Missouri lawmakers try to define real Native American art
Chief Grey Elk of the Northern Cherokee Nation says all the work of his tribe is “authentic dating back to antiquity,” and the tribe’s artisans follow styles and patterns passed down through generations. The Missouri House Special Committee on Small Business has unanimously approved a bill that would ban people who are not citizens of federally recognized American Indian tribes from selling their arts and crafts as authentic American Indian work. COURTESY
A screenshot of the Northern Cherokee Nation’s website. The Northern Cherokee Nation claims to be Missouri’s only state-recognized tribe. COURTESY
Rocky Miller, a Missouri congressman and Cherokee Nation citizen, says a 1983 proclamation does not make the Northern Cherokee Nation a state-recognized tribe and that its members shouldn’t be allowed to sell their artwork. COURTESY
ST. LOUIS (AP) – Kathy Dickerson worries about the future of the Kiowa culture.
Dickerson is a St. Louis artist and citizen of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. She said she does bead work, some silversmithing and brain tanning, where she takes the brain of an animal and uses it to tan the hide.
Each tribe’s crafts are a part of its identity, she said. The Kiowa moccasins she makes are different from those made by other tribes, even neighboring tribes. Her work isn’t creative, she said, she’s reproducing art from Kiowa tradition.
“We still do things that our ancestors did, and I’m still teaching my grandchildren what I was taught,” Dickerson said.
People who are not part of federally recognized American Indian tribes fabricate their artwork and their history, she said. They fool people who don’t know much about American Indians, skewing their understanding of tribes. She said the problem is apparent in St. Louis, where non-Native people are brought in to give cultural presentations at community festivals.
“They get the person that has dreamcatchers and tom-toms,” Dickerson said. “Things that are China-made and look like stereotypical American Indian stuff. These non-Natives that are not in a community, they don’t understand what Indians are.”
The Missouri House Special Committee on Small Business has unanimously approved a bill that would ban people who are not citizens of federally recognized American Indian tribes from selling their arts and crafts as authentic American Indian work. Under federal law, members of state- and federally recognized tribes can sell their work as authentic.
Chief Grey Elk of the Northern Cherokee Nation said all the work of their tribe is “authentic dating back to antiquity,” and the tribe’s artisans follow styles and patterns passed down through generations.
“All we do is reproduce that,” he said.
Grey Elk said the proposed legislation grew out of the animosity between the Northern Cherokee and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, a federally recognized tribe. The CN has long disputed the legitimacy of the Northern Cherokee Nation.
“We’ve never got along, and it’s because we call them ‘Treaty Cherokees,’ and they call us ‘Wannabes,’” Grey Elk said. “We refused to sign any treaties, and they signed 50.”
The Northern Cherokee Nation is a nonprofit group that states it is an American Indian tribe recognized by the State of Missouri, not the federal government. Then-Gov. Kit Bond issued a proclamation in June 1983, where he acknowledged the existence of the Northern Cherokee Tribe “as an American Indian Tribe within the State of Missouri,” and declared June 24, 1983 “Northern Cherokee Recognition Day.”
Some, including Rep. Rocky Miller, the bill’s sponsor and a CN citizen say that proclamation does not make the Northern Cherokee a state-recognized tribe. Missouri has no established process for recognizing state tribes, and a list of state-recognized tribes will vary, depending on who you ask.
The Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which enforces federal law regulating the sale of American Indian art, doesn’t keep a current list of state-recognized tribes but was informed in 2014 by the Attorney General’s office that Missouri had no state-recognized tribes. The Attorney General’s office directed the Missourian to the Secretary of State’s office, which provided a list of 11 federally recognized tribes with a presence in Missouri, including the Absentee Shawnee of Oklahoma and the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska.
The tribes on the Secretary of State’s list are centered in surrounding states of Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, and used to live on land in what is now Missouri. The Northern Cherokee Nation was not on the list.
Grey Elk said he asked Gov. Eric Greitens to check to see if the proclamation is legitimate recognition.
