Peggy Fontenot is a member of the Virginia-recognized Patawomeck Indian Tribe and has earned a living for more than 30 years showing and selling her award-winning beadwork and photographs across the country. A Missouri law, however, prohibits anyone other than members of federally recognized tribes from calling their art American Indian-made.
Not only is Peggy a legitimate and renowned American Indian artist, but she has a constitutional right to truthfully describe her art as American Indian-made. So Peggy is fighting back in federal court.
Peggy is a member of the Virginia-recognized Patawomeck Indian tribe through her mother’s line and is certified as an artisan by the federally recognized Citizen Potawatomi Nation through her father’s line. In addition to her numerous awards, she has shown and sold her art in museums and galleries throughout the United States, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.
Despite her unquestionable reputation and legitimacy as a Native artist, Peggy cannot market her art as American Indian-made in Missouri. A state law enacted in 2018 prohibits anyone other than members of federally recognized tribes from marketing their art as “American Indian-made.”
In other words, state law forbids artists like Peggy, who are members of state-recognized tribes, from being able to truthfully say who they are, effectively preventing them from earning a living in the ironically nicknamed Show Me State.
For instance, the law allows Peggy to display a pair of her handmade earrings and describe them as “cultural items,” or “folk,” or “handmade.” But she cannot represent those same handmade earrings as American Indian-made.
Such a content-based restriction on speech is a blatant violation of Peggy’s free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. So Peggy is fighting back.
Represented by PLF and the Freedom Center of Missouri, Peggy has filed a federal lawsuit to stop Missouri from unconstitutionally regulating speech based on the content of the speech and the speaker’s identity.
In March 2019, Peggy successfully upended a nearly identical law in Oklahoma. A First Amendment victory in Missouri would bolster that win and discourage other states from putting similar laws on their books. In a mixed-bag decision, the district court held that the law only applies to the label “American Indian.” Peggy is free to use similar terms, like Native American or “Indian,” or her Patawomeck tribe to describe her work.