New Mexico Considers Legislation to Protect Indian Artists

Wind River News. Lander, Wyoming
Feb 16, 2006.p. 12

A proposal being considered by the New Mexico Legislature could be a big step toward making things easier American Indian artists who rely on their crafts to make a living, according to published report.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom's bill would set aside $125,000 for the state Licensing and Regulation Department to study and propose rules to establish a certification stamp for arts and crafts made by Indians in New Mexico. The aim is to boost sales and ensure that the expanding market isn't tainted by fakes.

One other state, Alaska, sponsors a similar program that protects the work of native artists and guarantees buyers that items bearing a "Silver Hand" seal were handcrafted by an Alaska Eskimo, Aleut or other Indian artist.

The New Mexico legislation stems from complaints about imitation art being sold in Santa Fe and Gallup, which is known as a hub for collectible jewelry produced by artists from nearby Zuni Pueblo, the Navajo Nation and the Hopi reservation in eastern Arizona.

A deadline is looming, though: The Legislature adjourns Thursday and the money to study the certification plan is tied up in a budget bill that has been criticized by Gov. Bill Richardson.

State and federal laws already prohibit misrepresenting fake Indian art or jewelry as authentic, but Lundstrom said those laws aren't enough. "It's a big problem. There's no way to regulate it," said the Democrat from Gallup.

The Indian art market -- with estimated sales of more than $1 billion nationally -- affects tourism in New Mexico as well as the livelihood of Indian artists and the shopkeepers who sell their work.

Squash blossom necklaces and bolo ties can be found at roadside stands across the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Trading posts along historic Route 66 in western New Mexico sell baskets and rugs as well as jewelry from the Zuni and Hopi tribes.

Shops on the plazas in Albuquerque and Santa Fe are filled with fetish necklaces, silver bracelets, rings, sand paintings, pottery and kachinas. Some of the items come with cards that read: "Certificate of authenticity. Guaranteed Native American made." Jessica Martinez, who manages the Covered Wagon in Old Town, said guarantees like that attract buyers. "Anything we have, we try to sell with a picture of the artist," she said. "The one that doesn't have the picture of the artist who did it usually stays on the shelf longer."

New Mexico Tourism Secretary Michael Cerletti said Indian culture is one of the top reasons people visit the state. He said it would be important to him as a consumer to know that work being billed as Indian is truly that. "With the (certification) stamp, that is like icing on the cake," he said. "It would be like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval."

Tom Baker, owner of Tanner Chaney Gallery in Albuquerque, agreed but noted that such a program wouldn't work unless it was backed by "the tooth of the law." He used the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act as an example. The law, passed in 1990, prohibits sellers from misrepresenting imitation art or jewelry as genuine. "It's a wonderful act and their heart was in the right place when they did it, but there's no money to fund it," he said. "And unfortunately, we've got bigger fish to fry right now."

Michael Garcia, a lapidary artist and vice chairman of the Souhwester Association for Indian Arts, said previous attempts at a certification program in New Mexico didn't work. "To me, the problem is not with identifying the art and who makes it. The problem is the fakes. They need to stop it at the borders," said Garcia, who often travels the world to promote his work and the industry.

Garcia stopped making jewelry in the late 1970s because imported imitation pieces had flooded the U.S. market. After the Indian Arts and Crafts Act was passed and people became more educated about the market, he started up again and is now teaching his 13-year-old son the art.

Still, Garcia hears of Indian work being copied. He had an instance of a flea market vendor using his name to sell work that wasn't his. "I call it ripping off a culture," he said of the imitations.

A key to stopping the market from being infiltrated by fakes is awareness, he said. "Know who you're buying from. Buy direct from the artist. If you buy from a gallery, ask where the artist is from," he said.

Garcia said he is working with the Indian arts association, which puts on the annual Santa Fe Indian Market, to get artists more involved with museums and galleries across the country to open markets and educate people. The Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which oversees the federal act, is working with state attorneys general on brochures aimed at protecting authentic Indian art.

Garcia. Baker and others pointed out that Santa Fe, Albuquerque's Old Town and other tourist destinations would not be what they are today without art made by Indians and other creative New Mexicans.

"My customers come here for the art, especially the art," said Baker, who has been in the business more than 30 years. "It's huge. How do you put a price tag on it?"