Fake Indigenous art is a real problem in Vancouver Canada stores
Millions of visitors to Vancouver walk by tourist shops filled with dreamcatchers, inukshuks, mini totem poles and other Indigenous-themed souvenirs each year. But a Discourse investigation reveals that three-quarters of these shops appear to be selling some knock-offs, produced without any collaboration with Indigenous people.
We visited 40 tourist shops in Gastown, on Robson Street, in Chinatown, and on Granville Island. In each shop, we examined a sample of their Indigenous-themed items and asked staff if they could name the products’ artists or nations of origin. In all, we cataloged more than 260 items and traced as many of their origins as we could find.
“It’s all fake,” one shopkeeper told us when we asked him about the souvenir shops in Gastown. Many staff couldn’t tell us where the products come from or how, or if, the artists are paid, often shrugging off our questions with an, “I don’t know.”
Whether or not something is “authentic” can mean different things to different people. Informed by the research of Indigenous artists and activists in B.C., across Canada and in Australia, we considered an item to be authentic if it was produced by or in collaboration with Indigenous people and, if so, whether they got credit and compensation for their work.
If we couldn’t verify an item’s authenticity despite repeated attempts — including direct outreach to stores, manufacturers and suppliers, and studying its label and its manufacturer’s website to determine whether it was produced by or in collaboration with Indigenous people — we considered it inauthentic.
Of the 260 items we cataloged, nearly 60 percent lacked any information about the artist or their home community; many seemed mass-produced without any input from Indigenous artists at all.
So we tried to follow up directly with the manufacturers, suppliers, and importers listed on the products’ labels. About one-third of the 40 companies we called and emailed didn’t reply to our repeated requests for information. Some replied but did not tell us who produced their items or what relationship, if any, they have with Indigenous artists. Others told us they have no relationship with Indigenous artists, yet see no harm in selling or manufacturing Indigenous-themed products.
And nearly a dozen manufacturers told us they collaborate with Indigenous artists and were able to name the artists and their background and tell us how the artists are paid.
After a five-month investigation, we concluded that only 25 percent of the stores we checked in Vancouver exclusively sold authentic items that we could confirm were produced by or in collaboration with Indigenous artists, who were credited and compensated for their work.
In 12.5 percent of the stores we checked, we could not confirm that any of the items we sampled were produced in collaboration with Indigenous artists.
The majority of the tourist shops we checked — 62.5 percent — sold both inauthentic and authentic products, nestled side by side on their shelves.
Artist not surprised
The findings of our investigation don’t surprise Shain Jackson, a Coast Salish artist who has run Spirit Works Limited for the last 12 years. His company employs up to 10 people making traditional cultural pieces like bentwood boxes and wooden jewelry for sale in tourist hotspots like Gastown and Granville Island.
“I was hoping that it might have changed a bit more,” he says, after hearing our results.
A study commissioned by B.C.’s Aboriginal Tourism Association in 2010 found that 88 percent of small Indigenous-themed souvenirs sold in Vancouver was created and sold with no participation from Indigenous artists at all.
“It would be nice to make out — to be able to not just eke by as an Indigenous company — but to actually make a good living, to actually prosper,” Jackson says. Hopefully, that’ll come someday, he adds.
Spirit Works owner Shain Jackson peers at his late grandmother's traditional hand-woven baskets inside a display case at his studio in North Vancouver. Wawmeesh Hamilton/The Discourse
The demand for Indigenous products and experiences is high, according to B.C. Tourism’s latest strategic plan released in March 2019. There are 401 Indigenous businesses offering authentic cultural experiences across the province, the report says, which are a vital part of B.C.’s $18 billion tourism industry. Global demand for Indigenous tourism, it continues, “has given Indigenous peoples in B.C. an unprecedented opportunity to grow and showcase their living cultures and heritage.”
But whether that opportunity is cascading back to Indigenous communities is questionable, says Keith Henry, president, and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.
According to Statistics Canada’s most recent numbers, tourists in B.C. spent $1.3 billion on a variety of products in 2014, including souvenirs, clothing and gifts, and $8.3 billion across Canada.“I can tell you right now, there’s absolutely nowhere near that kind of number… filtering back to local Indigenous artists,” Henry says. Although Indigenous artwork would likely account for “a significant portion of that overall $8.3 billion” being spent nationwide, he estimates.
Control of our cultural symbols is essential, say artists
To Jackson, the cost of imitation souvenirs siphoning profit out of the tourism market goes beyond lost wages to authentic Indigenous artists; it goes to the heart of the art’s significance.
Indigenous art, Jackson explains, is like a blueprint of his culture. It’s how laws and history have been passed down for thousands of years, and it’s the only hard copy of their oral traditions.