Miller, a Lake Ozark Republican, said any move to formally recognize the Northern Cherokee would be “ridiculous.” He said all tribal recognition should come from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
CN Assistant Attorney General Alayna Farris testified in support of the bill at a small business committee hearing on Jan. 24. At that hearing, she said the Northern Cherokee Nation and other tribes that are not federally recognized are appropriating authentic Cherokee culture and erode trust in the American Indian art market.
Most American Indian art is regulated by the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which allows artisans from federally and state-recognized tribes to advertise their work as American Indian-made. That would exclude the Northern Cherokee if they are not state-recognized, but Miller said the law is still necessary to give local law enforcement the ability to prosecute.
“It’s just a much quicker and easier way to stop this theft of our heritage,” Miller said.
Cases taken on by federal authorities can take a long time, Miller said, like the case of Terry Lee Whetstone, a Missouri man who pleaded guilty to violating the federal law in 2015, several years after he was reported to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. Whetstone was eventually sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to stop selling his art or playing his flute unless he makes it clear that he is not a member of an American Indian tribe.
The bill is similar to one passed in the Oklahoma legislature in 2016. That bill amended Oklahoma’s 1974 Indian Arts and Craft Sales Act to protect artists from federally recognized American Indian tribes. Peggy Fontenot, who is a member of the state-recognized Patawomeck Tribe of Virginia, sued Oklahoma soon after the bill was passed. She is arguing the law infringed on her right to truthfully describe her art as American Indian-made when she sold her art in the state.
Oklahoma halted enforcement of the law in January 2017, pending the results of the case. Pre-trial motions have delayed the case in the Western District Court of Oklahoma, so the law is still not being enforced.
Grey Elk said he has an antagonistic history with Miller, stemming from a dispute over the proposed placement of a sewage treatment facility at the headwaters of the Blue Springs Creek, which is in Miller’s district. Grey Elk also said he thinks Miller is against the Northern Cherokee because he is a CN citizen.
“Rocky, I’m sure, could care less whether we label our stuff we make for powwows ‘Native American made,’” Grey Elk said. “Somebody down there has undoubtedly put a burr in his saddle.”
Miller said he didn’t want the treatment plant on that creek, either. He said his issue was with Grey Elk making that land “fake holy ground” in order to stop the plant.
“He’s basically a fraud, and he’s stealing my family’s heritage, and the people who join him are doing the same,” Miller said.
Miller said he’s pushing the bill because he doesn’t like people who break the law, and he doesn’t like people who take his heritage. His family was forced out of their home and to the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma, Miller said.
“For someone to come along and make light of that by making fake arts and crafts, it angers me,” he said.
Dickerson said that when people don’t know much about American Indians, they’ll gravitate toward people who fit their idea of what an American Indian should be. Much of that is influenced by Hollywood portrayals of American Indians, and isn’t accurate.
“When we go out, people ask, ‘Can you glam it up a bit, can you throw a little bit of Hollywood into it?’” Dickerson said. “And it’s like, no, this is what it is. We’re showing you our culture. We don’t want to create something that’s glamorous over what’s real.”
Those watered-down and stereotypical perceptions of what an American Indian is take away from unique tribal identities, she said, and people posing as Native Americans do the same.
“They copy off of different tribes and they kind of make a hodgepodge of these works that you cant tell who it belongs to,” Dickerson said. “But these non-Natives, they’re taking it and they’re bastardizing the culture because they’re not going by anything but what they feel the American Indian is about.”
Grey Elk said the Northern Cherokee’s works aren’t made just to be sold. The group’s website advertises several works, including jewelry and paintings, with contact information for the artists listed, but Grey Elk said they mostly sell at powwows. If someone is interested in a work, they’re happy to sell it and make another.
Grey Elk said most American Indian tribes consider the powwow a chance to show off their culture, skills and wares.
“And maybe it makes them a little money to boot,” he added.