Kansas City Artist Accused of Posing as Native American to Sell His Art

Terry Lee Whetstone

A Kansas City artist has been charged by federal prosecutors with falsely portraying himself as Cherokee in order to sell “authentic Native American” artwork for high prices online.

For over a decade, 62-year-old Terry Lee Whetstone has sold paintings, sculptures, and jewelry from a website, which has been taken down, that identified him as a “Native American Musician, Artist, and Teacher.” According to prosecutors, he is not a member of the federally-recognized Cherokee Nation.

He is a member of the Northern Cherokee Nation, which is not federally recognized, but is recognized by the state of Missouri. According to Wikipedia, the Northern Cherokee Nation of the Old Louisiana Territory is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization “of individuals who self identify as Cherokee but have not been recognized as a government.” While he may have self-identified as Cherokee in that instance, on a 1997 marriage license application that gave the option of checking white, black, American Indian, or “other,” Whetstone listed his race as white.

Both Whetstone and federal prosecutors declined to comment to the Kansas City Star about the charges, but the misrepresentation of Native American-produced goods and products is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to a year imprisonment. Whetstone’s hearing is July 22.

While federal prosecutors in Kansas City said they could not recall a similar case being filed in the area in recent history, the phenomenon is pervasive enough nationally that a special board under the auspices of the U.S. Department of the Interior has existed since 1935 to ensure that art marketed as Native American is indeed authentic.

Rachel Dolezal.

Rachel Dolezal.

The accusations are also reminiscent of those made weeks ago against Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the NAACP’s Spokane, Washington chapter who was revealed to have been lying about her status as African-American. Dolezal is also an artist, and received an MFA from the predominantly black Howard University, where she painted mostly portraits of African-American people.

While federal law does not prohibit non-Native Americans from producing artwork in the Native American style, only a member of the federally-recognized tribe is allowed to market products as being produced by a Native American. Whether or not Whetstone’s membership in the locally-recognized Northern Cherokee Nation will suffice remains to be seen, but as with Dolezal’s case, transparency seems to be the answer.

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