Artist who falsely claimed Native American heritage sentenced to 18 months’ probation

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Jerry Chris Van Dyke, an artist who sold carvings in Seattle under the name Jerry Witten and claimed to be Native American, has been sentenced to 18 months of federal probation.

Van Dyke, who is not enrolled in any recognised tribe or nation and has no Indigenous heritage, violated the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA), a federal truth-in-marketing law administered by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board to safeguard the rights and livelihoods of Native American artists. He pleaded guilty in March to misrepresenting Indian-produced goods and products, and had faced up to one year in prison.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) first received a tip that Van Dyke was selling his work while claiming to be a member of the federally recognised Nez Perce Tribe, whose lands are in present-day Idaho. Undercover agents of the US Fish and Wildlife Service then purchased works made by Van Dyke from a gallery in Seattle’s popular Pike Place Market, where his pieces were being advertised as the work of a Native American artist named Jerry Witten.

“Prosecuting cases of fraud in the art world is a unique responsibility and part of our work to support Tribal Nations,” Nick Brown, a US Attorney for the Western District of Washington, said in a statement. “I hope this case will make artists and gallery owners think twice about the consequences of falsely calling an artist Native and work Native-produced. They should consider the damage to reputation, the legal fees and ultimately a criminal record.” Van Dyke was originally charged in late 2021, along with another Washington-based artist, Lewis Anthony Rath.

Two artworks falsely advertised as Native American art by Jerry Chris Van Dyke US Attorney’s Office, Western District of Washington

Upon questioning, Van Dyke admitted that he had made the work, had no tribal affiliation and was aware of the IACA. Under the terms of a plea deal, he admitted that he had worked with the gallery for more than a decade, and that its owner had even supplied him with materials including antlers, bones, woolly mammoth ivory and fossilised walrus ivory. Van Dyke used these and other materials to make masks and pendants in the style of the Indigenous people of the Aleutian islands in northern Alaska and the Bering Sea.

Van Dyke allegedly sold more than $1,000 worth of fake Indigenous gallery through the Pike Place Market gallery, which was not named in the US Attorney’s Office announcement about the sentencing.

“The prosecution of Jerry Van Dyke under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act for counterfeiting Alaska Native art is another critically important step in protecting the economic livelihoods and rich cultural heritage of contemporary and traditional Indian artists, as well as preserving the vitality of the Indian art market in the Northwest and nationwide,” Meredith Stanton, the director of the IACB, said in a statement.

The IACA was signed into law by president George H.W. Bush in 1990 to prevent precisely the sort of marketing and sale of non-Indigenous artefacts that Van Dyke made and sold. In doing so, it aimed to safeguard the livelihoods of Native American artists and instil confidence in the market for Indigenous art in the US.

Brown added, “Fake Native art should be kept out of the marketplace because it harms the legitimate Native art community.”

Indigenous artists in Canada have been calling for the creation of similar legislation in that country, which currently has little means of regulating the market for objects that are marketed and sold as being the work of First Nations people.

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