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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 18, 2002 - Issue 61


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Native Art 101

by Sarana Schell Anchorage Daily News
credits: Photo by Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News
A 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 commerce.

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," Mayac said.

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:

Alaskan Native Art
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.


Alaska State 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 Heritage Center
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.

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