Seattle Artists Charged By Feds For Falsely Claiming to Be Native American

Seattle Artists Charged By Feds For Falsely Claiming to Be Native American

A pair of Seattle artists are facing federal charges after they allegedly posed as Native Americans and tried to pass off their work as tribal at a downtown location.

The Associated Press explained:

Lewis Anthony Rath, 52, of Maple Falls, and Jerry Chris Van Dyke, 67, also known as Jerry Witten, of Seattle, have been charged separately with violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which prohibits misrepresentation in marketing American Indian or Alaska Native arts and crafts.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Rath falsely claimed to be a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, and Van Dyke falsely claimed membership in the Nez Perce Tribe. The goods included masks, totem poles and pendants sold in 2019 at Raven’s Nest Treasure in Pike Place Market and at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the waterfront.

“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,” said Edward Grace, an assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, in a news release.

“Rath and Van Dyke were due to appear in U.S. District Court on Friday afternoon. Their attorneys, federal public defenders Gregory Geist and Vanessa Pai-Thompson, said in an email Friday they did not have any immediate comment on the charges,” the AP noted further.

A probe of the artists and their claims began after the Indian Arts Council and Crafts Board, which is an Interior Department agency that promotes Native American artwork, received complaints that they were fraudulently claiming to be enrolled tribal members.

The AP noted that Rath was charged with four counts of misrepresentation of Native-produced goods, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. Meanwhile, Van Dyke faces two counts of the same infraction.

“Rath also faces one misdemeanor count of unlawfully possessing golden eagle parts, and one of unlawfully possessing migratory bird parts,” The AP reported.

Matthew Steinbrueck, the owner of Raven’s Nest Treasure, told authorities that the pair said they were members of the tribe and that he took them at the word, according to court filings. He added that he did not knowingly sell fake Native American works.

“I’ve been doing this on good faith for many years — for more than 30 years,” Steinbrueck told The AP on Friday. “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.”

The AP adds:

He said his family had a long appreciation for American Indian culture, dating to when his great-grandfather adopted a tribal member. Steinbrueck’s father, Victor Steinbrueck, an architect credited with helping preserve Pike Place Market and Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood, brought him up to revere Native culture, he said.

But according to Van Dyke, he told authorities that it was actually Steinbrueck’s idea to misrepresent his work as being authentically Native American.

Gabriel Galanda, an Indigenous rights attorney in Seattle who is a member of the Round Valley Tribes of Northern California, told the AP that if shops are going to advertise products as being Native-produced, they have an obligation to verify the heritage of the artists and creators. That could include something as simple as examining tribal enrollment cards or federal certificates of Indian blood.

“There has to be some diligence done by these galleries,” Galanda said.


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