Artists Face Federal Charges For Faking Native American Heritage

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Two artists have been charged with faking Native American heritage after falsely claiming to be part of a tribe, the US Attorney’s Office said. 

Lewis Anthony Rath, 52, and Jerry Chris Van Dyke, 67, also known as Jerry Witten, have been charged separately with violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which ‘prohibits misrepresentation in the marketing of Indian art and craft products within the US’.

‘It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell, any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian tribe or Indian arts and crafts organisation, resident within the US,’ the law states.

Rath has been accused of lying about his heritage as part of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, while Van Dyke falsely claimed membership in the Nez Perce Tribe.

The pair sold a number of ‘Native American’ goods, including masks, totem poles in pendants, at Raven’s Nest Treasure in Pike Place Market and at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop back in 2019.

‘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 US Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, said in a press release.

Van Dyke was first investigated in February 2019, after the Indian Arts and Crafts Board received a complaint that Van Dyke was representing himself as a Nez Perce Indian Artist despite not being an enrolled tribal member.

After making undercover purchases at a gallery advertising Van Dyke’s pendants as Native American Art, agents later interviewed Van Dyke, where he admitted to not being a tribal member and his awareness of the law.

He’s estimated to have sold more than $1,000 worth of carved pendants. Van Dyke has been charged with two counts of misrepresentation of Indian produced goods and products.

Rath’s investigation kicked off in May 2019, with agents finding he’d been selling carved totem poles and other goods represented as Native produced. Rath also claimed on a number of websites he used to sell artwork that he was an enrolled member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe.

Agents later executed a search warrant on Rath’s Whatcom County home and studio, where they found feathers from protected birds, including golden eagles, hawks, jays, owls and more.

Rath has been charged with four counts of misrepresentation of Indian produced goods and products, one count of unlawful possession of golden eagles [arts and one count of unlawful possession of migratory bird parts.

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