decades-long, little-funded state battle to alert consumers about
fake Alaska Native art just got a federal boost.
Imitations have long left a bitter taste
in the mouths of duped buyers and artisans trying to make a living.
But the winners in the illegal, multibillion-dollar industry have
proven slippery, said Federal Trade Commission regional director
Chuck Harwood at a press conference Tuesday morning.
"We've been stymied in our efforts
to tackle this problem," Harwood said, as rumors of illegal
claims are persistent but evidence is lacking.
Since filing charges hasn't often been
a viable option, the FTC is putting its shoulder behind education.
Harwood and others spoke at the Alaska
Native Heritage Center in Anchorage to kick off a campaign to raise
public awareness on buying authentic Alaska Native art. The effort
is a partnership between the FTC, the Alaska State Council on the
Arts, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Indian Arts and Crafts
Board, and the state attorney general's office.
Ivory carver Teddy Mayac Sr. called imitations
his nemesis and stressed that they undercut Natives "who make
these things day to day just to eat."
Harwood said the most recent number available
for the amount spent on imitation Alaska Native art nationwide was
$80 million in the mid-1980s.
"I'm sure it's much more than that
now," he added.
Meanwhile, Mayac said, artisans are rarely
satisfied with the prices they get from retailers and are often
intimidated by the sale process.
The awareness campaign has infused some
100,000 brochures and postcards into Alaska organizations that interface
heavily with tourists, such as cruise ship lines and chambers of
The postcards, photos of dolls, baskets
or carvings, pose the question "Genuine Alaskan Native Art?"
Brochures admonish buyers to get all claims in writing on the receipt
for that baleen and ivory basket handwoven by an Inupiaq artisan.
They tell buyers to expect a high price for quality authentic work.
They also mention the state's Silver Hand program, a variation on
the Made in Alaska idea.
So far, 1,000 individual artisans are
certified by the Silver Hand program. To qualify, they must be state
residents, handcraft their wares with mostly natural materials and
be at least a quarter Native, said Saunders McNeill, Native Arts
program director for the state Council on the Arts.
Native craft look-alikes aren't illegal.
But labeling or saying they're Indian- or Eskimo-made can bring
fines or jail time under state and federal law.
Made law in 1961, the Silver Hand program
has no funding, though, McNeill said. Instead, she said, it is subsidized
by the state Council on the Arts. Mayac and Mable Pike, another
artist who spoke, expressed support for the program but frustration
that it hasn't been more effective.
"Why has not everyone in Alaska heard
of us?" Pike asked.
Mayac said several factors go into the
low profile for Alaska Native work. Because ethnic groups around
the state are so culturally distinct and protective of their distinct
traditional arts, they've been hesitant to cooperate on building
a statewide identity.
"That's breaking down very slowly,"
Harwood encouraged anyone who suspects
Alaska Native art fraud to contact his office in Seattle at 1-206-220-6350,
McNeill at the state Council on the Arts at 1-907-269-6610, or the
state attorney general's office in Juneau, 1-907-465-2133.
|On the Web: For more on the FTC's
Native arts education program, see:
Unscrupulous retailers may sell
imitations as if they were authentic and crafts. As a result,
unsuspecting consumers could spend hundreds of dollars for
items that are not actually made by Alaskan Natives. If
you're thinking about buying an Alaskan Native-made art
or craft item, it's wise to invest a little time learning
how these unique and beautiful objects are made and sold.
Council on the Arts
The Alaska State Council on the
Arts, a continuing partnership between the public and private
sectors, champions an enriched atmosphere for lifelong participation
in Alaska's rich artistic diversity.
The Alaska Native
The Alaska Native Heritage Center
is a gathering place that celebrates, perpetuates and shares
Alaska Native cultures. Since opening in 1999, the Center
has become Alaska's premier interactive cultural destination.