Imitation products, in contrast, are copied without an understanding of their significance and “if you don’t understand what it means and you try and copy it,” he says, “it’s losing its meaning.”
That’s why it’s so important for Indigenous artists to have control over their own art, says Kwakwaka’wakw artist Lou-ann Neel.
Imitations of Neel’s great-great-grandfather’s totem pole line the shelves of tourist shops all over the city, including one shop just a few meters from his iconic Thunderbird House Post in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. “It pains me to see some of the really poor reproductions of it,” she says.
“We have to tell our story,” Neel says. Whether that’s through traditional practices or the contemporary market, “that’s our prerogative,” she continues. “But we’re not in control of that and we haven’t been in control of it probably — well, since the beginning.”
Indigenous souvenirs have been part of the tourism market since the early 1900s, emerging from an era when society saw Indigenous people as a dying culture, she says.
At the time, the Canadian government’s Indian Act was several decades old and residential schools were in full operation across the country trying to stamp out Indigenous culture and assimilate future generations.
It’s almost as if we became the souvenirs, Neel says.
But “we’re still here,” she points out, trying to rebuild what the government has broken apart.
Having control of cultural symbols is critical to sovereignty and reconciliation, says Alysa Procida, executive director of the Inuit Art Foundation.
Inukshuks and Inuit art has been used as a “tool of cultural diplomacy,” she says and marketed to an international audience. But she doubts many tourists know that the inukshuk is a cultural symbol that originates with Inuit.
Almost every tourist shop we investigated had a version of the inukshuk, some carved from jade, others from glass or stone, still others made into objects like earrings or paperweights. One store had several inuksuit playing a game of ice hockey on a frozen pond.
“I certainly think that it’s incumbent on people who are doing the selling, and also doing the purchasing, to really try to develop relationships with Indigenous artists and communities,” Procida says.
Because “having the choice and the self-determination to say, ‘I’ve made this work and it’s for sale’ — or ‘I authorize that this thing, it’s for sale’ — is critical to sovereignty over those cultural symbols and heritage,” she says.
It’s ‘just a souvenir,’ says non-Indigenous sculptor
Like several of the manufacturers and distribution companies that we called, KC Gifts does not collaborate with Indigenous people in the production of their Indigenous-themed souvenirs. And the company’s co-owner doesn’t see a problem with that.
“Anyone that sells art that’s a reproduction of something, I think that you know, there’s a market for that. And we’re certainly open about things,” says Tammy, who co-owns the import and wholesale business in the southeast B.C. town of Cranbrook.
Tammy says her company does not work with Indigenous people to create its goods now, though it has worked with artists in the past.
Now, her company imports some of its souvenir items — like make-your-own dreamcatcher kits — from China. It also sells totem poles made of polyresin that, she says, are not manufactured by Indigenous people but cost much less than buying an authentic version.
We heard similar statements about the market for affordable souvenirs from company representatives across North America, many saying it should be obvious to a consumer which items are not authentic. Some said the market for real Indigenous products targets a completely different clientele and price range.
The Jade Vancouver store in Gastown sells totem poles and inukshuk carvings ranging in price from $14.95 to $17,600. Co-owner Brian Simmons says he makes clear to his customers that the majority of their carvings and jewelry are made in China, though the jade is locally sourced in B.C. He says he joined the company 11 years ago so he can’t speak to the products’ original designs, but he couldn’t point to any Inuit artists that the company currently works with or pays royalties to now.
“We have always encouraged indigenous people to use BC Jade for their amazing artwork,” he later added in an email. “Unfortunately, not many carve jade as the stone is too hard. If the opportunity came about and they did present carvings or jewelry that were a good fit for our store we certainly would be happy to feature them.”
When asked in a phone interview if cultural appropriation can be harmful, he said, “I mean, there are definitely going to be — there are — issues with that, for sure. Again, we try not to get into that too much.”
Markus Peter, an Austrian sculptor based in Quebec who carves and sells Indigenous-themed masks and totem poles through his company Master sculpture, told us his products are “just a souvenir” with no “religious” significance. He says his small souvenir totems are based on Haida designs, and he describes them as a “very commercialized item” that you find “all over in British Columbia.” He used to hire Indigenous people to paint some of his poles, he notes, though he doesn’t anymore.
“If it works for the market, then we have no problems at all,” says Karen Davidson, a manager at the retail supplier Royal Specialty Sales, whose headquarters are in Toronto.
“The more Canadiana we can get, we would be very open to it.”
“I’m sure, if you’ve been into a lot of stores, you’ll find a lot of items have a certain price point,” she told us in a phone interview. “And once you get over that, then you start going into a very unique market where people are looking for more authentic things.”
“And usually we find the people that are looking for that type of thing will prefer to actually go to the Indian reservation and purchase products made and designed by” Indigenous people directly, she said. Whereas souvenir shops often “just want to keep the prices down because that’s where their market is.”
