Though the art of making rugs is integral to Navajo society, the production and profits of their artistic traditions have fallen to non-Native companies and factories. Now, Native artists are fighting to retain their people’s cultures and traditions.
The land and the sheep, with their wool, belong to the Navajo women. The weaving looms belong to the Navajo women. The designs, patterns and inspirations for their woven rugs belong to the women, too. The process of Navajo rug making, both intrinsic and physical, have flowed through the women of the tribe for generations.
However, prior to 1935, authentic rugs produced and sold by Navajos were copied and mass-produced by non-Native businesses. These businesses usually made rugs in factories outside the U.S., only to import the rugs and sell each as a genuine piece of Native work. The market for Native art was flooded with fakes. But, the income these women used to generate from their rugs was as dry as the deserts on their Native land.
Navajo rug makers were not alone. For decades, Native American artists have seen the work they do forged by non-Natives. Large profits expunged with monetary gain went to individual businesses rather than to Native artists. This fraud was addressed by federal legislation in the 1935 Indian Arts and Crafts Act and then amended in a 1990 Act; these laws are crucial in the fight for the rights of Native Artists.
Suzan Harjo, Cheyenne Muscogee, has been fighting for rights of Native Americans for decades. Through her non-profit organization, the Morning Star Institute, she advocates for Native people’s rights both culturally and traditionally.
“The fake Indians are taking over the fields and kind of edging out a lot of the real Indians,” Harjo, director of the Morning Star Institute, said. “They [non-Indians] are standing in the way of income, they’re gatekeepers, they are in positions to set policies.”
The original act, passed during the Great Depression, was aimed at stimulating income for Native artists, where for many living on reservations wage-earning jobs were scarce. For the artists to benefit from the sale of their goods, the frauds in the market had to disappear. To accomplish this those who created, the Federal government under the 1935 legislation could prosecute those who promoted or sold fraudulent Native art.
But, in the 50 years following the 1935 act, not one count of fraud was ever brought to a courtroom by U.S. attorneys.
The 1990 act stiffened penalties and made the prosecution process of selling fraudulent items easier. Fines increased dramatically. A business marketing Native art as authentic, when it is not, could face fines of up to $1 million for a first offense. With a heightened awareness to the issue on both sides, the buyers and sellers of Native art, the 1990 act was more meant to be effective.
However, according to a 2005 report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG), the law does little to protect Indian artists. The report said the law was “practically unenforceable and does not provide adequate authority to the IACB [Indian Arts and Crafts Board].” The study also concluded the IACB’s enforcement couldn’t show a “measurable decrease in counterfeit activity.”
So, even with stiffened penalties the revised act still ran into enforcement issues. The enforcement of the law however, is still up to federal authorities in the case of the Navajo Nation.
Kathleen Bowman, the director of the public defenders office and an attorney for the Navajo Nation, said the law is only prosecuted on the federal level. Since the law isn’t codified into Navajo Nation law, she’s not in a position to use it.
“I’m sure people are prosecuted,” she said. However, she doesn’t bring any cases of enforcement to the federal courts.
One aspect of the law, which some see as a positive is the shifted control from the U.S. government to the tribes to designate who was qualified to represent a Native American artist.
“It [the act] meant that Native artists could actually make a living doing their own art and could do their own innovations on their own … [and] make their own trends in Native art without those things being dictated by non-Native people,” Harjo said.
The amended act also gave tribes more sovereign control. They could determine who could promote his or herself as a Native artist.
“It bows to tribal sovereignty,” Harjo said. “The only test in the law is whether or not the person is Indian.”
Even though some tribes still use the blood quantum system to determine tribal membership, others have transitioned to a different standard. In this process a person must only show he or she has descended from other Native people.
“The minute you say blood quantum it injects race,” Harjo said. “I think we are on more solid ground if we stick to the political distinctions because most of the federal Indian law is based on political distinction. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act is fine with that. It doesn’t say quarter blood or impose any kind of standard; it just says you have to be a citizen or a member of the tribe.”
With the amendments, the 1990 act continues to support three things: authenticity, economic support for Native artists, and protection for collectors to know they are buying legitimate Native creations.
For the Navajo rug making community, support for authentic rug making is coming from inside the Navajo community. Adopt an Elder program, a non-profit program, provides elders with partners from younger generations to support them in their traditional way of life. The support through the program is twofold or even tri-fold. Authenticity is one part; more than 500 elders are supported by the program to teach younger generations about traditional ways of rug weaving. This supports the continued traditional ways of Navajo rug weaving. The final part is the support of elders within the community. As the old ways of life on the land becomes more obsolete, the younger people paired with the elders bring them food, firewood or other supplies at their request. The reconnection with the past helps all three of these aspects come full circle to support a larger community of Native artists.