A Mighty Few Seek to Protect Native American Art

Indian Art
Photo Copyright: AFSC

While only a small group, volunteers from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Northwest Justice Project, and Foster Pepper are aiming to have a big impact on a serious problem for Native American and Alaska Native artisans: counterfeiters.

Many Native American and Alaska native artists, whose income relies on creating and selling traditional arts and crafts, are unable to compete with counterfeiters who saturate the market with mass produced knock-offs. Beginning in 2010, the lean team of four attorneys and eight non-lawyers (including the AFSC volunteer committee) has attacked this issue using multiple legal and non-legal avenues by educating Native artisans about their rights, developing methods to identify authentic Native American Art, and using intellectual property and nonprofit law.

A number of years ago, in response to the prevalence of counterfeit products, AFSC formed the Indian Arts and Crafts Volunteer Committee. The Committee seeks to help Native artists threatened by products deceptively marketed as Native-made by informing them about their intellectual property rights. Specifically, Native artists are protected by the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA). The legislation, enacted in 1990 and amended in 2010, aims to prevent counterfeit goods from being falsely advertised and sold as authentic native artwork. Unfortunately, there is not an effective enforceable mechanism against violators, so in practice the law only protects consumers.

In response to the inadequacy of the law, AFSC partnered with lawyers from Foster Pepper and Northwest Justice Project with the aim to create a mechanism for stronger enforcement and an authentication process. The team is forming a nonprofit that will administer licensing and enforcement of a certification mark that will tell consumers which goods are authentically Native-made. Ultimately, this new and innovative approach aims to protect Native artisans from counterfeit producers and provide them with economic stability.

This unique partnership, consisting of only a few attorneys, plays a big role in strengthening the native communities and preserving traditional arts and crafts. The partnership reflects the wide-scope of available pro bono projects and showcases how a few committee volunteers and attorneys can create a lasting impact. The PBEye congratulates this mighty effort!