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The Battle Over the Indian Arts and Crafts Act

Native regalia for sale at the 2023 Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel, Alaska
Photo by Rhonda McBride
Native regalia for sale at the 2023 Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel, Alaska

There’s passionate debate among tribal leaders, artists, and others, pitting federally recognized tribes against state-recognized tribes as U.S. lawmakers consider new updates to a decades-old law.

This prohibits misrepresentation in marketing American Indian or Alaska Native arts and crafts in the U.S.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs recently held a listening session on The ARTIST Act, which would amend the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

During the public listening session, comments were made on both sides- to allow and exclude state-recognized tribes.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief, Chuck Hoskin Jr., voiced his concerns.

Hoskin’s tribe is the largest federally recognized tribe in the U.S.

“I want to be clear, state-recognized tribes are not Indian tribes," Hoskin said. "So the most important change that lawmakers can make and should make… is to narrow the definition of works of Indian and Indian tribes, so that it ensures that works are only covered if they are produced by Federally recognized tribes.”

Hoskin says his concern comes from an alarming rate of people who have claimed Cherokee heritage when selling their art, who are not citizens of a federally recognized Cherokee tribe.

Liz Wallace, a Navajo silversmith, has helped enforce the Indian Arts and Crafts Act but told lawmakers she was speaking to advocate for the inclusion of terminated California tribes. Wallace says that even though she’s enrolled with the Navajo Nation, she’s a descendant of an artist from a terminated California tribe.

Wallace says narrowing the definition of Indigenous art would limit state tribes who don’t have the resources or paperwork to prove their Indigenous roots.

“There is a lot of fake tribes in California, absolutely," Wallace said, "But right now legitimate tribal people in California who can prove their ancestry are not able to sell legally as Native American made because the state of California has no state recognition process, and a lot of our traditional governments were not all that centralized, so even pre-contact California tribes might not meet current BIA requirements.”

The staff heard arguments on both sides during the more than one-hour-long virtual listening session. Another issue in the discussion was broadening the protection of art to things like literature, playwrights, and poetry.

Hannah Bissett is a Dena'ina woman who is currently enrolled at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Hannah is pursuing an International Studies degree and is president of two student organizations on campus.