Two Washington Artists Have Been Charged With Faking Native American Identities to Sell Their Wares in Galleries

Claiming to be tribal members, the two men separately sold masks, totem poles, and pendants at art galleries in downtown Seattle.  

Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington on September 26th, 2015. Photo: Elena Di Vincenzo via Getty Images.

Two artists in Washington are facing federal charges after falsely representing themselves as Native American to sell their work. 

Lewis Anthony Rath, 52, and Jerry Chris Van Dyke, 67, have each been accused of violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a law passed in 1990 criminalizing the selling of counterfeit Native American artifacts, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The artists separately sold their wares, including masks, totem poles, and pendants, at art galleries in downtown Seattle.  

“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 impairs Indian culture,” said Edward Grace, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s law-enforcement office, in a statement.

Grace’s office began looking into Van Dyke in February 2019 after the Indian Arts and Crafts Board received a tip that he was branding himself a Nez Perce tribe member, despite not being enrolled with the group. Working undercover, investigators purchased carved pendants based on Aleut masks made by the artist at a gallery in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, where he later admitted to selling more than $1,000 worth of goods. 

Van Dyke was hit with two counts of misrepresenting Indian-produced goods, each punishable by up to five years in prison.

A similar investigation targeting Rath was launched just three months later, in May 2019, following another complaint filed with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. Acquiring both a carved totem pole and a necklace each from two separate galleries—including the one that sold Van Dyke’s work—agents discovered that the objects were branded as products of an artist belonging to the San Carlos Apache Tribe.

Rath now faces similar charges as Van Dyke, as well as one count of possessing golden eagle parts, and one of possessing migratory bird parts. The latter two charges each carry a maximum one-year prison sentence.

Both Rath and Van Dyke were due in U.S. District Court last Friday. 

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