Hughes is worried about the law’s expansion to Native Hawaiians who currently do not have the same government-to-government relationship and benefits as Native American tribes. Although the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands currently defines a Native Hawaiian as “any descendant of not less than one-half part of the blood of the races inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands previous to 1778,” this definition is only used to determine individual eligibility for a homestead lease, not a united tribal nation.

“It’s going to be legally impossible, and I think it may help unravel the whole protections of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act,” Hughes said of the proposed law. He also noted that the amendment’s clause that would allow for non-Native labor to work on Indian Products in limited circumstances would need more specificity to avoid corporate abuse.

On August 18, both the Sealaska Heritage Institute and the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA) released a statement urging Congress to “hold off on implementing” the ARTIST Act. During the Santa Fe tribal consultation session, Tlingit artist Crystal Worl testified in front of the Department of Interior panel to recommend that the federal government “step back and reconsider the overall structure of the regulations implementing the IACA.” While supporting the inclusion of Native Hawaiians under the IACA regulations, Worl pushed the Department to draft a clear text that is not overly broad.

“If Congress passes a law and the president signs it, then that’s the law and we’re obligated to follow it,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland told Hyperallergic

“I think all the activity you’re seeing reflects not just the interest in this topic, but its importance,” Newland continued. “We always work really hard to make sure that our rules and our policies and our actions comply with the law, and if the law changes, then we’ll change with it, but we’re going to review the feedback that we got to make sure that we understand the views across Indian country before we take any further actions.”

Maya Pontone (she/her) is a Staff News Writer at Hyperallergic. Originally from Northern New Jersey, she currently resides in Brooklyn, where she covers daily news, both within and outside New York City....

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