Charles Loloma is regarded as one of the most influential Native American jewelers of the 20th century. The Hopi artist incorporated new designs and materials in rings and necklaces that sell for tens of thousands of dollars and are among the most valuable in Native American jewelry.
Loloma died in 1991. So when previously-unknown Loloma jewelry started showing up on eBay, it looked suspicious to federal agents charged with enforcing the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. Investigators posed as buyers and purchased from California resident Robert Haack $10,000 of what he advertised as genuine Loloma jewelry.
Agents then called Loloma’s niece, Verma Nequatewa, a jeweler who studied under her famous uncle. She traveled from her home on the Hopi Nation to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensics laboratory in Oregon to deconstruct the jewelry and certified that it was a fake.
“It just makes me angry,” Nequatewa told VOA. “Some of us artists work very hard to make our living, and people like this just get away with it.”
Haack was indicted on four counts of violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. He pleaded guilty in 2021 and is awaiting sentencing.
Nequatewa’s husband, Robert Rhodes, estimates that Haack sold more than one million dollars of fake Loloma jewelry before his arrest.
“It hurts the whole industry of Native American art,” he said. “Because if somebody thinks that they’re buying a real Loloma piece and they pay ten thousand dollars for it only to find out it’s a fake, they’re not going to buy a piece of Indian art again.”
The Haack case is one of the few prosecuted by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which a GAO study found received 649 complaints between 1990 and 2010 and prosecuted five.
“These cases take a great deal of time and resources,” said Indian Arts and Crafts Board director Meredith Stanton, an enrolled member of the Delaware Nation of Oklahoma.
The law protects the artistic work of any member of a federal- or state-recognized Indian tribe or anyone whom a federal or state-recognized Indian tribe certifies as an Indian artisan. Products marketed as “Native American style,” however, are not prohibited under the law and may be manufactured and sold by anyone.
Products designed by a Native American but produced by a non-Native American do not qualify as Native-American made. Products manufactured overseas are meant to be indelibly marked to identify their country of origin. But Cherokee historian and activist David Cornsilk says unscrupulous dealers simply peel off those labels and pass off those crafts as “Native made”.
The Navajo began producing jewelry in the mid-19th century, obtaining silver from melted down coins and candlesticks.
“We didn’t really have a money system. When we traded and got silver – whether it be through Spanish coins or whatever – we ended up converting that into jewelry,” said Navajo jeweler Reggie Mitchell. “In essence, we were wearing our wealth, and that became our way of bargaining or trading.”
The railroad – and later the automobile – brought curiosity seekers and ethnographers to the American Southwest. Enterprising Navajo, Hopi and other Pueblo artisans found ready buyers for their wares at railway stops in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
As demand for their crafts grew, Congress passed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1935 (IACA). The law established an Indian Arts and Crafts Board within the Interior Department to help Native craft persons to market their work. The law also made it a misdemeanor to sell imitation products and set penalties at up to $2,000 and/or up to six months in jail.
This did not stop the counterfeiting, however. By 1985, the Commerce Department estimated annual sales of Native American arts and crafts at $400 to $800 million and suggested that cheap imitations imported from Mexico and Asia made up 20 percent of that market.
Congress in 1990 amended IACA, upgrading violations to felonies punishable by up to $250,000 in fines and/or five years in prison for individual violators and fines up to $1,000,000 for businesses.
“The original was directed toward the economy and well-being of American Indians, and the 1990 law was aimed at protecting buyers from fraud,” Cornsilk told VOA. “The Internet complicates things because it allows for the buying and selling of items without actually coming in contact with the vendor, so there’s no way to know whether the person selling is legit.”