2 artists charged with faking Native American heritage

Two artists are facing federal charges that they faked Native American heritage to sell works at downtown Seattle galleries

SEATTLE — Two artists are facing federal charges that they faked Native American heritage to sell works at downtown Seattle galleries.

Lewis Anthony Rath, 52, of Maple Falls, and Jerry Chris Van Dyke, 67, also known as Jerry Witten, of Seattle, have been charged separately with violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which prohibits misrepresentation in marketing American Indian or Alaska Native arts and crafts.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Rath falsely claimed to be a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, and Van Dyke falsely claimed membership in the Nez Perce Tribe. The goods included masks, totem poles and pendants sold in 2019 at Raven’s Nest Treasure in Pike Place Market and at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the waterfront.

“By flooding the market with counterfeit Native American art and craftwork, these crimes cheat the consumer, undermine the economic livelihood of Native American artists, and impair Indian culture,” Edward Grace, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, said in a news release.

Rath and Van Dyke were due to appear in U.S. District Court on Friday afternoon. Their attorneys, federal public defenders Gregory Geist and Vanessa Pai-Thompson, said in an email Friday they did not have any immediate comment on the charges.

Authorities said the investigation began when the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, an Interior Department agency that promotes Native art, received complaints that the two were fraudulently holding themselves out as enrolled tribal members.

Rath is charged with four counts of misrepresentation of Indian-produced goods, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. Van Dyke faces two counts of the same crime.

Rath also faces one misdemeanor count of unlawfully possessing golden eagle parts, and one of unlawfully possessing migratory bird parts.

According to charging documents, an employee of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, which has been in business for more than a century, told investigators that she wrote an artist biography of Rath based on information he provided about his tribal affiliation.

Matthew Steinbrueck, the owner of Raven’s Nest Treasure, told investigators that the artists told him they were tribal members and that he believed them, according to the documents. He said he did not knowingly sell counterfeit Indian products.

“I’ve been doing this on good faith for many years — for more than 30 years,” Steinbrueck told The Associated Press on Friday. “Our whole mission is to represent authentic Native art. We’ve had more than 100 authentic Native artists. I’ve always just taken their word for it.”

He said his family had a long appreciation for American Indian culture, dating to when his great-grandfather adopted a tribal member. Steinbrueck’s father, Victor Steinbrueck, an architect credited with helping preserve Pike Place Market and Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood, brought him up to revere Native culture, he said.

Van Dyke told investigators that it was Steinbrueck’s idea to represent his work as Native American.

Steinbrueck denied that, saying Van Dyke appeared to be trying to lessen his own culpability. He called Van Dyke “a fabulous carver” who made art in the style of his wife’s Alaska Native tribe, including pendants carved from fossilized mammoth or walrus ivory.

Neither Ye Olde Curiosity Shop nor Raven’s Nest has been charged in the case.

Gabriel Galanda, an Indigenous rights attorney in Seattle who belongs to the Round Valley Tribes of Northern California, said that if shops offer products as Native-produced, they should be verifying the heritage of the creators, such as by examining tribal enrollment cards or federal certificates of Indian blood.

“There has to be some diligence done by these galleries,” Galanda said.

Kenneth Proto

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