In a gift shop in Southeast Alaska, I watched as a woman who said she was an artist’s assistant sanded a Tlingit-style carving. When I asked who made the carving, the artist said, “It’s my work.” At the time, that seemed like an odd way of putting it. Only later did I learn from one of the artist’s former assistants that his “work” involved ordering the carvings from Southeast Asia and shipping them to Alaska, where he hired locals to pretend to be working on them in the shop. Journalists have repeatedly documented shops fraudulently removing “Made in Taiwan” stickers and the like, and replacing them with “Made in Alaska.” One journalist found a whole village in Bali carving Alaska Native designs out of ivory, whalebone, and other materials sent from Alaska.
Good estimates don’t exist of the amount of counterfeit Alaska Native art sold annually, but authorities have put it close to $100 million. That’s money taken from Alaska Bush economies where jobs in the cash economy are virtually nonexistent and prices for essentials such as fuel and housing are astronomical. Buying fake Native art is cultural and financial theft from subsistence hunters and fishermen who can least afford it. And besides, who wants to come home with an Eskimo mask made in Bali?
You can avoid being scammed if you pay attention. Ask questions before you buy. Any reputable art dealer will provide you with a biography of the artist who created an expensive work. Ask specifically if that artist actually carved the piece: Some Native artists have sold their names and designs to wholesalers who produce knockoffs. Price is another tip-off. An elaborate mask is more likely to cost $1,000 than $100. Another indicator is the choice of materials; most soapstone carvings are not made in Alaska. Even less expensive craftwork should bear the name of the person who made it, and the shop owner should be able to tell you how he or she acquired the item.
Another caution, for international visitors: do not buy products made from marine mammals, such as walrus ivory, whalebone, or sealskin. Except for antiques, export of these materials is illegal, so you won’t be able to take your purchase home. (You may need a permit to export other wildlife items as well.)
The Alaska State Council on the Arts (tel. 907/269-6610) authenticates Native arts and crafts with a silver hand label, which assures you it was made by the hands of an Alaska Native with Alaskan materials. But the program isn’t universally used, so the absence of the label doesn’t mean the work definitely isn’t authentic. Other labels aren’t worth much: An item could say ALASKA MADE even if only insignificant assembly work happened here. Of course, in Bush Alaska and in some urban shops, you can buy authentic work directly from craftspeople. Buying in Native-owned co-ops is also safe.
Another program covers any item made within the state, both Native and non-Native. The logo of a mother bear and cub (www.madeinalaska.org) indicates that a state contractor has determined that the product was made in Alaska, when possible with Alaskan materials. Non-Natives produce Alaskan crafts of ceramics, wood, or fabric, but not plastic — if it’s plastic, it probably wasn’t made here. Again, price is an indicator: As with anywhere else in the United States, the cheapest products come from Asia.
You can learn about and buy authentic work from the Alaska Native Arts Foundation, a nonprofit with online shopping at www.alaskanativearts.org and a brick-and-mortar gallery in Anchorage. Sealaska Heritage Foundation offers a nonprofit website selling work by Southeast Alaska Natives at www.alaskanativeartists.com. Even if you don’t buy anything from these sites, taking a look will give you an idea of what real Native art looks like and how much it should cost, so you can be a better shopper when you get to Alaska.
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