Fake Native American art is threatening indigenous livelihoods, and the real craftspeople want the US government to step up its enforcement of a law prohibiting sales of counterfeit tribal art.

At a recent US Senate field hearing in Santa Fe, New Mexico near the massive Navajo reservation, Native American artists described the problem to Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, the latter of whom is vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. 

US Fish and Wildlife Service

"It disturbs me that people throughout the world are misappropriating our traditional designs and profiting from it," said traditional Navajo weaver Joyce Begay-Foss.

"Time and time again, I hear from my fellow Indian artists about their art and craft work being knocked off by non-Indians and sold as Indian made," Southern Cheyenne artist Harvey Pratt told the lawmakers.  "When Indian artists are undercut by the sale of fake Indian art, the integrity of authentic Indian art and artists suffers.  We are being robbed economically, culturally, and spiritually."

It's bad enough when companies misappropriate indigenous designs to make items in overseas factories, falsely labeling them as genuine.  But some of the counterfeit goods are finding their way into retailers in Santa Fe and other cities where people have traditionally gone to find the real thing. 

"With all these knock-offs that have flooded the market, Indians can't sell their product," Mr. Pratt said.  "So what ends up happening is that artists just quit making art, because they can no longer make a living doing it. And what this means is that they lose touch with their traditions."

In 2015, federal agents raided a business selling items made in the Philippines falsely labelled as made by American Indians.  Such counterfeiting cuts into one of the few income streams for indigenous reservations, which are some of the most impoverished places in the US.

"The Indian market itself has an US$80 Million economic impact just from that one-week period on the state of New Mexico and the city of Sante Fe," said Dallin Maybee of the Southwestern Association of Indian Arts (SWAIA), who is also an attorney with Northern Arapaho and Seneca heritage.  "And that's just here in Sante Fe.  The Native American art industry generates millions of dollars a year throughout North America."

The artists, artisans, and their advocates are asking the US government to update the Indian Arts and Crafts Act to add a provision that force counterfeiters to forfeit any revenues made from fraudulent art.  They also want to empower Federal Agents to use wiretaps during investigations to catch retailers and dealers who are knowingly mislabeling foreign knock-offs.

"This rampant and shocking illegal trade is destabilizing the Native art market, devaluing Native American art, and forcing Native Americans to quit their crafts - and it must be stopped," said Senator Udall.  "We must take action to stop this assault on artists' ability to carry on deeply significant traditions that have helped hold families and communities together for generations."