Native American art is rich in original and instantly recognisable forms, materials, colours and stories. When we think of tribes in their heyday, we conjure up images of teepees decorated with symbolic designs, totem poles, beaded moccasins, patterned pottery, even feather headdresses. The use of such artefacts belongs of course to days gone by, but the traditions which created them are still very much alive and, just as importantly, demand for the objects is if anything greater than ever.
It’s very easy for a culture, including a proud and genuine one like that of the native tribes of North America, to find its art replicated for commercial gain in a way that makes all of it appear facile and tawdry – as epitomised by images of flamenco dancers in Spain. However in the case of Native American art not only are artists alive who are very much in touch with their tribe’s traditions, but they may also depend upon the sale of their work for their livelihood.
So, how can the genuine article be distinguished from the cheap imitation? What legislation can be put in place to protect the true tribal artisan in a world swimming with people wanting to make a quick buck out of anything?
The answer in this case is the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. It defines an Indian as a member of any Indian Tribe that has been federally or officially recognized by the State and it stipulates that only people who are genuinely American Indians as defined by the Act are allowed to market their products as being Indian made or Indian art. In addition, it states that any mention of belonging to a specific tribe must be genuine.
The Act is of great benefit in two ways: it prevents people making false claims about their art, and at the same time it renders genuine Native American art a rarer and therefore much more desirable commodity.
Unfortunately any tribes which haven’t managed to gain federal recognition are excluded. They, and individuals who aren’t enrolled members of a recognised tribe, run the risk of stiff fines for claiming a perfectly legitimate heritage. Individuals can even be imprisoned for up to five years. The Act makes provision to redress this to an extent by allowing individuals to be certified by their tribal government even if they aren’t specifically enrolled.
The result of the 1990 Act and similar pieces of legislation is that consumers can be reasonably confident when they buy a piece of Native American that it is the genuine article. If something is stated to have been made by a member of a particular tribe, it should be true. Acts like these are to an extent self-policing because it’s in the interest of people protected by the law to help uphold it.
Traditional art often copied by non-Indians includes jewellery, pottery, baskets, rugs, clothes, kachina dolls and carved stone fetishes. The advice given to someone who has been sold an article that was declared genuine but subsequently turns out not to be, would be first to ask for a refund, then approach a local DA or Chamber of Commerce, and if these avenues fail, to contact the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. An event such as a powwow or Annual Fair should state that participating vendors are complying with the Act. However if it doesn’t, written certification should be obtained from the individual vendor that what they’ve sold is genuine.