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Photograph by Rebecca Stumpf

The Battle to End the Counterfeiting of Native American Art

It's illegal to sell art as Native American-made when it's not. So why are fraudsters making millions of dollars?

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Lynda Teller Pete spent two years creating a small tapestry for the 2011 Santa Fe Indian Market: The fifth-generation Navajo weaver painstakingly laced 115 stitches through every inch of the 27-by-18-inch piece. After Pete won the top prize in the textiles category at the prestigious art festival, the design got a bit of publicity, and a couple of collectors bought it for $11,500. Soon after, though, the Denver artist opened an El Paso Saddleblanket Co. catalog and discovered the downside to fame: The Texas-based business was selling a rug very similar to Pete’s work for $15. It wasn’t the exact same pattern—but it was close.

After being contacted for this story, Dusty Henson, El Paso Saddleblanket Co.’s founder, wrote in an email to 5280 that the rug is a variation of a traditional Navajo design but that he planned to remove the product from the company’s website to “avoid any possible future problem.” For Pete, however, the situation still stings. “So much thought goes into Navajo weaving,” Pete says. “For them to just rip it off is a slap in the face.”

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Lynda Teller Pete. Photograph by Rebecca Stumpf

Pete thought a federal law specifically designed to protect Native American art might shield her work from imitation. Enacted in 1935, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA) promotes Native American art and prohibits lying about the authenticity of tribal goods. The law also created the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), which processes IACA violation complaints, sends warning letters to the accused, and distributes educational literature. Pete says she called the board twice to file a complaint against El Paso but never heard back. (The IACB says it has no record of Pete’s grievance.) Not that a response would have mattered much. IACB director Meridith Stanton says the act likely doesn’t cover Pete’s situation—El Paso Saddleblanket Co. never claimed its wares were made by Navajos. Pete, like other artists who fear their work has been copied, would probably need the help of a copyright lawyer, an expense she and many others who make their livings through art can’t always afford.

Even those protected by the IACA haven’t historically received much justice: Stanton says the IACB has received 1,936 complaints since 1996, and only 24 have resulted in prosecutions. One reason for the low conversion rate could be that the IACB generally refers serious counterfeiting cases to other federal investigative agencies. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former U.S. senator from Colorado and a Northern Cheyenne jeweler himself, says going after counterfeiters isn’t the highest priority for those agencies: “[The law] keeps honest people honest.” Recent efforts to crack down on counterfeiters, however, have some Native Americans hoping the U.S. government is finally ready to seriously defend their art.

Former senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Photo courtesy of Sorrel Sky Gallery

In 2012, the IACB received much-needed help when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) agreed to provide it with some investigative muscle. Four years later, one of the IACB-USFWS alliance’s first probes, dubbed “Operation Al Zuni,” ensnared an international target: the Aysheh family. According to court documents, they allegedly conspired to manufacture hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry in the Philippines, then import, market, and sell the goods as Native American–made. A report in National Geographic contends that items from the Filipino factory have been distributed across the Southwest, including in Breckenridge and Aspen. USFWS special agent in charge Phil Land says his agency has seen activity in Colorado similar to the Ayshehs’ alleged crimes.

The Ayshehs’ trial is scheduled to begin this month in the U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, New Mexico. One of their associates, Nael Ali, an Albuquerque shop owner, has already pleaded guilty to selling fraudulent American Indian jewelry. He got six months in prison, one year of supervision, and was ordered to pay $9,048 in restitution. Some took the sentence as an indication of a new willingness to punish those who pirate Native American art, but Pete and Campbell remain skeptical. If the Ayshehs receive a relatively light sentence similar to Ali’s (for his first IACA offense, Ali could have been sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison and fined $250,000), Pete fears the trial will do little to dissuade other forgers.

That’s why the artist hopes her new book—Spider Woman’s Children: Navajo Weavers Today, co-written with her sister—will help instill greater respect for her craft. Pete realizes it’s a small step—but she also knows every great tapestry starts with a single stitch.

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(Read more about Spider’s Woman’s Children and the history of Navajo weaving)

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