Some companies committed to authentic work, but struggle to compete
Of the 80 stores and companies we investigated, about 20 told us they collaborate directly with Indigenous artists to get their designs to market.
At Boma Manufacturing, headquartered in North Vancouver, it depends on what the artists decide to bring to the table. “Sometimes they bring me just a drawing, sometimes they bring me a finished piece, and then we go from there,” says owner Michael Mange.
Boma Manufacturing is part of a group of family businesses, which includes Magenta Designs and Panabo Sales. Together, these three businesses sell a wide range of products featuring Indigenous designs, from eyeglasses and shot glasses to carvings and clothing.
“Panabo’s products are all royalty paid,” says Mange, pointing out that the artists’ names and bios appear on the labels and on the company’s website.
One of those artists is Bill Helin, a Tsimshian and Norweigan artist who has been making Indigenous art for almost 40 years. Helin shares his designs with companies like Panabo, who prints his work onto products, like oven mitts and clothing, then send him royalties. His next project is a series of totem poles.
Selling his designs to companies for reproduction is part of what’s allowed Helin to remain working in the arts for so long, he says. “It’s just the way that the market is going. It saved me when I don’t sell a high-end piece of artwork and I’ve got a piece of jewelry sitting around for a while. It’s nice to get a gift, a cheque in the mail from my royalties.”
Likewise, representatives of other BC-based manufacturers and designers like Nations Creations, Native Northwest and Chloë Angus told us they either work directly with artists to create products or they purchase designs directly from them. They then pay artists upfront for their work, or through royalties after the products sell.
All of these companies list the names of the artists they work with on their labels or websites and often include the artist’s heritage and a brief biography, as well as information about how the artist is paid.
Helin’s had both good and bad experiences working with manufacturers and says he’s seen artists being taken advantage of when it comes to payments and getting credit for their work. So when he’s deciding which companies to work with, he does his research by asking other artists about their experiences. It’s also important to know what information is being told to customers once the products go on store shelves, he says.
“It’s all about labeling,” he says. Ideally, labels should include the artist’s name, heritage and an indication to the consumer of where royalties are going. For Helin, “even having my signature on it is important because it states personal commitment from me directly.”
Artina’s says it purchases the hand-crafted jewelry that it sells — including many pieces created by Indigenous artists in B.C — directly from the artists, who can come into the Gastown shop and get paid on site.
When The Discourse visited this shop and asked about the jewelry in its glass display cases, staff handed us small cards with the artists’ bios. “We have all of their information on the specifics of the First Nations they would be, which tribe they are from, where they are living now, who they trained with, typically with a photo as well,” says store owner Shelley Hird.
Nine other stores we visited and whose wares we sampled, sold only authentic products that displayed both the artists’ name and heritage. Staff could often answer how the artists were paid, as well.
At Cedar Root Gallery, which describes itself as the only Indigenous-owned and -operated retail store in the Lower Mainland, carvings with certificates of authenticity line the walls. The gallery’s owner, Nadia Belokopitov, who is Haida, clearly displays information with all her products, large or small.
She says she vets each company and their products before stocking her shelves, by reaching out to artists directly to ask if they feel they’re being treated fairly. “I ask them, ‘Are you happy with the money you’re getting, you know, from your royalties?’ They all tell me yes they are, and then we sell their products that are mass-manufactured but with their art on it.”
Despite some supportive stores, many of the artists we spoke with in the course of our investigation say they still struggle to compete in this market.
“It’s a really tough business,” says Pam Baker (Himikalas), a Squamish-Kwaguilth artist who runs Copperknot Jewelry from her home on the Capilano reserve. She’s committed to keeping production in her community — even converting rooms in her home into spaces for jewelry-making and fashion design.
But trying to compete with mass-produced fakes — and stay afloat as a company that creates local, authentic, Indigenous products — is challenging, she says.
“It gets quite frustrating because those Native artists and designers cannot compete with the prices, because a lot of their products are stuff made overseas,” she says.
For many of the artists and staff we interviewed at stores committed to selling authentic pieces, educating the public is key to competing with inauthentic items in this souvenir market.
From the companies that manufacture the products, to the stores that sell them, to the consumers who buy them — people need to learn how to recognize authentic pieces and support Indigenous artists and the genuine cultural expressions they share, they say.
This story is part of a series on fake Indigenous art in the tourism industry. It was edited by Robin Perelle. Cloe Logan, Wawmeesh Hamilton, Chris Tait, Uytae Lee, Zachary Kershman, and Brittany Hobson contributed research. The Discourse is a community-funded journalism outlet committed to listening deeply to communities whose voices have been too seldom heard in mainstream media. To help us keep telling stories that matter to urban Indigenous communities, click here now.