Fraudulent Native American goods have been illegal since 1935. The first prison sentence for this crime was just handed down.
In a courtroom in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in early May, dozens of Native Americans spanning a handful of tribes gathered in solidarity. They had come to testify in front of the federal judge who would decide on sentencing in the country’s largest criminal case involving counterfeit Native American goods.
Navajo and Pueblo artists sat among the governor of the Zuni Nation and members of his tribe, some of whom wore “Made in Zuni” T-shirts. All were awaiting their moment to speak against Mohammad Manasra, who helped organize the biggest known international and illegal supply chain to sell fake Native American jewelry in the US.
“I don’t think calling this cultural appropriation is adequate,” Liz Wallace, a Native American artist who acted as a point of contact for the US attorney prosecuting Manasra’s case, told me. “It’s economic colonization.”
Manasra’s plea agreement would eventually lead to a misdemeanor charge and two days of imprisonment, the forfeiture of 5,268 pieces of Native American-style jewelry, a $500 fine, and a year’s supervised release.
Manasra would be but one of two co-defendants to be sentenced for violations against the 80-year-old Indian Arts and Crafts Act. The conflict over misrepresented and counterfeit Native American goods, manifested in this watershed investigation, would reach its apex in August, when Nael Ali, a jewelry retailer in New Mexico, would receive the harshest punishment — and only prison sentence — to date for any violator of the act.
I happen to find myself, by accident, in downtown Santa Fe the weekend of Indian Market. For one weekend in mid-August, the city transforms itself into this bustling bazaar; 100,000 people perusing thousands of vendors’ tables and tents filled with supposedly authentic Native American crafts — pottery, rugs, leather goods, jewelry.
Browsing a table with what looks like the familiar turquoise jewelry associated with the Southwest, I overhear a nearby shopper ask, “How much for these?” He holds up a pair of rectangular, ocean-green drop earrings.
“They’re normally $65, but for today, they’re $30,” replies the vendor. The shopper examines the pair for a moment, then pulls out his wallet.
I make my way to the Shalako Indian Store, inside one of Santa Fe’s indoor-outdoor shopping galleries. I tell the shopkeeper, Nancy: “I’m looking for a turquoise necklace, maybe a squash blossom design or a pendant with a silver chain, for somewhere in the ballpark of $150,” thinking how generous this seems considering the purchase I witnessed. Nancy does her best not to chortle. “I could show you a few pins,” she replies.
Nancy soon explains to me that the goods in the Shalako Indian Store are authentic, made with “real turquoise” by local artists, and thus fetch prices more than triple my modest budget. Some of the vendors peddling cheap jewelry out in the Indian Market have distorted the value I’d attributed to the turquoise goods, she explains. I’d fallen, she says, “for the Santa Fakes.”
Beneath the surface, Indian Market’s hypnotizing mineralogical beauties are more often than not unnatural stones. They’re glorified plastic, synthetic acrylic resins, peddled as “natural turquoise” with emblems of Navajo, Zuni, and Pueblo culture that Native Americans source, manufacture, and sell. But the selling of inauthentic goods isn’t limited to one weekend bazaar in late August.
While the presence of turquoise has been traced back to various ancient civilizations, including the Egyptians and Chinese, and Native Americans in the Southwest have made solid turquoise bead and carvings for at least 140 years, mass turquoise mining in the US began as a result of westward expansion in the mid-19th century.
Turquoise mining would eventually explode, and sometime after 1880, the US Geological Survey reports, a white trader persuaded a Navajo craftsman to make turquoise and silver jewelry using coin silver. By the 20th century, the kind of “Indian style” jewelry known today would attract Western-bound tourists who wanted to commemorate their travels along historic Route 66. (This, a gross glossing-over of the histories of systematic genocide, discrimination, and economic undermining of indigenous people in North America.)
The result is the countless “Indian Crafts” billboards strewn across old Route 66 (now Interstate 40) leading to accessible rest stop-cum-gift shops that sell horsehair pottery and crescent moon-shaped turquoise necklaces.
For nearly as long as roadside rest stops have sold Native American-made goods, so, too, have they sold counterfeited and misrepresented copies. In 1935, after repeated complaints about misrepresented goods reached Washington, the federal government passed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which created a board that sought to promote the economic welfare of Native Americans through protections for Indian arts and crafts and an expanded market for the goods. Per the legislation, it is illegal to falsely identify goods as being Indian-made, subject to civil or criminal penalties.
But the Indian Arts and Crafts Act has its shortcomings. There is no internal committee part of the board that is tasked with investigating reports of fraudulent goods. Catching perpetrators requires community reporting, meaning citizens must file complaints to the board in order for it to take notice.
