Peggy Fontenot is an award-winning American Indian photographer and artist, specializing in hand-made beaded jewelry and cultural items. A member of Virginia’s Patawomeck tribe, she has made her living for 30 years traveling the country to show and sell her American Indian art. She regularly participated in Oklahoma art festivals until local, politically-connected tribes convinced the state legislature to restrict the definition of “Indian tribe” to include only those tribes recognized by the federal government. The restriction was ostensibly to prevent the marketing and sale of art fraudulently described as “American Indian-made.” However, as a result of this law, Ms. Fontenot – a legitimate member of a state-recognized tribe – may no longer truthfully describe her art as “American Indian-made” in the state of Oklahoma.
Instead of forthrightly describing her heritage as a member of the Patawomeck tribe, she may only describe her art generically, omitting material facts about her identity and the culturally-derived style of her art. Aside from the legal penalties she would incur by speaking truthfully, Ms. Fontenot is effectively precluded from participation in the Oklahoma American Indian art market. She is not alone: two-thirds of the categories of American Indian artists are unwelcome in Oklahoma because their tribes are not among those that are federally recognized.
PLF represents Ms. Fontenot in her lawsuit filed in the federal district court in Oklahoma City, challenging the law as a violation of her First Amendment rights, as an unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce, and as an arbitrary infringement on her constitutional right to earn a living.