Tribes: Gov't Not Enforcing Laws

Wednesday, May 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal government is not enforcing a law designed to protect American Indian artisans from forgers said to be cutting into a $1 billion a year business, artists and tribal leaders told lawmakers Wednesday.

The agency responsible for enforcement has not sought criminal charges or civil lawsuits since 1990, when the law was strengthened, even though trade groups estimate that at least half of all Indian-style art sold in the United States is not authentic.

``In Indian communities, enforcement ... has become a joke. It's like a paper tiger with no teeth,'' said Tony Eriacho Jr., a member of New Mexico's Zuni tribe and a jewelry maker and wholesaler.

The head of the Indian Arts and Craft Board said Congress has provided little money — $1 million this budget year — or support. The agency, part of the Interior Department, also operates three federal museums — in Montana, Oklahoma and South Dakota — where Indian crafts are displayed.

``We don't have the investigators to go out and be looking for cases,'' Faith Roessel, a Navajo, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

The board, which hired its first staff lawyer two months ago, has received 45 written complaints since 1996, many from consumers who ``got a bad deal,'' she said.

``There's plenty of blame to pass around, but we don't seem to be making any progress,'' said the committee chairman, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Northern Cheyenne and former jeweler. Campbell, R-Colo., said the government needs to do more.

Sen. Jon Kyl, who wrote the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act, raised the possibility of moving enforcement to another government agency.

``With an estimated 50 to 60 percent of the marketplace plagued with forgeries, how hard can it be to find a test case?'' Kyl, R-Ariz., said in a statement. ``It almost seems as if the board isn't looking for cases at all.''

The 1990 law strengthened existing penalties and gave the Indian Arts and Crafts Board responsibility for referring complaints to federal prosecutors. The intention was to further protect Indian artists, who account for up to 85 percent of the job-holders on some reservations.

The Hopi tribe estimates that arts and crafts bring in $11.2 million a year for the 37 percent of its workers involved in the business, but faux Hopi knockoffs cost another $4.6 million a year, Kyl said.

New Mexico's Isleta Pueblo have seen the number of full-time artists drop to 30 from 150 in the past 50 years, Isleta sculptor Andy Abeita told senators.

``Unfair competition from import fakes and mechanically cast pottery and jewelry is now often being sold to the unsuspecting consumer as Indian handmade,'' said Abeita, who has investigated the problem for tribes and the United Nations.

``This threat has made it almost impossible to compete fairly in the commercial marketplace, forcing generations of potters and silversmiths to discontinue the trade,'' he said.

Violators can face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Companies could pay a $1 million fine for a first offense.

The government board has pressured some businesses into dropping sales of fakes, Roessel said. She said Time-Life Books agreed in 1996 to use authentic Hopi Kachina dolls as a promotional giveaway for its books on American Indians after the board learned the company originally planned to give away fakes.

Federal prosecutors in South Dakota charged a man under the arts and crafts law in 1998, Mark Van Norman of the Justice Department said. The result was a guilty plea and an agreement to stop using the words ``Native American'' on the goods produced, said Van Norman, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe.


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