When “Indian” art becomes contraband

January 09, 2017 | By ANASTASIA BODEN

For more than 30 years, Peggy Fontenot has sold her beadwork and photographs at American Indian art shows across the country. But this year, at the behest of politically connected tribes, Oklahoma passed a law that prohibits anyone who is not a member of a federally recognized tribe from marketing their art as “American Indian-made.”

This Indian Arts and Crafts Sales Act excludes countless Native people who are members of tribes that are recognized by states but not by the federal government.

Fontenot, for example, belongs to the Patawomeck tribe — one of 11 tribes recognized by the state of Virginia. For Fontenot, and artists from scores of other tribes recognized by states but not the federal government, Oklahoma’s law means they are effectively shut out of a big piece of the American Indian art market.

Fontenot lives in Santa Monica, Calif., but she earns a living by showing and selling her artwork in American Indian museums and festivals nationwide — including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Fontenot regularly travels to Oklahoma to participate in its thriving American Indian art market. Because of the state’s deep connections with Native history and culture, some of the biggest and most prestigious American Indian art shows take place in the state. Just last year, Fontenot took third place at the renowned Red Earth Pow Wow in Oklahoma City. But Oklahoma’s new law means she can no longer call her art “American Indian” in the state, effectively prohibiting her from participating in the state’s many festivals.

“I was born an American Indian,” Fontenot said. “I’ve always been an American Indian. And I’ve always identified as such.”

For Fontenot, this Native identity and her art are inseparable. Her photographs use hand-developed, black and white images of Native people to celebrate their culture. These striking photos will appear as part of the Language Conservancy’s Last Native Speakers project — a traveling exhibit featuring images of American Indians who are the last fluent speakers of their tribe’s language.

Both her photography and her intricate beadwork have earned important awards, and museums and cultural centers frequently ask her to teach classes on traditional beading techniques.

Because of the close relationship between her identity and her art, it’s often necessary for Fontenot to explain her heritage when discussing her art with her customers. But under the Oklahoma law, telling her customers that her art is “Indian-made” could bring fines or even jail time. Because Fontenot makes a living through her art, the Oklahoma law is a huge hit to both her freedom of expression and her livelihood.

That’s why Fontenot recently filed a lawsuit in federal court in Oklahoma, arguing that the law violates her constitutional rights to free speech and to earn a living free of irrational government restriction. Under the First Amendment, government can’t single out speakers for censorship based on their identity. And under the 14th Amendment, no state may restrict an individual’s right to earn a living unless it has a legitimate reason for doing so, such as protecting public health or safety.

Discriminating against some American Indians so that others have a greater share of Oklahoma’s art market is not a reason permitted by the Constitution. Oklahoma’s law stands in stark contrast to an analogous federal law, called the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. Under that law, a wide array of American Indians can truthfully label their art “American Indian-made.”

In addition to members of federally recognized tribes, members of state-recognized tribes such as Fontenot and artists certified by Indian tribes can describe their art as “American Indian.” The Oklahoma law deprives two of those three groups of that same privilege, and those artists who are left out risk fines and jail time just for calling their art what it is.

Though she brought the lawsuit on behalf of herself, the outcome will affect Native artists across the country. “Under the Oklahoma law, two-thirds of those who identify as Indian artists under the provisions of federal law are excluded. So not just my rights are being limited,” Fontenot said. “This lawsuit is about defending the rights of many other artists as well. It’s a bad law … an unconstitutional law.”

Published by Santa Fe New Mexican