Lewis Anthony Rath, 52, and Jerry Chris Van Dyke, 67, have both been charged with misrepresentation of Indian-produced goods.
The city of Seattle has a rich indigenous history. Even its name is an homage to Chief Sealth. But two local artists allegedly took advantage of this fact by faking Native American heritage to sell art. Now they’re facing charges.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, both Lewis Anthony Rath and Jerry Chris Van Dyke fraudulently claimed membership in Native American tribes. Rath claimed to be a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe; Van Dyke said he belonged to the Nez Perce Tribe.
They sold Native American art, including masks, totem poles, and pendants, at two Seattle area shops, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the waterfront and Raven’s Nest Treasure in Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market.
Both men have been charged with violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which forbids artists from misrepresenting their heritage to sell Native American goods.
Specifically, the law states: “It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell, any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the US.”
Rath faces charged with four counts of misrepresentation of Indian-produced goods; Van Dyke faces two. Per the U.S. Attorney’s office, misrepresentation of Indian Produced Goods and Products is punishable by up to 5 years in prison.
“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 impairs Indian culture,” said Edward Grace, Assistant Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement in a statement.
“We thank the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and the U.S. Department of Justice for their assistance with these investigations.”
The investigation into Rath and Van Dyke — charged separately — began in 2019. Then, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board received a complaint about both men. Undercover agents found that Rath and Van Dyke sold Native American artwork in Seattle galleries but that neither had official tribal affiliation.
Van Dyke, who has sold more than $1,000 in pendants he said were based on Aleut masks, even admitted to investigators that he had no tribal membership.
This came as a surprise to the gallery owners. An employee at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop explained to federal investigators that she wrote Rath’s biography, including details about his heritage, based on details he provided.
And Matthew Steinbrueck, the owner of Raven’s Nest Treasure, said that he took Van Dyke at his word when the artist told him about his Native American heritage.
“I’ve been doing this on good faith for many years — for more than 30 years,” Steinbrueck said, adding that his father had brought him up to appreciate and admire Native Americans.
“Our whole mission [at Raven’s Nest Treasure] is to represent authentic Native art. We’ve had more than 100 authentic Native artists. I’ve always just taken their word for it.”
Van Dyke, however, told investigators that he’d only claimed Native American heritage because Steinbrueck told him to do so. Steinbrueck denies this.
Regardless of whose idea it was, the artists’ alleged fraud has shone a spotlight on the risk of inauthentic Native American art. And Gabriel Galanda, an Indigenous rights attorney in Seattle and a member of the Round Valley Tribes, says that gallery owners need to do better.
“There has to be some diligence done by these galleries,” Galanda said. He noted that gallery owners can take steps like asking to see tribal enrollment cards or federal certificates of Indian blood instead of simply taking artists at their word.
Neither Rath nor Van Dyke have yet commented on the charges. In addition to facing charges for misrepresenting Indian-produced goods, Rath also faces charges for unlawfully possessing golden eagle parts, and unlawfully possessing migratory bird parts, items which investigators found in his home and studio.
After reading about the artists who faked Native American heritage to sell art, learn about Iron Eyes Cody, the Native American movie star who wasn’t actually Native American. Or, discover the story of nine — very real — Native American women who changed the world.