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Fake Native American art floods market, Udall says

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife service Law Enforcement Chief Bill Woody displays counterfeit Native American art during a U.S. Senate field hearing at Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe Friday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — For traditional Navajo weaver Joyce Begay Foss, her work isn’t just a craft. It represents the tribe’s history of “stamina and perseverance.”

Some of her tribe’s earliest textile materials, she said, trace back to times of the Long Walk of the Navajo — the forced evacuations from their native lands to the Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico — in the 1860s, showing their strength in times of oppression.

This cultural relevance is something being lost as others profit off Native American culture with knockoff art, Begay Foss told U.S. Sen. Tom Udall at a hearing Friday on the negative impacts of counterfeit Indian art and how improve the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

“They’re taking our designs and abusing them,” said Begay Foss, who said she knows artisans who are no longer able to live off their work because they’re competing with cheaper counterfeits. She said weaved baskets displayed behind Udall Friday at the Santa Fe Indian School were fakes.

Stricter punishments, better consumer and police education programs and additional resources to patrol growing e-commerce were just some of the requests from seven panelists —  government officials and Native artists — to modernize and amend the IACA.

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The act, created in 1990 and updated in 2010, prohibits the sale of products as Native-made when they’re not and allows for criminal and civil action against offenders. According to Udall, the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, fakes make up as much as 80 percent of the Indian arts market, and only two officers within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are tasked with monitoring the violations.

“Fake Indian arts and crafts are flooding the markets right here in Santa Fe and across the country. It’s having an effect of destabilizing the Native art market, it’s forcing many to quit their crafts and devalues Native American art,” said Udall in a news conference following the meeting. U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, like Udall a New Mexico Democrat, joined him for the first half of the hearing.

Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement Chief Bill Woody, one of Udall’s witnesses whose department has overseen IACA enforcement since 2012, cited the indictment of six people, including several New Mexico residents, with violating the federal law in 2015 for allegedly importing items made in the Philippines and claiming it was authentic Native art.

Galleries in Gallup, Albuquerque and Santa Fe were raided. The accused are still awaiting trial. Federal officers have confiscated about 200,000 pieces with a declared value of $11 million coming into the U.S. According to Indian Arts and Crafts Board executive director Meredith Stanton, retail sales of the faked items could easily double the declared value. “The scope of the problem is larger than we expected,” Woody said.

Udall spoke with other witnesses about possibly adding a counterfeiture clause to the federal law, which New Mexico’s former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez said would allow for seizing proceeds earned from counterfeit art. Udall and witnesses also discussed the need for state-tribal task forces to better educate law enforcement about existing laws, resources for monitoring online markets like Ebay and Amazon, or giving certifications of authenticity to online retailers, and mandating country of origin stamps.

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