And by and large, the federal government has done little, through either formal investigations or indictments, to enforce the legislation — until today, that is, but more on that later. (Congress enacted provisions to the act in 1990 — including expanding the power of the legislation by authorizing US Patent and Trademark Office trademarks for individual Native Americans and tribes, and amending criminal provisions to increase penalties for counterfeiting and misrepresentation — that had little effect on its potency.)
Complicating the matter, there is no national database that tracks Indian arts and crafts sales or misrepresented goods, and no other national database that contains information specific or comprehensive enough to be used to develop reliable estimates, according to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report, the most recent report on the subject.
Nancy, the salesperson at the Shalako Indian Store, recounted to me the ways that artists the shop sources its inventory from depend on honest commerce and local tourism: “These people, on the reservations or off, they can’t afford electricity, they can’t afford water, some of them can’t maintain a normal life without selling their jewelry through us or other legitimate stores.”
This echoes congressional testimony from a 2000 hearing to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to expand the powers of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, and largely rings true today.
“What it comes down to is that fraudulent art affects the true artists creating these things, which is their bread and butter and how they survive,” says Ira Wilson, executive director of the Southwest Association for Indian Arts, which organizes Indian Market every year.
The financial reliance on Native arts and crafts becomes clear when one considers that Native Americans are one of the “most economically disadvantaged populations.” According to the Economic Policy Institute, Native American median household income is roughly 30 percent below the national median, and poverty rates are nearly double the national average.
The picture is often bleaker in places like Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, which ranks among the lowest levels of Native American employment for states with tribal lands. Pueblo and Navajo Indians, who are responsible for creating much of the “Indian Crafts” along Route 66, experience an employment rate that is below average for Native Americans across the country living on or near tribal lands. The three tribes with the lowest employment rate are all in Arizona.
Due to toothless legislation and Native Americans’ economic and political disenfranchisement, counterfeiters continued to produce misleading goods despite attempts to strengthen laws. The GAO report noted that citizens filed 650 complaints with the Indian Arts and Crafts board in a four-year period between 2006 and 2010, which amounted to 150 flagged cases of apparent violations, referring 117 of the complaints for “further investigation by law enforcement officers.” Among those cases, none were filed in federal court. (In the late ’90s, seven cases of violations against the act resulted in small fines under $10,000.)
Most people agree that there’s no real way to completely stop the production of look-alike Native American jewelry, not dissimilar to the difficulty luxury fashion brands face when attempting to stymie fast-fashion copies.
The only way to distinguish authentic Indian-made goods, however, is to label them as such, and label imitations as being made elsewhere, such as the Philippines or Bangkok, which then begets prices that reflect that the imitation jewelry is cheap copies. (During a 2000 congressional hearing, a board member from the Indian Arts and Crafts Association testified that a small township outside Quezon City, Philippines, attempted to change its name to “Zuni” after an American-owned business established a manufacturing network to create fraudulent Native American-made jewelry.)
“At a diamond store, a sales clerk might tell you one pair of earrings is $99 and another is $2.4 million, and you’d have no problem as a layperson comprehending that,” says Joe Dan Lowry, a turquoise expert and author. “The layperson doesn’t look at turquoise like that in America; they only look at it as being related to Indian jewelry, without comprehending why one bracelet is $20,000 and another is only $200. But you never have that issue shopping for diamonds; people have no problem shopping for cubic zircons all day long.”
Beginning in early 2012, federal agents in New Mexico went undercover to attempt to uncover a supply chain rampant with criminal activity, including alleged conspiracy, importation by false or fraudulent practice, and, of course, violations to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, according to a 2015 affidavit.
Dubbed the “Sterling Coalition,” approximately 10 retail and wholesale businesses worked with importer Sterling Islands and manufacturer Fashion Accessories 4 U, operated by Sheda and Jawad Khalaf, to sell Sterling’s counterfeit Native American-style jewelry, made in the Philippines, in New Mexico. (The case would eventually find that the fraudulent jewelry would make its way across the US to include Arizona, Colorado, Virginia, and upstate New York.)
“In the early 2000s, I could not make jewelry fast enough,” says Wallace, who specializes in Native jewelry and one-of-a-kind silver and turquoise items. “Right around the time Fashion Accessories 4 U got their footing here, demand for my work started going down. The shops were flooded with ‘Native’ jewelry, which wasn’t, and the prices were insanely cheap. A lot of people fell for it.”
Among the retailers was Nael Ali, who operated two primary jewelry stores in New Mexico and knowingly sold fake Native American jewelry. From 2012 through 2015, Ali’s business survived on the sales of falsely advertised, inauthentic jewelry to other retail businesses and to individual consumers.
Ali sold most, if not all, of his Philippine-made jewelry, which he purchased from Mohammad Manasra’s wholesale and importing companies, as being made from Native American artists in the American Southwest.
