First Nations art, from hand-carved masks to totem poles, is based on generations of tradition and skill, and can take months to make.
But a spate of counterfeits and commercial imitations produced in Asia and Eastern Europe are exploiting indigenous culture, the artists say, and robbing them of income.
One of the best-known indigenous artists to have reproduced images of their work without permission is British Columbia woodcarver Richard Hunt.
“I have prevented people from making postcards of my work that I have discovered. In Bali, Indonesia, they are making masks from the northwest coast. They are selling them as indigenous,” she said.
“These things have to be stopped. We need government help. It is like the dream catcher that comes from Taiwan or China. Buyer beware.”
The federal government is facing calls to take action, including from a senator who wants copyright law reform, a drive to help indigenous artists track down counterfeits and stricter border controls for art in indigenous styles.
Hunt said raising tariffs on print imports could slow them down, but said fakes were being produced en masse, undermining genuine indigenous artists and making it difficult for young First Nations carvers to make a living in what they did. He said it’s a billion dollar industry.
Senator Patricia Bovey, the first art historian to sit in the Senate, said the fake indigenous art industry can be worth millions of dollars and infringes on the intellectual property rights of artists.
She is pressing the government to reform copyright law to provide more protection for indigenous artists against unscrupulous companies that reproduce their images without their knowledge.
Unauthorized and fake indigenous works range from reproductions of First Nations art on T-shirts, quilts, bowls and plastic bags, to carved masks and totem poles made from wood grown in Southeast Asia.
Many of these are near exact copies of original works in Canadian galleries and the problem is acute with West Coast art.
Bovey wants ministers to set up a unit to help indigenous artists whose work is reproduced without their knowledge track down and prosecute those who infringe their copyright, at least to get them paid.
Not only are indigenous artists’ creations stolen, he says, but people who buy indigenous works in Canada and abroad may have little idea it may be fake or produced without the artist’s permission.
Bovey was shocked to discover that some images on orange T-shirts made after the discovery of unmarked graves last year were reproduced without the artists’ knowledge by for-profit companies, without raising funds for indigenous causes.
She warns buyers of indigenous works to ask before buying where the work came from, if it was made with the artist’s permission, and if the artist is being paid.
“This is a really serious problem,” he said. “It is plagiarizing the work, it is appropriating the work and both things are wrong and the artists do not have the resources to fight all that in court.”
Helping indigenous artists claim their copyrights would be an example of “reconciliation action,” the senator added.
She wants an upcoming revision of the Copyright Law by Heritage Minister Pablo Rodríguez and Science and Innovation Minister Francois-Phillippe Champagne to include protections for indigenous works, which she says are an integral part of culture and Canada’s history.
There should not only be specific safeguards for artists, but also a mechanism to track companies that make indigenous works or fail to pay artists’ royalties, including in China and Eastern Europe, he said.
“We all have a responsibility in this. We need to find ways to support artists who are smeared in such a way so that they have legal funding,” she said.
Alex Wellstead, a spokesman for Champagne, said the revision of the Copyright Act “would further protect artists, creators and copyright holders”.
He said that “indigenous peoples and artists will be consulted in the process.”
Current copyright law offers protection to indigenous artisans and women, including Inuit sculptors and jewelers, but Bovey said the process is so complex and time-consuming that few artists have the time to do it.
He also wants stricter border checks and investigations into the provenance and destination of art in indigenous Canadian styles, particularly that made from wood that is not native to Canada.
Fake masks and indigenous carvings have been openly sold to tourists in Vancouver as genuine, according to Lucinda Turner, an apprentice to Nisg’aa sculptor and totem pole carver Norman Tait.
Turner, who died this week, spent years listing, tracking and challenging fraudulent indigenous works that claimed to be authentic, and he lectured on the subject.
Hunt said he had done a lot to bring attention to the illicit trade and had helped many indigenous artists claim their copyrights.
In an open letter to the government last November, Turner said more than 1,000 appropriated images were removed after she and others wrote takedown letters supporting artists whose copyrights had been violated.
Speaking at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, he said some carvings copied on mahogany looked so authentic they have hung in Canadian galleries.
Among the forgeries he identified were reproductions of 19th-century carvings in major museums, such as a beaver rattle from the British Museum, and copies of works by contemporary Northwest Coast artists, including acclaimed carver Bill Reid.
She lobbied the federal government for greater protection of indigenous artists, calling for a law, like in the United States, with huge fines for selling indigenous works that are not genuine.
The US Indian Arts and Crafts Act makes it a crime to misrepresent and copy Indian art. There is also a fake art hotline south of the border to make it easy to report unauthorized copies.
In the open letter to the federal government, he called for steps to be taken to address misrepresentations in the online marketplace.
Well-meaning shoppers trying to support the Orange Shirt movement had been tricked into buying clothes that the indigenous people would get nothing from, including the artists whose images had been used, he said.
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls movement was also exploited by lucrative businesses that made bags, T-shirts with indigenous images without the permission of the artists, he warned.
The Internet has led to the mass marketing of fraudulent, copied or stolen art images and ceremonial artifacts by companies with no ties to indigenous artists, he said.
Bovey, who says he plans to raise the issue again with ministers when the Senate returns from its summer break, said few people realize that indigenous art for sale in Canadian shops could be made in China, Western Europe, East and Taiwan.
“Buyers don’t know, artists don’t have the means to monitor it, and predators have a blast,” he said. “It is the theft of his iconography. It is stealing people’s cultural heritage and it is morally and legally wrong.”
The Canada Border Services Agency said there were currently “no import restrictions related to items imitating indigenous art.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 7, 2022.