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House weighs crackdown on Indian crafts violators

WASHINGTON – Rep. Ed Pastor and tribal testifiers painted a picture before the House Committee on Natural Resources Dec. 2 on why the Indian Arts and Crafts Act should be strengthened.

The Arizona Democrat is sponsoring amendments to the 1990 law that would heighten criminal ramifications over non-Indians who illegally counterfeit Indian artistry. Such crimes end up robbing tribal citizens of economic viability, as well as their traditions and heritage, he testified.

He said the amendments, known as H.R. 725, are “a small but important legislative fix” that will better assist Indian artists, entrepreneurs and collectors.

The FBI is currently charged with investigating and curbing counterfeiting crimes, but tribal members have long noted that the agency’s enforcement of the law has not been a priority, nor have enough resources been available to do so.

A previous federal report has indicated that Indian artistry is a $1 billion industry annually and up to 60 percent of purported Indian crafts in New Mexico alone may be counterfeit.

Under the bill, all federal officers would be able to perform investigations involving misrepresented Indian goods.

Pastor noted that the Senate acted in July under bipartisan leadership to pass similar amendments, S. 151, by unanimous consent. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, both Republicans of Arizona, pushed for passage.

“Where have we been?” asked Rep. Nick Rahall, the Democratic chairman of the committee from West Virginia, upon learning of the Senate’s previous action.

Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary of Law Enforcement, Security and Emergency Management Larry Parkinson testified that the department supports the bill.

He noted, too, that Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board has a staff of 12 and a $1 million annual budget, yet the problem is estimated to exceed $1 billion annually.

Rahall asked Parkinson if the board had enough resources to fulfill the requirements of the law.

“It’s not what we would like, but we do the best with what we have,” the Interior official said, later estimating that there have only been three prosecutions in the last decade or so under the law.

Shan Lewis, president of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, estimated before the committee that millions of dollars are diverted each year from Indian artists and tribes by individuals and companies that reproduce and sell counterfeit goods in the United States on the open market, internationally and over the Internet.

He said the individuals and companies are rarely, if ever, held accountable. For that reason, he said the extent of the problem and the degree to which it impacts Indian artists is difficult to assess.

Michael Garcia, president of the Indian Arts and Crafts Association, testified that he fears the continuing loss of integrity in this field will ultimately result in the large-scale demise of authentic, Indian arts.

He requested a Government Accountability Office study to unearth more exact figures of the cost of counterfeiting.

“Something needs to be done,” Garcia said. “We need some dignity.”

Rahall said the committee would seriously consider the request.