Who is the Indian Arts and Crafts Act supposed to protect?

Savannah Maher Oct 11, 2023
Heard on:
A Navajo woman weaves a traditional rug. Non-Native artists and businesses who falsely market art as “Native-made” face fines of up to $250,000 or jail time under IACA Getty Images

Who is the Indian Arts and Crafts Act supposed to protect?

Savannah Maher Oct 11, 2023
Heard on:
A Navajo woman weaves a traditional rug. Non-Native artists and businesses who falsely market art as “Native-made” face fines of up to $250,000 or jail time under IACA Getty Images

Each wampum bracelet, pendant and pair of earrings that Aquinnah Wampanoag artist Elizabeth James-Perry creates is hand-crafted and unique.

“This is from the quahog shell in Massachusetts. It’s a hard shell clam from the ocean,” she said, explaining her craft to one potential buyer at this year’s Santa Fe Indian Market. “We carve it and we make beautiful beaded pieces for adornment as well as treaty and record keeping. It’s a rich tradition.” 

A rich and centuries-old tradition that James-Perry said is protected by the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a truth-in-advertising law that safeguards Indigenous artists’ livelihoods against fraudulent competition. But one proposed update to that law has been making James-Perry uneasy: It would open the door for Native artists to outsource some labor to non-Native workers and still market their art as Native-made. 

“That’s really challenging,” she said. “Because some of us do, and expect to do, all of our work ourselves.” 

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act, or IACA, was first enacted in 1935 as part of the Indian New Deal. It created a federal board to “promote the economic welfare of Indian tribes and the Indian wards of the Government” during the Great Depression and prevent false marketing of counterfeit goods as Indian art. A 1990 update enhanced criminal penalties for that false marketing. Artists and businesses who misrepresent products as “Indian-made” face stiff fines and even jail time.

The Department of the Interior is looking to modernize the law. Earlier this year it released a draft revision of IACA regulations that proposes expanding IACA protections to Native Hawaiian artists and to new disciplines, including digital media, performing and culinary arts. But traditional artists like Elizabeth James-Perry are most concerned about Interior’s proposal to, for the first time, explicitly allow “non-Indian labor to work on Indian Products in limited situations.” 

“I recognize those concerns,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community. “But we want to make sure that we’re also recognizing the diversity of art in Indian Country and how vibrant it is.” 

Newland said Interior is trying to adapt the law to better serve an evolving Native art economy that includes much more than traditional, handmade items. 

“That is not to diminish the talented, brilliant people who make handmade items,” Newland said, but added that “Indian people have a right to define art in each generation. It’s not static.” 

Tahnee Ahtone, a Kiowa museum curator and textile artist, said many contemporary Native artists already rely on outside production to help them realize their creative vision and grow their businesses. 

“I support [Interior’s proposal] because for myself, I would see it as an investment,” she said. “I need that non-Native money to help me produce my art.” 

Ahtone sews dresses, skirts and powwow regalia out of satin material printed with her ledger drawings

“I pay an Austrian guy to print my original artwork onto the fabric, but it’s only because he’s put up the $150,000 for the printing machine,” Ahtone said. That’s money and equipment she doesn’t have.

Ahtone said printing her designs onto fabric is just a small part of her overall creative process and outsourcing it doesn’t make her, or her artwork, less Indian. 

But skeptics say they’re not worried about independent Native artists getting incidental production help. They’re worried about corporate abuse of Interior’s proposed new regulations. 

Dallin Maybee, former director of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, is one of those skeptics. He’s Seneca and Northern Arapaho and an artist himself, known for his beadwork, paintings and ledger art. As Maybee understands Interior’s proposal, it would allow Native-led companies to market mass-produced items as Native art. 

“They’d need 50% Native ownership of the company to be certified as an ‘Indian business’ [under IACA] but they could still use almost all non-Native manufacturing,” Maybee said. “And what’s funny is, that flies completely in the face of the intention of the original act.” 

Maybee said IACA was designed to protect traditional, independent artists’ livelihoods, but that this proposed update serves a new kind of Native artist who has been able to build a successful brand around their work and scale up production. 

“Don’t get me wrong, I am all about contemporary Native artists finding a space,” but Maybee said those artists’ growing need for brand protection should be addressed in a new law, rather than folded into IACA. 

“Keep it separate. Because [allowing non-Native production] blurs the line between brand and production, especially mass production, and the creation of fine art as a vehicle of cultural preservation,” Maybee said.  

Interior’s proposal isn’t set in stone. Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland said the agency is reviewing public comments and going “back to the drawing board” before releasing a new set of proposed updates by early next year. 

Wampum artist Elizabeth James-Perry can see how allowing Native artists the flexibility to outsource labor “could be useful in some contexts,” and she doesn’t want to gatekeep the next generation of Native creatives. But she’s not completely sold, and fears too much commercial competition could crowd traditional artists out of the market.

“There’s a part of me that understands Native art as a means of survivance,” James-Perry said. 

The only studio help she accepts is from her 7-year-old nephew, who likes to watch her carve wampum beads. She hopes learning about the craft will help him stay connected to his identity and his homeland.   

“When that becomes a broader thing of a lot of non-Native production, how is that helping Native communities and people?” James-Perry wondered. “I think I would just need to know a lot more. At the end of the day, is it helping us to sustain ourselves?” 

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