According to documents from the two-year legal proceedings, Ali was aware of and an active participant in Manasra’s ongoing scheme to mark the fraudulent jewelry with the initials and markings of Native American artists and tribes.
“Grandpas and grandmas could barely keep their lights on; it’s a real struggle for Native artists,” says Wilson, who has worked in the Indian-made jewelry industry for more than two decades. “It was amazing to see truckloads of what I recognized immediately as fraudulent art; I couldn’t stomach it. It impacts a lot of vendors when these wholesale companies get you what looks like the same product at more or less half the price you’re paying.”
Over the course of the investigation, Ali repeatedly sold rings to the undercover special agent on the case, which Ali says Navajo artist “Calvin Kee” created. The federal investigation found that no such Navajo artist exists.
While investigators could not identify the monetary losses Ali’s business resulted in, estimates range from roughly $190,000 to nearly $2.4 million. Ali hardly attempted to conceal his counterfeit business, and went so far as to provide promotional material for a Christmas gift guide to the Albuquerque Journal in 2012.
Ali’s employees also demonstrated classic sales techniques that ultimately undercut authentic Native jewelry makers’ businesses, like giving deep discounts that suggested the fake turquoise made in the Philippines was more valuable than it truly is. In one instance, the manager operating one of Ali’s retail locations told the undercover agent that the “rings retail for $270, but were sold to [him] for $90 each.”
In October 2017, co-defendants Manasra and Ali signed separate plea deals from federal prosecutors. Manasra’s plea agreement included pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge and two days of imprisonment, a $500 fine, plus a year’s supervised release.
Ali’s sentencing would come later, after formal objections to the original pre-sentencing report. While the maximum penalty for violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act is a fine of $250,000 and or imprisonment of five years, the US attorney recommended to the judge a sentence of 18 months.
On August 28, 2018, the federal government ordered Ali to pay a little more than $9,000 and sentenced him to six months in prison, following a year of supervised release.
With the highest-profile case involving fraudulent Indian-style jewelry now closed, Native American artists and industry types are left wondering what its impact is. Some consider the sentencing a win, others not enough, and others still, a dark mark on the turquoise industry at large.
The legislation, in essence, remains a truth-in-advertising law, requiring as little as a “Made in Philippines” sticker applied to faux-Native American jewelry that retailers can peel off should they choose to dupe consumers. Between how easy it is to skirt the law and the difficulty the average consumer has in distinguishing authentic products from phonies, there’s work yet to be done.
“These places, they’re still going to use things like turquoise dust left over from cutting the turquoise, mixed with plastic and dyes, making it kind of like the Spam of jewelry,” Wallace, the artist, says. “The public should know how important it is to buy authentic.”
I couldn’t help but think about Wallace’s insistence that there should be a public awareness campaign aimed at educating shoppers about the impact of purchasing counterfeit goods. There were no warning signs about purchasing fake jewelry at Indian Market or elsewhere down old Route 66.
If I hadn’t asked Nancy, the Shalako salesperson, why turquoise and Indian jewelry were so expensive, I might not have understood the way authentic goods are undercut by phonies at all. I might have bought a fake without realizing the greater consequences, which others surely continue to do, pointing to an education problem that extends beyond effective legislation.
Still, Lowry, the turquoise expert, argues that while there’s no place for counterfeited or misrepresented Native jewelry, there is some reason for low-market turquoise and imitation turquoise to exist.
“There’s nothing wrong with buying costume jewelry at Dillard’s or Macy’s or on HSN or QVC,” Lowry says. “Buy it all day long and be happy with it.” Some Native artists might even turn to unnatural stone, but it doesn’t make their jewelry less authentic, Lowry explains. “You’re not going to have Native American artists [who will] always run out and buy top-grade stone, because guess what? Tourists usually only want to spend X amount of money on a souvenir. … That’s just human nature, and to give our industry a bad rap over it is ridiculous.”
Despite the gains made in enforcing existing legislation and attempts toward better educating the public, some, like Wallace, feel there’s more pressure to get out of the jewelry and crafts business, rather than to pass on the tradition-as-trade to the next generation. Others, like Tonya June Rafael, a Navajo jewelry maker in New Mexico, aren’t so willing to let competition — fair or unfair — diminish their children’s opportunities.
“As a Navajo woman, turquoise jewelry is a big part of who I am, and it means prosperity, richness, and health,” says Rafael. She inherited her grandparents’ silversmith tools and workshop, and has made her own art for the past 30 years. She’s teaching her daughter and son to do the same.
“This comes from our heart; our blood, our soul, our everything is interpreted into this jewelry. … We need to keep fighting.”
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Author: Alexandra Mondalek