Seattle Artists Charged With Faking Native American Heritage for Profit

by Matthew Memrick
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(Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Federal officials charged two Seattle artists with faking Native American heritage for profit.

On Friday, the men got charged while pretending to be Native American carvers while selling their work at downtown galleries in the metropolitan city.

Lewis Rath and Jerry Van Dyke, also known as Jerry Witten, violated the Indian Arts and Crafts Act separately. The law prohibits misrepresentation in selling American Indian or Alaska Native arts and crafts, authorities.

Federal law enforcement officials said Rath claimed to be a San Carlos Apache Tribe member out of Arizona, while Van Dyke said he was a Nez Perce Tribe member from Idaho.

Congress passed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act in 1990, and controversy has occurred with the law over the years. The law could go after craftsmen and women who claim to be Native Americans but are not involved in tribes with fines or imprisonment.  

Two Men Made Items For Seattle Galleries

The craftsmen said they made masks, totem poles, and pendants in 2019, according to The New York Post. Two galleries, Raven’s Nest Treasure in Pike Place Market and at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop along Seattle’s waterfront, sold the merchandise, not knowing if the crafts were authentic.

“By flooding the market with counterfeit Native American art and craftwork, these crimes cheat the consumer, undermine the economic livelihood of Native American artists, and impair Indian culture,” Edward Grace, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, said in a news release.

On Friday, the men reportedly appeared in federal court, and their attorneys declined to comment.

Rath faces four counts of misrepresentation of Indian-produced goods, while Van Dyke faces two counts of the same crime. 

Rath also had unlawful possession of golden eagle parts and migratory bird parts violations.

Native American Merchandise Under Scrutiny

Complaints tied to the men got to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, an Interior Department agency that promotes Native art. The group opened up a probe, and two years later, officials charged the men.

Raven’s Nest Treasure owner Matthew Steinbrueck told investigators he believed the men. He said he was not suspicious of their tribal memberships and claimed ignorance over counterfeit merchandise.

Steinbrueck said he had worked to sell the Native American crafts on “good faith for many years.”

The owner told The Associated Press that “our whole mission is to represent authentic Native art. We’ve had more than 100 authentic Native artists. I’ve always just taken their word for it.”

Van Dyke pinned the blame on Steinbrueck, saying that the owner knew the work was not Native American. But Steinbrueck denied the statement.

Officials did not charge both galleries in the case.

Indigenous rights attorney Gabriel Galanda, who belongs to the Round Valley Tribes of Northern California, said these shops should constantly check backgrounds to verify the heritage of the creators.

 “There has to be some diligence done by these galleries,” he told the Associated Press.

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