Protecting the integrity of Indian art. Indian artists work to strengthen safeguards for their market

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Here in the capital of American Indian arts and crafts, it's sometimes difficult to tell, among the rows of tourist shops or roadside crafts stores, the authentic Indian blanket from its machine-made counterpart, or the genuine Cochiti Pueblo storyteller doll from a foreign fake. Even high-brow galleries have been found promoting as Indian art the works of artists whose Indian heritage may go no farther than their own claims.

But now a group of New Mexico Indian artists is seeking tighter controls and swifter state action on works that are made by non-Indians but illegally marketed as Indian products.

The group's campaign is part of a larger effort by Indians across the Southwest and up into Canada to preserve the integrity of Indian arts and culture, while also protecting the Indians' share of the lucrative market for Indian and Indian-style arts and crafts.

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``We're tired of individuals taking advantage of Indian people again,'' says Dominic Arquero, president of the Native American Artists Association (NAAA), a year-old organization of some three dozen Indian artists. ``They took away everything else, now they want to reach down and take away our soul also.''

Mr. Arquero, of Cochiti Pueblo near here and himself an artist, says Indian artists are being ``robbed'' of the money consumers who want genuine Indian art are unwittingly spending on non-Indian-made products.

``We can't tell people what to make and what not to make, and we can't say whether our art is better or theirs is better,'' he says. ``But we can say which artists are Indian and which are not.''

A 1985 report from the United States Department of Commerce estimated that annual sales of Indian jewelry, rugs, belts, dolls, bowls, and fine art, are as high as $800 million. The report further calculated that as much as 20 percent of the total sales were of unmarked imported items.

Indian artists and craftsmakers received a boost in the recently passed federal trade bill. It mandates permanent labeling on imported Indian-style products. It also calls on the Commerce Department to promote the exportation of genuine Indian products.

On the state level, New Mexico is one of nine states with laws regulating sales of Indian art. A 1973 law prohibits the sale of any item as Indian-made that was not made by an enrolled member of an Indian tribe, ``as evidenced by tribal records or by records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.'' Violators face fines of $25 to $200 and up to 90 days' imprisonment.

Arquero and his supporters say the fines are too light - ``I pay more for a traffic ticket,'' he says - and enforcement is too sparse.

The issue received some attention this summer when the New Mexico attorney general threatened to close down one of the galleries in this arts mecca for representing as an Indian a painter who in fact is not enrolled in any tribe.

The particular controversy was resolved when the C.G. Rein Galleries agreed to stop representing artist C.J. Wells as an Indian. Ms. Wells, who claims Arikara-Picuris Indian heritage, has received a number of awards across the country in Indian art exhibits, and her works hang in a number of public collections - including the Institute of American Indian Art Museum in Santa Fe. She has no documented Indian lineage, however.

State Attorney General Hal Stratton says the August challenge to the Wells exhibit was timed in part for the annual, multimillion-dollar Santa Fe Indian Market.

``We wanted the signal to go out that this is the law of New Mexico, and we will enforce it,'' Mr. Stratton says.

Last month Stratton's office forced artist Melody Lightfeather to withdraw her work from the state fair after it was learned she misrepresented herself as an enrolled Indian.

A number of self-proclaimed but unenrolled Indian artists say the New Mexico law is too restrictive, since many Indians lost contact with their tribes through generations of intermarriages and relocations, or during periods when any documentation of Indian heritage was purposely hidden.

John Freesoul of Sante Fe, a well-known maker of Indian ceremonial pipes, calls himself an ``unregistered Cheyenne-Arapahoe'' and says his tribal lineage was lost when his mother was born out of wedlock.

``An unregistered Cheyenne-Arapahoe?'' responds Clayton Brascoup'e, a silver craftsman and member of the NAAA. ``That's like someone from Mexico telling the border patrol, `I'm an unregistered US citizen.'''

While New Mexico's Office of Indian Affairs is preparing a report on possible ways of improving the state's Indian art law, Indian artists in Arizona are taking another tack. Their hope is to establish a registered trademark that will identify the state's authentic Indian goods.

``We've already got the seal, which is an open palm with a feather across it,'' says Rosie Sekayumptewa, a Navajo and founder of the Authentic Indian Arts and Crafts Guild, which was organized in April.

Noting that an ``unenforced'' state law for monitoring the authenticity of Indian arts and crafts has been on Arizona books since 1986, Mrs. Sekayumptewa says her group hopes to meet with the Arizona attorney general this fall to encourage cooperation and enforcement. Her group is also planning a campaign to inform consumers of Indian art fraud.

Public education is also an option being considered in Canada, where no legislation exists either for labeling of products or for penalizing misrepresentation.

A national trademark system is being considered, according to David Shanks, a researcher with the National Indian Arts and Crafts Corporation in Ottawa. Noting Canada's large problem with imitation Inuit carvings, Mr. Shanks says a trademark of authenticity would allow consumers to identify the genuine product.

``It seems the US is a bit ahead of us in legislation on this,'' says Shanks. He added, though, that his inquiries in the states indicated that ``the legislation is only as good as its enforcement.''

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