State and federal offices go after fake Native artwork and souvenirs
June 28, 2023
A Ketchikan man agreed to plead guilty earlier this month to federal charges in conjunction with a long-running scheme to sell fake Alaska Native souvenirs manufactured in the Philippines.
Travis Lee Macaset's plea deal follows several other guilty pleas this summer that stem from a scheme to sell mislabeled products out of two businesses in Ketchikan.
"It occurs more often than we would like," said Jack Schmidt, the assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the cases.
With tourism rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic, so is the market for souvenirs. In the shops along Southeast Alaska waterfronts, authentic Alaska-made items sell for many times the cost of mass-manufactured ones created overseas, and the threat of fake products appears to be growing.
"The temptation is always there," Schmidt said.
In the United States, souvenirs sold as authentic products of tribes or tribal members and identified as coming from American Indians and Alaska Natives are specifically protected under the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act.
That law makes it illegal to market and sell artwork falsely labeled as created by an Alaska Native or a Native tribe. The act is enforced by the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which collects complaints and investigates violations.
Breaking that law might seem like a minor crime, said attorney Jacob Adams, but the long-term consequences are large.
"Allowing non-genuine products like that to be out there in the market, and essentially take over a lot of areas, it makes the environment that much more difficult for Indigenous craftspeople to live off of their culture, and that causes many follow-on effects," Adams said.
"If people are unable to make use of their culture, to live off their culture ... then it disincentivizes upcoming generations to pick up those crafts," he said.
Three years ago, Adams represented Sealaska Heritage Institute and several other plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Neiman Marcus, the luxury retailer. At the time, Neiman Marcus was selling a "Ravenstail" coat that the plaintiffs said was the copyrighted work of a Native weaver.
The parties later settled the suit with an undisclosed agreement.
Statistics for the scale of the problem are hard to come by, Adams and others said.
In 2011, the federal Government Accountability Office concluded that it was impossible to gauge the size of the illegal market with available data but noted that of 649 complaints filed with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board between 2006 and 2010, almost a quarter involved apparent violations of federal law.
Anecdotally, officials and artists pointed to the number of prosecutions and actions against the sellers of fake products as a demonstration of both the problem and actions being taken to combat it via the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.
"To a great extent, for the most part, we're seeing more of its use both in the private and the criminal side in recent years, in the past decade or so," Adams said, referring to the law.
This spring, the U.S. Attorney's office in Seattle prosecuted a man who sold fake American Indian and Alaska Native artwork at Pike's Place Market.
Two years ago, the attorney's office in Alaska prosecuted the former owner of the Arctic Treasures gift shop in Anchorage. Seven years ago, four shops were charged by federal prosecutors.
Fines for violations of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act are common, but jail time remains rare, Tribal Business News reported in 2021.
The arts board operates a special investigations unit, Schmidt said, with one investigator based out of Juneau and another out of Anchorage.
"There's a lot of potential for fraud out there," Schmidt said.
The state of Alaska also investigates complaints via its consumer protection unit and in 2022 filed a civil lawsuit against the owners of an Anchorage business, accusing them of shipping Alaska-bought bones and antlers to the Philippines before turning them into knives and other products there.
At the start of this year's tourist season, the Department of Law sent a warning letter to 44 tourism businesses, warning them not to remove foreign country markings from souvenirs. Removing those tags or labels "confuses or misleads consumers into believing that the products were made in Alaska," the letter said.
Patty Sullivan, an attorney and spokesperson for the department, said that the letters weren't intended to target particular businesses and aren't a sign that the state believes those businesses are doing something wrong.
"These are stores that we believe serve the tourist market. There have been allegations that this conduct is happening in stores that serve the tourist market. We may send a second round of letters to additional shops in the future," she said.
Adams said the issue is worth continued attention.
"Many people would think this discussion is trivial, but it's actually essential to the identity of Indigenous groups," Adams said.
"If we are going to support not only the Indigenous people but also celebrate the idea of diversity, we have to protect and secure these types of valuable pieces of identity," he said.
The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.